Minutes after midnight on May 1, surrounded by hundreds of well-wishers and nearly as many cameras, Fran and Anna Simon spoke the words that would turn their freshly minted civil union license into a binding commitment in the eyes of Colorado law.
“We do,” the women said in unison, grins spread wide across their faces, bringing to a close the ceremony performed by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in the atrium of the Wellington Webb Municipal Building.
“You may now share, in the state of Colorado, your first official kiss as a truly united couple,” Hancock said, raising his arms as the crowd erupted in excited cheers.
The Simons were the first same-sex couple in the state to form a civil union — a partnership akin to marriage, but explicitly something distinct, since Colorado’s constitution restricts marriage to opposite-sex spouses — although the moment the law took effect, it automatically recognized thousands of civil unions and gay marriages legally obtained by Colorado residents in any of the other 17 states that currently allow them.
The law gives unmarried couples — both gay and straight — the ability to apply for civil union licenses that confer many of the same legal benefits, protections and responsibilities available to married couples, including shared property, medical decisions and insurance benefits. The application and license cost $30, the same as a marriage license.
“This is a basic human right,” said U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat and vice chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ LGBT Equality Caucus, at a celebration sponsored by gay-rights advocacy group One Colorado at the McNichols Building across the street a few hours before the law took effect.
She told the crowd that those about to enter into civil unions would soon have the rights — and the responsibilities — that she’s shared with her husband for decades. “Congratulations,” she added, “and it’s way, way, way overdue.”
Denver County Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson and her Boulder County counterpart, Hillary Hall, opened their doors late Tuesday night to accommodate hundreds of partners seeking civil unions, including some who said they’d been waiting years to formalize their relationship. By the time the Denver office shuttered its doors at 5:30 a.m., officials had handed out 131 civil union licenses and 96 of them had been completed and returned. In Boulder, 48 civil unions were completed, officials said. (Civil union participants have 35 days to either take part in a ceremony certifying their union or to self-certify, the same requirements in place for marriage licenses.)
As midnight approached at the Denver clerk’s offices, five couples selected by One Colorado — the group spearheaded the effort to pass the law and paid to open the government offices at midnight — positioned themselves at the counters in a back office crowded with press, family members and well-wishers, poised to receive the first licenses as soon as Johnson’s staff gave the word. Outside the doors in the lobby, crowds waited in line for their own license applications as judges, magistrates and clergy stood by ready to perform ceremonies.
Dressed in the traditional wedding gowns they had worn seven years ago at a commitment ceremony, the Simons, accompanied by their 5-year-old son Jeremy, who would serve as the ring-bearer in their ceremony, were the first to receive a license hot off the printer at 12:02 a.m. Soon, the other couples had been handed their licenses and the ceremonies were under way.
In addition to Hancock, who performed three ceremonies, DeGette officiated nine exchanges of vows, but it was only last week that she became empowered to do so.
“I’m only in the choir at my church, and I don’t think they let choir members marry people,” she said. “I decided it’s not good enough for me to just wear my choir robe — though it is fabulous, trust me — so I went online and I became a minister,” she said, flashing her credentials to the delight of the crowd.
Aurora couple Lisa Fawcett and Alicia Smith secured the first spot in line outside the Denver offices — eventually it snaked around the building — comfortable in camping chairs and sheltered by an awning as a light drizzle began to fall before the doors opened at 10:30 p.m.
Smith said they had only decided five days earlier to get a license as soon as one became available and were surprised there wasn’t already a line forming when Fawcett arrived at 2 p.m.
“Let’s go ahead and do it, seize the opportunity,” she said they’d thought. “Now we’ll have the legal protection.” Then, after reflecting a moment, she added, “We live here. We’re not moving out of Colorado — Colorado’s moving towards us.”
Thornton residents Kim and Rewa Bailey also waited for hours for the chance to form a civil union as soon as possible.
Rewa said that the couple’s 3-year-old son will enjoy greater protection after his mothers completed the paperwork.
“We lack a lot of legal protections,” she said. “In the eyes of the law we’re strangers. We want to have the same type of rights as your average couple. Someday we’ll have all of them, but this is a step in that direction.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 11 in March, proclaiming then that the new law “is the beginning of the whole country changing. It’s going to keep going, it’s not going to stop in Colorado, but I like to think this is a crucial point, a very crucial point.”
The bill passed this year with bipartisan support after dying during the two previous sessions, when Republicans controlled the House.
“We are making history in Colorado,” House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, one of the chief sponsors of the legislation, told a ballroom filled with civil unions supporters at the One Colorado party.
Ferrandino recalled that his father had warned him against moving to Colorado years ago because state voters had passed 1992’s Amendment 2, banning anti-discrimination laws against gay and lesbian residents, even though the amendment was overturned a few years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“‘How can you move to that state?’” he said his father had asked “‘It’s the Hate State, they don’t like gay people.’ So now to be standing here and being the sponsor of the bill and see equal rights in our community become a reality… that’s an amazing thing.”
Ferrandino, the first openly gay leader of a Colorado legislative chamber, said his partner, Greg Wertsch, was out of town this week but that later this month they plan to have their own civil union ceremony on the balcony of the House of Representatives. “And it’s going to be an amazing day,” he added.
The former Republican lawmaker who provided a key committee vote in favor of civil unions legislation a year ago — before it floundered on the House floor, when GOP leadership refused to bring it to a vote — said she was thrilled to see the bill about to be enacted.
“I thought we would probably do it last May, and I was very disappointed in the outcome of all that,” said former state Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland. “But I’m very happy we have moved past that and into a new realm where we get to see equality for all Coloradans.”
Although she was pilloried by some Republicans for her position, she said she believes the party is moving toward an “embrace” of civil unions as consistent with its stated views.
“I think that a lot of Republicans really understand my point of view — this is a 14th Amendment, this is a constitutional issue — this is really about equal protection under the law for all Coloradans. There are a number of Republicans who view it that way. There are some that don’t, but that’s OK, it’s a matter of time before people come to understand the legal basis for all this, the legal issues that are involved,” she said.
One Colorado executive director Brad Clark called it important to “rejoice, as thousands of couples across this state will finally have their commitment and their love and their families recognized by the state.”
But the organization’s work wasn’t done, he added.
“As we celebrate this critical step that Colorado takes tonight, we also know that this is not the last chapter in our story. Many of us grow up with the hope of one day falling in love and spending the rest of our lives with someone. That promise is called ‘marriage,’ it’s not called ‘civil unions,’” he said.
The next step, he said, would be to “begin a conversation” about whether state voters want to overturn the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, although he added that pending Supreme Court decisions on state and federal marriage bans could influence any future course.