With Hawaii becoming the 15th state to legalize gay marriage Wednesday, a number of Maui's same-sex couples have begun planning their individual "I do's."
The law allows same-sex couples to marry in Hawaii starting Dec. 2.
"I was listening to the live feed on my phone when the governor was signing (the bill)," said Kihei resident Jonni Earl, just moments after Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed Senate Bill 1 into law Wednesday morning in Honolulu.
Jonni Earl (left) and Michelle Keys hug Wednesday afternoon in their store, Paia Mercantile, at the Gateway Shopping Center in Lahaina. The couple said they plan to marry by the end of the year. Same-sex marriages will be legal in Hawaii on Dec. 2.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Jonni Earl (left) and Michelle Keys work Wednesday afternoon in their store, Paia Mercantile, at the Gateway Shopping Center in Lahaina.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Earl and her partner of 13 years, Michelle Keys, moved to Maui from California nearly a decade ago, and now own and operate Paia Mercantile stores in Paia and Lahaina.
"We both cried when we heard it," Earl said. "We've been wearing our rings for many years, I've proposed to her I don't know how many times, but we wanted to wait until it was official."
The couple had considered entering into a civil union since it became an option in Hawaii two years ago but decided to wait to be married instead.
"To be able to say this is my wife, and all the meaning that entails, it's very important to me. I'm sharing my entire life with her. We share our home, business and name. It would be completely unified," she said.
In addition to the sentiment, the new law allows homosexual couples to qualify for the same federal benefits heterosexual couples get.
Earl said it is especially important that they be married on Maui, where "we (feel) like we belong and don't have the pressures of not being anybody other than ourselves."
"Ironically, the only time we ever got looks or the whispering behind the back was actually from the visitors. The locals have been overwhelmingly loving," Earl said.
Earl and her soon-to-be-wife have already begun planning for the wedding, and the couple are confident they will be legally married by the end of the year.
The state also has millions to gain in tourism dollars with the legalization of same-sex marriage, proponents have said.
Since the bill cleared the Legislature on Tuesday, "the phones are ringing off the hook" at Maui Sunseeker LGBT Resort, according to management.
"We booked 18 new nights of business today alone, and for a 23-room hotel, that's a big deal," hotel General Manager Michael Waddell said Wednesday afternoon. "We're very, very excited, it's quite phenomenal. This is going to skyrocket our business in the realm of marriage equality."
Waddell said the resort has received dozens of calls every day for the past week - a change from the usual six calls per day - as well as "emails like crazy" from same-sex couples inquiring about room reservations and wedding planning services.
"Yesterday, we got four new weddings. We normally get one (civil union ceremony) every other week," Waddell said.
The Sunseeker refers customers seeking civil union ceremonies to Kevin Rebelo, who operates www.hawaiiwedding. com and www.gayhawaiiwedding.com.
"We've been swamped. Between 8 a.m. and noon today, I booked four weddings," Rebelo said Wednesday afternoon. Rebelo has been coordinating gay and straight ceremonies on Maui for the past 20 years and serves on average between 50 and 60 gay couples per year. He coordinates between 300 and 400 traditional weddings per year.
Now that Hawaii has legalized gay marriage, Rebelo said he anticipates a lot more business, as "people have been waiting for this" moment for a long time. His company is partnering with the Sunseeker Hotel to shoot a promotional video that is expected to air on YouTube and various media outlets, he said.
Carolee Higashino, a wedding planner on Maui for 20 years, said her company, A White Orchid Wedding, also plans to boost the marketing of same-sex weddings in Hawaii. She estimates that of the 300-plus weddings her company plans every year, only about 5 percent are same-sex civil unions.
Higashino doesn't anticipate the religious exemptions included in the law to be a problem, as "only about maybe 5 percent of our weddings are church weddings." Most ceremonies on Maui are destination weddings that take place outside or at hotel resorts, she said.
"We're very excited that it's passed, and we now have marriage equality for everyone," Higashino said.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.