It was the last night of April, and ebullient participants of One Colorado’s Civil Soiree shuffled into Denver’s 100-year-old McNichols Civil Center Building, a neoclassical–style marble rectangular structure surrounded by Civic Center Park. Inside, loud music blasted from speakers stacked around a large dance floor. Vivid colors of purple and blue illuminated the walls and ceiling.
The anticipation was palpable as conversations were punctuated with bouts of laughter and adorned with ceaseless smiles. It was finally happening: after a three–year struggle, civil unions were going to be a reality.
It was an arduous political battle that brought vitriolic debates in the state House and Senate chambers, emotionally charged rallies on the Capitol steps, and last year, a dramatic legislative shutdown by then–Speaker of the House Frank McNulty.
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.
But the April 30 Civil Soiree wasn’t about dwelling on the past. Colorado had come a long way from its label as “the hate state,” applied back in 1992 after voters passed the infamous Amendment 2 – legislation which would have prohibited legal protections for LGBT Coloradans.
Twenty-one years later, the LGBT community and its allies were triumphant not only in gaining legal recognition for same-sex couples, but also in keeping religious adoption agencies from discriminating against would–be parents.
“I wanted to celebrate the passage of the legislation,” said Gabriel Lopez-Allen of Aurora, who came to witness the momentous night with a friend. “You have to be there for history.”
An information table was set up in one corner of the room, a large picture of two gold wedding bands hanging overhead. Couples entering a civil union signed in at the desk as One Colorado volunteers answered questions about the new law.
Debbie and Margo Chandler moved to Colorado Springs from Florida in 2008. They have been together for 17 years and drove up to Denver to get their civil union license at midnight. “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.”
Together they are raising two girls, age 9 and 11. “While they couldn’t be here tonight, they know all about it,” Margo said. “They’re all excited.”
Though civil unions grant Debbie and Margo many of the same state-level rights married couples enjoy, they both worry how their union lacks federal recognition. “The biggest issue for us is taxes,” said Debbie.
Bill Giertz and Mark Hirst signed in at the same table, eager to have their union recognized by the state. “The big event for me was on election night,” said Giertz. “Hearing that the Democrats had taken the House. That they were going to replace McNulty. That, to me, was a feeling of . . . finally, acceptance.”
Giertz has been living in Colorado since 1979. “I’ve been here a while. 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.”
Shortly after 8 p.m., almost 500 people packed the third floor of the McNichols Building for the celebratory dinner, featuring several guest speakers including Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and U.S. Rep. Dianna DeGette, a Denver Democrat.
“Everyone in this room has reason to celebrate tonight. It has been a long journey. It has been a tough journey,” said Hancock, who planned on officiating civil unions that night. “If history has taught us anything, in the words of Dr. King: ‘The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.’”
Hancock echoed the words of couples who were joyful the state was finally recognizing their relationship, but still felt many of their rights were lacking. Colorado’s Amendment 43, for example, defines marriage between a man and a woman.
“The journey is not over. And we will not stop until all residents, in the words of our great State Senator Pat Steadman, have full marriage equality under the law.”
When DeGette spoke, she held up a certificate signifying her as an ordained minister. “I’m going to go over with the mayor, and I’m going to perform weddings,” DeGette said enthusiastically. “This is a basic human right,” she added. “It is way, way, way overdue.”
DeGette also emphasized the work ahead to establish full LGBT equality in Colorado. “We’re going to fix one word in this statue, and that word is going to be wedding and marriage.”
A lively reception followed the dinner, and couples, friends and family members soon made their way across the street to the Wellington Webb Municipal Building, where Denver’s County Clerk’s office was open at midnight allowing couples to file paperwork the moment civil unions became legal. By midnight – when same-sex marriages performed in other states were immediately recognized as civil unions under Colorado law – a long line had already formed around the block for couples eagerly awaiting a chance to form a union of their own, with some couples waiting at the doors since 2 p.m. that day.
Then shortly after midnight in the vast atrium lobby of the Webb building, a sea of people crowded around Anna and Fran Simon. For the past three years, the couple testified at endless committee hearings about the importance of Colorado providing the legal rights and protections to same-sex couples.
Appropriately, Fran and Anna were the first to receive a civil union license, making Colorado the 9th state allowing civil unions. Jeremy, the couple’s five-year-old son, stood next to his parents as they said their vows amid a shower of flash bulbs and cheers, the ceremony officiated by Mayor Hancock.
A total of 114 couples followed that night in Denver. Many couples were confident they would soon return to apply for a marriage license, and that Colorado will one day join the list of currently 12 states recognizing same-sex marriage.