Progress in Paradise
The ultimate destination-wedding locale officially opens its arms to gay and lesbian couples.
By Lee Andrews
Same-sex couples gain a welcome alternative to the wintry climes of New England and Iowa when Hawaii begins granting civil union licenses on Jan. 2, 2012. Famous for its romantic beaches and lush inland, the world’s most renowned island paradise has enticed lovers for generations.
Passed in February, Hawaii Senate Bill 232 establishes the right of any two people to enter a civil union, complete with the same state benefits heterosexual married couples enjoy. It’s a step Gay Hawaii Wedding has been campaigning for with gusto since 1994.
Founders Kevin Rebelo and Frank Miholer have been uniting thousands of fellow gays and lesbians, sans recognition, for 17 years. Miholer likens the battle for same-sex marriage to women’s fight for suffrage, which endured state-by-state struggles for more than 70 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
It all started when they tried to get hitched.
“When we wanted a ceremony for ourselves, we could not find anyone to marry us,” Rebelo says. Having found a glaring hole in Hawaii’s otherwise ample wedding and honeymoon market, they formed GayHawaiiWedding.com in 1994, the first company in the nation to offer gay wedding services online. Both the Internet and the same-sex equality movement were in their infancy at the time, so the pair stepped up to plate, providing much-needed service and support. Their early online presence also started bringing in heterosexual couples, drawn to the company’s “just show up: we’ll take care of the rest” approach.
“The initial vision was to provide wedding ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples who wanted a romantic, intimate ceremony on one of Maui’s tropical secluded beaches,” says Rebelo. Ironically unable to wed the person of his choosing, Rebelo, a licensed minister, has officiated at thousands of gay and straight ceremonies over the past 16 years.
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“Couples wanted a ceremony, a celebration, a union, and we gave them that. Just because the state would not provide a marriage license did not stop anyone from having their dream wedding in paradise,” Miholer says.
Confident that the two could make a gay wedding company in Hawaii work, Miholer provided photography and videography for couples and Rebelo officiated.
Couples are given a variety of customizable ceremony options, including Jewish weddings, civil weddings and a spiritual non-religious Maui wedding. Their religious traditional Maui wedding ceremony uses Christian vows and liturgy, while the Hawaiian wedding incorporates island customs. Vow renewals are part of their repertoire as well.
Gay Hawaii Wedding holds ceremonies at 16 unparalleled locations. Surrounded by ocean, majestic mountains, coconut palms and their nearest and dearest friends and family, many couples choose a Hawaiian wedding for its intimacy and tranquility. While these can accommodate up to 75 guests, such large gatherings are rare. Considering the cost of providing food and drinks for a large event, Miholer points out that it tends to be less expensive to have a ceremony, reception and honeymoon in Hawaii than home.
Although most of the islands’ million-plus inhabitants are celebrating right along with Frank and Kevin, every company Gay Hawaii Wedding works with is vetted and guaranteed gay-friendly to ensure a peaceful, supportive wedding setting.
Hawaii actually spearheaded gay marriage rights activism in the early ‘90s, and nearly achieved equality. In 1993, three same-sex couples challenged the state’s heterosexual-only marriage code in the Hawaii Supreme Court, and won. Shortly thereafter, opponents in the state legislature amended the constitution to redefine marriage.
Equality activists and now entrepreneurs, the couple ploughed ahead, creating unforgettable weddings for people in love. But even a tropical paradise has trouble competing with the legitimacy and recognition conferred by a license. While LGBT tourism has always thrived in the Aloha State, Rebelo and Miholer noticed a drop off in business following the slow, albeit satisfying, stream of states permitting civil unions and same-sex marriages since 2000.
Nearly 12 years later, Hawaii is at last joining the list of states recognizing same-sex unions, and America’s gay and lesbian population is ready for it. Since Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the bill in February, reservations have been pouring into Gay Hawaii Wedding. Couples are strongly urged to reserve their choice location as soon as possible.
Still in love and still fighting the odds, Rebelo and Miholer refuse to settle for a small taste of equality. The war wages on for immigration rights, Social Security benefits, and other boons the federal government currently withholds. Miholer hopes couples in states without marriage equality take heart from Hawaii’s long-fought war, and urges those couples to take action, speak out and be proud of who they are.
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