Online extra: Marriage opponent regrets past, now supports equality
by Dan Aiello
With the Hawaii Legislature now considering civil unions for same-sex couples, a former leader of the Mormon opposition to same-sex marriage in that state reiterated that she no longer believes what she spent years fighting to defend. Marriage rights, she now says, should be for everyone, though she stops short of actually supporting same-sex marriage.
Throughout a nearly two-hour telephone interview last weekend that was at times emotional, repentant, and remorseful, Debi Hartmann, a former co-chair of an anti-same-sex marriage organization in Hawaii, acknowledged she has come to understand that she was wrong. Marriage rights, she now concludes, should be granted to same-sex couples.
But does she support full marriage equality?
"I struggle with it, and you can hear the conflict in my voice," Hartmann said. "Let me say that I'm definitely moving on that issue. For now, I'm comfortable saying I'm in full support of civil unions."
Hartmann believes the concern that religious beliefs must be protected is a valid one. "Religion has the right to speak its dogma," she said. "That's the part of my message that probably will upset people. People of faith have a right to their dogma and that has to be protected."
No marriage equality activists in Hawaii or California have argued against religious freedom. And in California, the marriage bill was specifically titled the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act to address the concerns of faith leaders.
Asked if she believes any single religion has the right to impose its beliefs unto the constitution of a secular government, Hartmann said, "I thought that having civil unions and having marriage was the perfect answer to that question, as long as all rights are provided. I absolutely believed that up until last year when I read the California Supreme Court's ruling."
The court ruling was the turning point for Hartmann on marriage equality.
"It crushed my beliefs," explained Hartmann. "It taught me that words can be invidious. For example, if you and I had to walk into a doctor's office and they ask us to fill out a form and you have to check 'civil union' and I check 'marriage,' that's the invidious discrimination. The same rights have to be called by the same name. That's the answer to removing the religion from our laws."
Hartmann's words are indicative of support for marriage equality. Asked if she will speak on behalf of Hawaii's pending marriage equality bill, which is separate from the civil union bill, Hartmann was hesitant.
"I recognize the law and I understand the constitution," she said. "I recognize what the [California] court has said and I do not dispute the court. All families should be treated equally under the law, even if others don't understand their definition of a relationship."
Hartmann said she no longer believes the rhetoric that marriage equality will affect religious freedom. "I think Massachusetts has taught us that it doesn't," she said. "I may be naive on this, but I don't think that we've seen churches close in Massachusetts."
Hartmann first spoke of her turnaround on the issue of civil unions in a 2007 interview in the Washington Blade . Since then, she's been slowly winning over marriage equality activists who once loathed her. Hartmann is a former co-chair of Hawaii's Future Today, which was created by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her new position, however, has some Hawaiian activists skeptical.
"She and her cohorts destroyed a lot of lives a decade ago, and they hurt a lot of people," said Robert Morris, a former marriage equality activist who now teaches at the University of Hong Kong. "I told the folks in Hawaii that if she was truly 'repentant' she would declare her mistakes and ask forgiveness with the same full-throated force and through the same media and with the same expenditure she used in her homophobic days."
"For Mormons," said Morris, "repenting includes making restitution. Just saying some words is not enough."
Restitution may just be exactly what Hartmann is doing.
Last week, Hartmann testified before a legislative committee on behalf of HB444, Hawaii's civil unions bill. The bill passed through committee and may be heard before the full House as early as this week.
Hartmann acknowledged the damage she's done.
"A lot of people felt that not just me, but our organization, caused a lot of pain and a lot of grief," she said. "I have come to understand what that means. I did not at the time. Even in all my studies and through all my research, I did not grasp that."
Hartmann is currently an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, Hawaii.
It wasn't until Hartmann was approached by JoAnn Adams, a former chair of the GLBT caucus of the Hawaiian Democratic Party, and asked by Adams to compare the reciprocal beneficiaries law Hartmann helped enact to Hawaii's marriage law, that Hartmann first began to recognize what she had done to same-sex families in the name of protecting the definition of traditional marriage.
Adams confirmed the encounter with Hartmann. "I did approach her," Adams wrote in an e-mail. "And even though she knew there was an intention to the path where I was leading her, she agreed to do the research."
"What happened was I was shocked," Hartmann said. "Now a lot had happened to me in those 10 years [since Hartmann led the LDS fight against same-sex marriage]. I had become educated and enlightened. And when I began to review the reciprocal beneficiaries law, I wasn't approaching it from an emotional standpoint or trying to defend something. I was simply approaching it. I wasn't looking to find something, I was just looking. What Hawaii's Future Today was looking for in the inclusion of benefits in the reciprocal beneficiaries law wasn't there. When I went back and looked for the outline of the bill ... what happened was in conference committee it had been gutted, rights had been stripped out of it. And then I compared it to the marriage law. That law automatically enjoins children, and spouse. Reciprocal benefits did not. That's when I realized I had hurt families."
At times emotional, Hartmann continued to speak in terms similar to those of a spiritual confession of sin.
"I went back to JoAnn and said, 'Okay, I'm on your team. I've hurt children. I may not be in agreement with other's definition of marriage, but I've hurt children and I can't live with that,'" Hartmann said.
Adams didn't recall the exact conversation.
"But I do remember that she was in anguish when she realized the harm she caused," Adams said. "Some people have questioned whether she is loyal to this cause and all I can say to them is no one would put this amount of time and energy into it if they weren't. She has been a tireless worker on behalf of the issue."
Adams said that she sincerely believes Hartmann "has changed her mind."
Hartmann said she hadn't begun as an opponent of same-sex marriage.
In 1994, a year before the commission reported its findings, Hartmann, who had served on the state Board of Education, said she wrote a paper in the course of completing her master's degree in law and justice at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, in which she concluded, as the commission would subsequently, that the court ruling had been correct and there was no compelling reason to deny marriage equality to Hawaii's same-sex couples.
When LDS public relations spokesman Jack Hoag called Hartmann, asking her to join him as a co-chair of Hawaii's Future Together, Hartmann said she explained to Hoag he likely didn't want her, explaining her support of the court's decision.
However, Hartmann said that a meeting at the offices of the marketing firm MacNeal Wilson (which is the agency that took over LDS-sponsored lobby work from Hill and Knowlton) with Hoag and Marc Alexsander, the Catholic Church representative, changed Hartmann's opinion.
"I told them I'd concluded the laws in Hawaii are correct, there's not a compelling reason to deny these rights. But Marc said, 'Isn't marriage something that should be defended?' The question for me then became 'Is marriage something that needs to be defended?' And can we defend marriage in the law?'" Hartmann said.
Hartmann concluded the answer to both of those questions was "yes" and agreed to join Hawaii's Future Together and lead the LDS effort to stop same-sex marriage. She claims that she did not know the group was the church's front organization at the time.
"I did not know until later that the first deposits were from LDS sources," Hartmann said.
An internal LDS Memo from elder Loren C. Dunn to M. Russell Ballard confirms that Hartmann was chosen by Mormon leaders to head their anti-same-sex marriage efforts. "We brought in as the leadership of Hawaii's Future Today Debi Hartmann, a young mother who gained prominence as the chairman of the state Board of Education," wrote Dunn. "Although Hartmann and Hoag are [LDS] members, they are known more in the community for the titles just mentioned." Dunn confirms Father Marc Alexsander and Hoag were also chosen to head up operations and goes on to say that the leaders' plan to keep the Hawaiian voter and legislature from knowing the LDS role was succeeding.
Hartmann became "the face of the opposition," to same-sex marriage, according to Morris.
Asked if she has regrets about her past actions, Hartmann did not respond immediately, but later said, "When you asked me earlier if there was something that I regretted – there was a commission on civil unions back in 1994, and they were reporting out their findings and they were having hearings. I said, 'If it walked like a duck and talked like a duck, it's a duck.' I truly regret saying that."
On December 8, 1995, the report from the Hawaiian Commission on Sexual Orientation and the Law was released. Its findings concurred with that of the Hawaii Supreme Court, that the Hawaii marriage law effectively denied same-gender couples equal protection rights in violation of article I, section 5 of the Hawaii Constitution. The commission report also agreed with the court decision that the discrimination is based on the "gender" of an individual and, therefore, gender is a "suspect category." Both the commission and the court used the 1967 landmark case of Loving v. Virginia in which the United States Supreme Court found a Virginia statute outlawing interracial marriage to be invalid.
The Loving case is of particular relevance to the citizens of Hawaii, said LGBT activists. The racial prejudice at the root of anti-miscegenation laws in other U.S. states is largely absent from Hawaiian culture. In fact, many Hawaiians are the product of interracial marriage.
"I did not grasp that I was supporting a bill that was not protecting and enjoining all rights and protections that all families with children should have a right to have. I was supporting a law that literally oppressed and repressed and I didn't get that," said Hartmann.
Some gay activists praised Hartmann's change of position.
"I will admit that when I first met her I, too, was suspicious, thinking how could someone who was such a strong opponent of ours now be on our side," said Alan Spector, who heads the new marriage equality organization Family Equality Coalition. "But I also believe that people can change, not all people, but clearly some, and this was clearly part of Harvey Milk's message. Debi may have made some mistakes in the past, and major ones that hurt people in our community, but I have to respect and admire her now for trying to right her past wrongs. It takes a strong and mature person to do this."
Hartmann won over other activists when she gave an impassioned eulogy for William E. "Bill" Woods, her former nemesis, who is widely seen as the father of the marriage equality movement in Hawaii, Spector said. Woods, who died in September 2008, is credited with gathering the couples and forming the case that became Baehr v. Miike .
"Bill and I had one of those relationships where we loved to hate each other," said Hartmann.