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Be prepared. For anything.

That’s the advice from half a dozen gay rights activists from across the nation who have been where Colorado’s gay and lesbian community is about to find itself: on the winning side of a long-fought political battle for relationship recognition.

From Vermont to Illinois, from New Jersey to Washington, statewide LGBT advocacy leaders interviewed by Out Front during the months leading up to the passage of the Colorado Civil Union Act agree: organizations like One Colorado, the GLBT Community Center of Colorado and the community at large will have the privilege and responsibility to celebrate the passage of the civil unions legislation, educate the gay and lesbian community on what civil unions provide, defend the law from misinformation and chart a course for full marriage equality – all at once.

“The idea that there are loving and committed gay couples, that idea is ground–shifting,” said Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov. “This law isn’t just for gay couples in Chicago. This was a wake-up call for many of our elected officials.”

Equality Illinois led the fight for a civil unions law there in 2011 and is currently working to pass full marriage equality legislation.

More than 5,000 Illinois civil union licenses were issued in the first year they were allowed, Cherkasov said.

After the bill was signed into law, his organization defended seven attempts to weaken or repeal it, worked with government agencies including the Department of Revenue to ensure the law was implemented correctly, and educated the LGBT community on what civil unions offered.

And that was just the beginning, Cherkasov said. “We always knew full equality was full equality, including ‘verbiage.’” Or, what some people like to call “marriage.”

So Equality Illinois launched a study to track how the state responded to couples that had entered into civil unions.

“In every single area of the law, civil unions have failed,” Cherkasov said.

The results of the study were published in a report “Strangers in the eyes of the law,” and have been used to argue for full marriage equality. More than 1,000 couples participated.

As of March 20, the marriage equality bill had passed the Illinois Senate and was being debated in the House of Representatives.

Garden State Equality’s Executive Director Troy Stevenson echoed Cherkasov’s perspective from New Jersey.

“Our experience in New Jersey is that discrimination continues,” he said.

More than a decade ago, New Jersey was one of the first states to offer domestic partnerships. But a legal decision by the state Supreme Court said gay couples needed the same rights as married couples. Civil unions, providing those rights by a different name, have been issued in New Jersey since 2006.

And equality there is “stuck in a holding pattern,” Stevenson said, because Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has vowed to veto any marriage legislation. But Stevenson said his group is working to muster up enough votes to override a veto with a supermajority in the legislature. He hopes to have enough support by the end of 2013.

He said LGBT rights organizations like his and One Colorado are at their best when they’re pushing multiple pieces of policy and education initiatives, and was quick to remind full equality does end with marriage.

“The bullying issue is neverending,” he said, despite New Jersey having one of the most inclusive anti–bullying laws in the nation. “Until there is complete inclusivity in society, we can never rest.”

And while the incremental approach to full marriage equality has been criticized, Josh Friedes, spokesman for Equal Rights Washington, said it could work in a community’s favor.

“The question is, how do you move the ball forward toward marriage?” he said. “Domestic partnerships, civil unions, are a great opportunity to educate about the love, commitment and concerns of same-sex couples.”

And full marriage equality must be the goal, said John Becker of Vermont Freedom to Marry.

“We have a long history in this nation of where we’ve tried separate but equal. And it doesn’t work,” he said.

Vermont invented the civil union in 1999 as the first state to allow them. A decade later, the legislature wrote full marriage equality into law.

Marriage says we’re family,” Becker said.

But what sets Colorado apart from most of the states that have come to pass full marriage equality is the state’s voter-approved constitutional Amendment 43 approved in 2006 – defining marriage between a man and a woman.

Voters here would need to overturn that amendment, or it would need to struck down by a court. But for a couple to take a case to court arguing that being limited to a civil union is discriminatory, civil unions must be in place first.

Two marriage equality cases to be heard by the United State’s Supreme Court are adding to the complexity of a potential effort to overturn Colorado’s Amendment 43. One case challenges California’s Proposition 8, the other challenges the Federal Defense of Marriage Act.

“We won’t know the best way to achieve marriage for same-sex couples in Colorado until we know how the Supreme Court rules on the cases before them,” said One Colorado’s Executive Director Brad Clark.

Decisions on the two cases are expected by late June.

But in an email interview with Out Front, Clark doesn’t skirt the end goal: marriage equality.

“Civil unions is a historic victory for our community, but more work remains to be done – to create safe and inclusive schools, to increase access to healthcare, to secure full recognition for our families, to achieve a more just Colorado.”

One last piece of advice, no matter the cause, from Vermont’s Becker: keep talking.

“The one thing that turned the tide in Vermont was all the conversations,” he said. ]