DENVER — A new era of rights and responsibilities for the state’s gay and lesbian community began March 21 after Colorado Gov. John W. Hickenlooper signed into law the Colorado Civil Union Act.
The signing ceremony marked the end of a three-year journey that began Valentine’s Day 2011 on the north steps of the state’s Capitol when the bill’s sponsors, flanked by supporters, introduced the legislation for the first time.
The Democrat’s signature made Colorado the 18th state to offer comprehensive relationship recognition to same-sex couples and, according to gay activists, finally admonished Colorado’s “hate state” reputation.
“It is a moment the whole community has waited for, for so long.” Hickenlooper said before he signed the bill. “It’s the beginning of the country changing. A change has gotten here. And it’s going to keep going.”
County clerks may begin issuing civil union licenses May 1. Denver’s clerk, Debra Johnson, is expected to open her doors at midnight.
Rich Jaeger and Steve Unfer who were at the bill signing said they are considering getting a license.
“It’s amazing, the whole thing is just amazing,” said Unfer, who marched in Denver’s first Pride nearly 40 years ago. “I never thought I would see this in my life.”
The retired couple has been together for two years. Previously, they both lost partners of more than 10 years to cancer.
Gay Denver Democrats state Sens. Pat Steadman and Lucia Guzman and Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino sponsored the version of the bill Hickenlooper signed into law. Democrat state Rep. Sue Schafer, a Wheat Ridge lesbian, also co-sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives.
“We’re very pleased our constituents supported us and elected us,” Schafer said after the House approved the bill.
The legislation, first introduced in 2011, was approved by both chambers of the General Assembly with bipartisan support.
While each of the three versions of the bill received bipartisan support, it wasn’t until this year with Democrats in control of both the state Senate and House of Representatives that the legislation was allowed a floor debate.
In 2012, then-Speaker of the House Frank McNutly, R-Highlands Ranch, and his GOP leadership team blocked the bill from having a floor debate in the last 72 hours of the General Assembly’s regular session by placing the House in recess.
Hickenlooper called a special session to discuss the legislation and some of the 32 other bills that died along with civil unions during the same recess. But some Republicans killed the bill again on a party-line vote at a committee hearing.
Democrats won more than enough seats during the 2012 election to give them a majority and ensure passage of the civil union legislation.
And while gay and lesbian Coloradans can’t actualize the new law for another month, gay lawmakers and activists are already pivoting to the next step toward equality: marriage.
“Having worked on the issues facing the LGBT community and our on–going struggle to be treated equally and respected, and afforded dignity in our society, having worked on these things for over two decades, today, really is the high point of that struggle, and yet, we’re not there yet,” Steadman said after the House of Representatives gave its final approval to the legislation. “And I don’t want anyone to think we’ve somehow reached the peak, climbed the summit of that mountain that challenges us. Civil unions are not marriage. They are something that are separate and distinct and unequal. And that really is not good enough. We passed this bill because it was the best we could do.”
Guzman echoed: “This does not end here. Justice continues to roll.”
Colorado voters in 2006 approved Amendment 43 that defined marriage between a man and a woman. Voters would need to repeal the law at the ballot, or a court could strike the law. Both paths will take time and money, activists agree.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to weigh-in on the question of same-sex marriage when it hears two cases this spring. Most experts agree the court’s rulings will have a limited impact on Colorado.
While Colorado’s future march toward marriage equality may not be decided by the June rulings, its past will most likely play a prominent role. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Colorado’s Amendment 2 has been, and will be, part of the discussion in whether gay men and women have the right to marry. Colorado voters in 1992 approved an amendment to the state constitution that made it legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians. In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the “Hate State” amendment.
“We didn’t take that defeat sitting down,” Steadman, who drafted the injunction that prohibited Amendment 2 from ever becoming law, said to the crowd assembled for the bill signing. “We today are remedying an exclusion that has gone on too long … once and for all LGBT Coloradans are not strangers to the law.”