DENVER — A new chapter for Colorado families began today at 12:01 a.m. when hard-fought legislation for civil unions took effect, allowing same-sex couples to form civil unions for the first time.
Same-sex marriages performed in other states were immediately recognized civil unions under Colorado law, and Colorado same-sex couples were the first time allowed to fill out paperwork for civil unions licenses at county clerks’ offices, including Denver’s Webb building where Mayor Hancock officiated the state’s very first union between Fran and Anna Simon.
The lesbian couple had become familiar in the media by testifying for the legislation at the state Capitol for three years while the bill was debated there.
Earlier in the evening, the McNichols building in Civil Center Park was packed with participants for One Colorado’s Civil Soiree, celebrating the legalization of civil unions at midnight. Just across the street was the Webb building, home of the county clerk’s office where civil union licenses are issued.
Debbie Chandler and Margo Chandler signed in at a table set up for couples applying for a civil union license. They have been together for 17 years and are raising two girls age 9 and 11. “They know all about it,” said Margo. “They’re all excited.”
The couple moved to Colorado from Florida in 2008. “We had an unlegal beautiful wedding in ’98,” Margo said. “We just wanted to be a part of it [civil unions] right when it strikes.”
Though Margo and Debbie will have many of the same state-level rights as married couples do once they have a civil union license, they still worry about not being recognized at the federal level. “The biggest issue for couples like us is taxes,” said Debbie.
Bill Giertz and Mark Hirst also signed in at the civil union’s table. “I’ve been here a while,” said Giertz, who has been living in Colorado since 1979. “It’s taken a long time to get to this point. But then again, this is one step, it is not the step—true marriage.”
Giertz commented on what gave him hope this day would finally come. “The big event for me was on election night, hearing that the Democrats had taken the House. That, to me, was a feeling of . . . finally, acceptance.”
Before heading across the street to perform civil unions, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock spoke to a crowded dining room of hundred of advocates, supporters, allies and LGBT families.
“Everyone in this room has reason to celebrate tonight. It has been a long journey. It has been a tough journey,” he said. “If history has taught us anything, in the words of Dr. King: ‘The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.’”
Hancock emphasized that despite the historic night, there was still much more work to be done. “The journey is not over. And we will not stop until all residents, in words of our great State Senator Pat Steadman, have full marriage equality under the law.”
Congresswoman Dianna DeGette spoke next, holding up a certificate signifying her as an ordained minister. “I’m going to go over with the mayor, and I’m going to perform a wedding,” DeGette said enthusiastically. “This is a basic human right,” she added. “And it is way, way overdue.”
To say it’s been a long road to this day would be an understatement. It began over two years ago on February 14, 2011 – Valentine’s Day that year. State Sen. Pat Steadman, then one of only four openly gay lawmakers, introduced legislation in Colorado that would recognize same-sex relationships through a civil union.
In March of that same year, the bill passed through the Colorado Senate with bipartisan support, but died in the Republican controlled House Judiciary Committee.
The bill was introduced again in 2012. Once again with bipartisan support, the legislation passed through Senate. And when it reached the same Republican controlled committee which killed it the year before, Republican Rep. B.J. Nikkel – who voted against the bill in 2011 – gave a yes vote for the legislation.
She later remarked that giving the green light to civil unions was “simply, the right thing to do.” The bill then made its way to the House floor where it was expected to pass.
But Republican House leadership under then-Speaker of the House Frank McNulty blocked a vote on the bill by calling the House into recess in the last hours of the General Assembly. Civil unions, along with 32 other legislative measures, were effectively killed for the session.
The next day a special session was called by Gov. Hickenlooper, reopening the House starting the following week. But the civil unions bill died once again in a different committee, just 10 hours after the new special session began – another dead end that dashed hopes of establishing civil unions until 2013.
But 2012 was an election year, and the results of the November ballots reshaped Colorado’s political landscape, giving Democrats control of both the House and the Senate and a virtual guarantee that the party’s caucus – which was unanimously in support of the bill – could get it through.
Additionally, eight openly gay lawmakers were now holding seats – a higher proportion of lesbian and gay representation than in any other state. Rep. Ferrandino replaced Rep. McNulty to become the first openly gay Speaker of the House in Colorado’s history.
With the added momentum, the Colorado Civil Unions Act was introduced again. Once again the bill saw bipartisan support as it passed through the Senate and committees. The legislation was vigorously debated, with opponents attempting to add a “conscious clause” which would have allowed religious adoption agencies to deny services to couples in a civil union. The amendments failed.
On March 12, with Speaker Mark Ferrandino holding the House gavel, the Colorado Civil Unions Act passed 39 to 26 – followed by victorious cheers from the balcony of the House Chamber. Gov. Hickenlooper signed the bill later that month setting May 1 as the date the first civil unions could begin.
Colorado is the 19th state to offer relationship recognition to same-sex couples.