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Coming home

Linda Krieger was seven years old when she first became involved, unwittingly, in the struggle for equal rights. Krieger was growing up in Dover, Del., the middle daughter of a doctor and a homemaker. Her father, Jack Krieger, had been something of a pioneer in those early years following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling that swept away a century of racial segregation in America. Dr. Krieger was the first OB/GYN at Dover General to accept black patients, Krieger says, and to deliver their children. Those post-segregation values were passed down to the doctor’s young children.

“I had made friends with one of the black kids in my class,” Linda says. “Unbeknownst to us at the time, the local NAACP chapter had figured that we were the right family to have the first situation where a black child came to play at a white child’s house.” Not long after, Linda remembers being surrounded by a group of girls on the playground at school, chanting at her: “Linda Krieger is a neeger, Linda Krieger is a neeger.”

“After that, the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan,” Krieger says. Her father had already received death threats over his work, but the play date made them much more frequent. The children were relentlessly harassed. “My mother didn’t want to leave Dover,” she says, but the bullying became too much. Dr. Krieger decided it was time to leave. “He was looking for a place where there wasn’t any—where there was racial harmony, a place where you didn’t have to shovel snow, and you know, a good place to raise kids.”

They settled on Honolulu. They adjustment was hard for others in her family, Krieger recalls, but for her, it was paradise. “I was in heaven,” she says. “I was 8.”

* * *

Fast forward to Feb. 24, 2009. The state Senate Judiciary committee is hearing public testimony on House Bill 444, which would grant legal protection to lesbian and gay couples, and their families, equal to those currently reserved for heterosexual unions. The room is well past its capacity, with hundreds more watching the proceedings on televisions in the hallway outside. Inside, people are standing in the aisles while school-age children line the walls. Many of these kids were outside earlier holding up various signs to demonstrate their—or someone’s—opposition to gay rights.

Before the committee is the same Linda Krieger, now 53 years old and a professor at the University of Hawaii’s Richardson School of Law. Krieger is offering testimony in support of the bill, on behalf, she says, of the gay and lesbian students with whom she works. Her students—“most are local, Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, South Pacific Islander, European, hapa”—are hurting. “Most of these students are already in deeply committed, loving relationships, or aspire to be. All love their families and their communities, and deeply long to be accepted by them. All will be devastated if Hawaii once again denies them the basic human rights accorded to their heterosexual brothers, sisters and friends.”

Krieger reminds the senators that they have taken an oath to defend the constitution, one that has as a basic tenet that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law. “And I have taken another oath,” she says in closing. “Albeit a private one, to do everything in my power to help make Hawaii a place in which my wonderful, precious students can grow, flourish and build strong, loving families, as is each of our birthright in a community that holds ‘ohana—‘ohana for everyone—as the first among our cherished values. Please, please support HB 444. It is long past time.”

Sen. Sam Slom is the first to respond. “Thank you, Ms. Krieger, for your testimony, and for lecturing us,” he sneers. The audience, packed with opponents to the civil unions legislation, erupts in cheers. Many are jeering and snickering at Krieger. They boo, not loudly, but plenty loud enough to hear. One observer described the atmosphere as “like a hate party. She’s baring her soul and people are mocking her, and the people she’s appealing to for help are mocking her right back.”

The civil unions bill failed to advance out of the Judiciary Committee that day. Senators deadlocked, three votes on each side. Because Hawaii law allows for the full Senate to pull a deadlocked bill out of committee and vote on it as a whole body, however, legislators still have it in their power to send Gov. Linda Lingle a bill to be signed into law that would create equal status for lesbian, gay and transgendered couples—something that many senators have told reporters that, if the whole Senate is allowed to vote, it will almost certainly approve the bill, just as the House did.

In recent days, however, signs have emerged that the Senate may decide not to act. Senate President Colleen Hanabusa told reporters last week that the bill may be left to die thanks to a deep reluctance on the part of the Senate to override the committee process.

Meanwhile, Krieger, her partner, her students and LGBT couples and their families are left to wonder what else is left for them.

***

Linda Krieger has known she was lesbian since the eighth grade. “There was a sex-ed class, and [her teacher] mentioned that there were homosexual people and it was just like, ‘Oh. So that’s what this is.’” The teacher’s passing reference to homosexuality raised as many questions as it answered, many of them difficult for a teenage girl to address in the closeted atmosphere of Hawaii in 1968. She visited the library to learn more about her sexual identity, and what she found was frightening. “It was a mental disorder,” said Krieger. “There were therapies for curing it involving shock treatment and aversion therapy. That it was a criminal offense in many places.”

Krieger got the message. She remained closeted, save from a couple of very close friends, through high school. “And then my first year in college I came out and all holy hell broke loose. My family was extremely upset. They thought of this as a mental disorder, something immoral and life-destroying.” Civil Rights crusaders or not, the Kriegers were not ready for a lesbian daughter. “They wanted me to come home and enter treatment. That wasn’t something I was going to do.” The family became estranged, as it would remain for many years.

Krieger went to law school and built a distinguished career as law professor. She also built a family, raising sons Danny, Tito and Rafael in the San Francisco Bay Area while a professor at UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law, but her heart remained in Hawaii. “I always felt myself to be in exile while I was on the mainland. Hawaii was home, and I really wanted to come back, but this is not a place to be a gay family raising kids. “I had always really wanted to, and then the constitutional amendment absolutely broke my heart.

After the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the state’s ban on gay marriage violated the equal protection clause of the state’s constitution, many believed equality was finally at hand. They were to be disappointed. In 1998, Hawaii voters ratified a constitutional amendment giving the Legislature the power to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and lawmakers complied. The right to marry a person of one’s choosing, long a pillar of the gay rights movement, had seemed within reach. Instead, Krieger, like thousands of gay and lesbian people in Hawaii and across the country, was devastated by the outpouring of hostility toward the LGBT community. “I was here with my kids and my niece and nephew while the campaign was going on,” she says. “We were behind a car that had a bumper sticker on it from a church in Waianae. It said, on top, “vote yes” or whatever the anti-gay slogan was, and then below that, “Eat your heart out, I’m married.” She pauses a moment, overwhelmed by the memory. “That level of just hostility, of meanness, of bullying— I mean, you saw it at the hearings. It’s just crushing.”

Krieger stayed in the Bay Area with her then-partner and their sons, but that relationship eventually soured, and as her children reached adulthood, she found herself alone. Shortly thereafter, she went to Boston for a professional fellowship. There she met a woman named Kathleen Sands. “Mutual friends had said we should meet, but each of us had recently left long-term relationships,” Sands says. “We were both very not ready.” Sands took a chance and went to meet Krieger in her office. “I walked up the steps to her office, and looking through the window I saw her face. And as soon as I put my eyes on her, I went [Sands points her finger out suddenly] ‘you!’ Just like that. I was so embarrassed because it was so rude. And then we had dinner that night and we went for a canoe trip, and we knew. We met on a Saturday, and by Thursday it was clear we would spend our lives together. That’s not because we’re fickle. We’re 50. You know what you want.”

Krieger and Sands married in Massachusetts, one of two states, along with Connecticut, that grants the right to gay and lesbian couples, in 2004. “Our wedding was the best day of my life,” Krieger says, a smile bursting across her face. “It was like a time out of time. It was beautiful.”

Coming home

Linda Krieger finally returned to Hawaii in 2007. “We could have stayed in Boston,” Krieger says, “but that would have been 6,000 miles from my aging mother and disabled brother.” Both she and Sands landed jobs at UH-Manoa, and “just like that,” Krieger’s long exile was over.

The couple felt embraced in the progressive environment of the university. “Linda’s colleagues accepted me and welcomed me as her partner from the very first moment,” Sands says. “Our experience at the university has been consistently wonderful.” Outside Manoa, however, things were different. “The wider community has been uncomfortable. Even in our own condo association, there are people who have clearly told their children not to speak to us. It’s not safe for us to hold hands in Hawaii Kai. Relative to Boston, I feel endangered here in ways I never did before.”

Krieger’s return home came with a heavy price tag. In a very real sense, moving back meant accepting a forcible divorce. “It was very surreal going from being a married couple in Massachusetts to being here,” she says.

She recalls in particular the day she visited the Department of Health to process the couple’s reciprocal beneficiaries certificate. Reciprocal Beneficiaries refer to a legal arrangement crafted in 1997 as an attempt to block gay marriage from becoming law in Hawaii. They extend some of the rights generally reserved for married couples to any two adults seeking to form a partnership, including legal standing to sue for wrongful death, the right of hospital visitation, inheritance in the absence of a will and others. Reciprocal Beneficiaries originally included the key provision of mandating that public and private employers extend health insurance benefits to the partners of their employees, but that benefit was stricken almost immediately after the law was passed. The law does not extend to myriad areas of the Hawaii revised statutes that address various parental and marital rights and responsibilities, including adoption, child support, education and many others. The current civil unions legislation would address these differences and provide for basic rights and responsibilities, particularly in the area of parenting, which do not currently apply to gay families under state law in Hawaii.

For Krieger and Sands, who had previously enjoyed equal status under the law, the transition to RB status was rough, despite the fact that Krieger’s children were all grown. Even getting the document approved, which the state advertises as a simple process, proved humiliating. During Krieger’s visit to the Department of Health, a security guard refused to assist her. “He said, ‘we don’t do that here, you have to mail that form in, you can’t come here,’” she recalls. “Meanwhile, right over here where they’re doing the marriage licenses. They’ve got the lei, the pictures, all the clerks are saying congratulations to the couples.” She says the guard refused to look at her and finally told her she had to leave the building. The situation was only resolved when Krieger approached clerks at the counter where marriage licenses were processed and found someone willing to help.

The couple say they met similar hostility elsewhere, including from the title officer handling the purchase of their Hawaii Kai home. “When you’re used to being discriminated against on a regular basis, the hairs on the back of your neck start standing up,” Krieger says. “We had some very unpleasant experiences.”

For many younger families, civil unions protection would have its greatest impact in the area of laws around children and parenting, including giving same-sex partners the right to adopt their partner’s children. For Krieger and Sands, even without minor children, the absence of equal protection is as much a practical challenge as a moral one. “We don’t have the same estate-planning rights as other couples,” Krieger says. Under Hawaii’s RB law, in the event of one of their deaths, all assets would be forced into the costly and interminable probate process. Couples enjoined in civil unions in other states, like married ones, avoid that fate.

As Hawaii again struggles with the question of how to guarantee equal treatment under the law to all its citizens, as mandated by the state constitution, Krieger and Sands are aware of the fact that in many ways, they do not look like many of the local families that would be strengthened by the passage of civil unions legislation. In addition to their lack of young children, they are relatively fortunate thanks to their employment at the university, which does grant them most of the same benefits as it does to straight couples. They are also haole, which they say is often used as a wedge in efforts to block gay rights. Sands recalls standing in the hallway during Krieger’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee. “Linda was talking about her own students, many of them local, who are gay. I was surrounded by people in red shirts, and when she said ‘this is not simply a mainland haole issue,’ the people around me said ‘yeah, right.’”

Both say they often hear it said that the LGBT rights struggle is itself a mainland issue, inapplicable particularly to native Hawaiians because of cultural differences. Krieger says her Hawaiian students sometimes suggest that coming out and demanding equality is not the same for them, a point of view for which Sands has some sympathy. Krieger is not so sure. “I agree that it’s different,” she says. “I don’t agree that it’s harder. Having come out in 1972, and having been disowned by my family, sexually assaulted”—an incident that took place while she was in college—“losing most of my friends…the number of times I was assaulted on the street verbally and once physically, being forced out of my religious life.” She pauses. “I respect what’s being said by my native students but I do not think that their coming out would be any harder than mine was. When people take a stand and do the hard work of social change, it damages them.”

Spectacles like the one that took place at the legislature on Feb. 24 bring back a lot of those old wounds. “I can stand up and speak clearly and respond to Sam Slom for 20 minutes, and then I walk out that door, and I’m having a post-traumatic reaction.”

Sands, whose academic life has been about the intersection of religion and public life, is slow to condemn those who are speaking from religious conviction. “I know that we all have fundamentals, we all have things that just seem right to us, I have some sympathy for that and some regard and respect for it.” Still, she says, the language used by many of those who testified against HB 444 has only one name. Acceptance of gays and lesbians was compared, variously, to acceptance of rape, pedophilia, incest, necrophilia, bestiality and a host of other moral depravities. “It’s hatred and bigotry,” Sands says. “If one doesn’t want to be called a bigot and wants to be taken religiously seriously, then don’t talk like a bigot. A lot of it on Tuesday was the language of defamation…and I think Linda’s testimony speaks back to it.”

For Sands, the hearing, with its circus atmosphere, crystallizes the issue facing lesbians and gays in Hawaii, and perhaps the rest of us as well. “The political question for gay people is not whether we can be gay in the privacy of our own DNA. It’s whether we can lead public lives of dignity as families and as couples.”

In recent weeks, as the Legislature has struggled to meet its obligations to gay couples, some voices have begun to emerge suggesting that the time is not yet right for civil unions legislation and the equal status it would confer on gays and lesbians. The Honolulu Advertiser recently published an editorial and at least one prominent column to that effect, and whispers around the capitol suggest that some there are similarly inclined. Linda Krieger, whose life has inextricably linked to the struggle for equality since her earliest childhood, has heard it before. “It reminds me of the Civil Rights era, when people said it would take time, that blacks needed to be patient. It reminds me of ‘Why We Can’t Wait,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous appeal for justice.”

Krieger has waited long enough.

“The closet is a tool of violence. And it’s a way of telling people, ‘remain invisible or we will crush you.’ One of the things that people sometimes forget is that law is not just about rights. It’s about society sending signals to people about how they’re expected to behave.”

Honolulu Weekly Managing Editor Adrienne LaFrance contributed to this report.