A bill allowing same-sex couples to form civil unions is on its way to the governor for his signature, but gay-rights activists say they won't stop until they get true equality, which is marriage.
The Colorado House on Tuesday passed the bill 39-26 despite protests from Republicans that the bill faces legal challenges because it doesn't offer religious exemptions.
"We won't get to debate this again here, but we will debate this in a court of law," said Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono.
The passage marks the first time in three years the bill has made it through the House, which was controlled by Republicans in the two previous sessions.
Speaker Mark Ferrandino, a gay
"This wasn't a choice. This is who I am. This is who we are," he said of being gay. "We need to make laws in our society that respect everyone equally."
After the vote, the five gay lawmakers in the House and the three gay lawmakers in the Senate lauded those who decades ago took up the fight for equality or were forced to live in the shadows.
"Today is really a memorial, remembering those who were shamed because they were gay or had AIDS," said Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver.
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who has sponsored the civil-unions bill for three years, said its passage is the high point of a decades-long struggle.
"Yet we're not there yet. I don't want anyone to think that we somehow reached the peak," Steadman said. "Civil unions are not marriage. They are something that are separate and distinct and lesser and unequal, and that really is not good enough."
But both he and Ferrandino pointed out that civil unions offer important protections for children and families, and they were thrilled to see the bill finally pass.
Gays cannot marry in Colorado because of a 2006 constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. Voters passed it 55 percent to 45 percent while defeating a civil-unions-type measure.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and a longtime supporter of gay rights, is expected to sign the bill later this month. The bill becomes law May 1.
Colorado then will become one of 18 states that offer recognition of same-sex couples, either through marriage or civil unions, according to the state's largest gay-rights group, One Colorado. The District of Columbia allows gay marriage.
Before the vote, lawmakers mentioned milestones in the gay movement both in Colorado and nationally: the Stonewall riots; Harvey Milk's assassination; the passage of Amendment 2 in Colorado and its being struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court; and the beating death of Matthew Shepard near Laramie, killed because he was gay.
Lawmakers also mentioned what happened last year on the floor of the House on the second-to-last night of the session. Republican leaders refused to call the bill up for debate, knowing Ferrandino had the votes to pass it, and the bill died on the calendar.
Ferrandino said the defeat spurred Coloradans to help Democrats in November take back the majority in the House
"We are fulfilling a promise that we made at the end of last session to the people of Colorado, that we would get things done," he said.
Wealthy gay activist Tim Gill — who has helped fund the Democratic
"We've come a long way from the days of Amendment 2 to today's post-partisan win for all families," Gill said in a statement. "Scott and I want to thank all those who helped Colorado take this important step toward full equality. We're proud Coloradans."
Tuesday's vote came one day after the 65-member body debated the bill for more than four hours as Republicans tried to amend it to send it to the voters or add exemptions for religious conscience.
At the time, Rep. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, described living for years worried she was going to lose her friends, her family and her job if she revealed she was gay. She only recently came out.
"I could not share personal stories of who I loved, who I went on vacation with, who I shared my home with and why," she said. "I've waited for this recognition for over 40 years. This truly is a historic day for equality in Colorado."
The other gay lawmakers in the legislature are Reps. Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge, Paul Rosenthal of Denver and Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, and Sen. Jessie Ulibarri of Commerce City.
Ulibarri said he was coming out at the same time Shepard was killed during a hate crime that shocked the nation.
"For folks who are coming out today, hopefully they know they have support," he said.
"Don't be scared to be who you truly are," Ginal added. "Don't be scared to be gay or lesbian. You're awesome people."
The eight gay lawmakers were asked whether they planned to enter a civil union. Five raised their hands. Steadman, whose partner, Dave Misner, died in September after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, wasn't one of them.
"Some of us," Steadman said quietly, " don't get that opportunity."
Lynn Bartels: 303-954-5327, email@example.com or twitter.com/lynn_bartels
All 37 Senate Democrats, plus Republicans Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and Carole Murray of Castle RockNO
Civil unions vs. marriage
The Colorado Constitution defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
On the state and federal levels, there are tax differences between married couples and couples in civil unions.
Under the Colorado Civil Unions Act, parties to a civil union would not be allowed to file joint state or federal income tax returns.
Couples in a civil union do not have the protection of COBRA.
Couples in a civil union do not have the benefits of Social Security.
Civil unions are typically not recognized outside the state that granted them, although Colorado does recognize other unions.
Couples in a civil union cannot sponsor a spouse for citizenship.