Provisions of Colorado Civil Union Act include:

Anti-discrimination: Prohibitions against discrimination based on spousal status

PERA: Partner can be designated a Public Employees' Retirement Association beneficiary

Adoption: Permits adoption of a child

Family leave: Mandates eligibility for family leave benefits

Health and life insurance: Permits dependent coverage for plans issued, delivered or renewed on or after Jan. 1, 2014

Health care issues: Full rights to hospital visitation, and declarations concerning administering, withholding or withdrawing medical treatment

Survivor benefits: Ensures survivor benefits under, and inclusion under, workers' compensation laws

Legal claims: Ensures ability to file claims based on wrongful death, emotional distress or loss of consortium

More info: Read the entire bill at http://bit.ly/14192AD

Passage of a civil unions law for Colorado represents one more brick torn from the wall still separating same-sex couples from the full equality they seek -- but it is a victory that also highlights the final barrier they still want to see fall.

"Every step forward is significant," said Aicila Lewis, executive director of Out Boulder, which advocates for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. "This is not small. This literally changes lives in concrete and essential ways for people in our state."

Senate Bill 13-011, creating the Colorado Civil Union Act, authorizes any two unmarried adults, regardless of gender, to enter into a civil union. It passed the House on Tuesday 39-26 and will soon be signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, then take effect May 1.

"It was a historic day," said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, a gay Denver Democrat who carried the bill three consecutive years.

"And it was amazing to both carry the bill and also be the Speaker when it passed the chamber and is now headed to the governor's desk, making sure the people of Colorado -- regardless of sexual orientation -- have equal rights."

Jean Dubofsky, a now-retired Boulder lawyer, played a central role in the early fight for sexual orientation equity. She argued successfully in 1995 before the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Amendment 2, the 1992 referendum passed by Colorado voters preventing any government entity in the state from recognizing gays and lesbians as a protected class.

"I think it's wonderful that it passed," Dubofsky said of the civil unions bill, "but it's funny, it almost feels as if time has passed us by, now, and it should have been a gay marriage bill.

"When the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Amendment 2 case in 1996, I thought gay marriage was the farthest thing from what could possibly happen, and I didn't think civil unions had much of a chance, either," Dubofsky said. "So I have been flabbergasted at how much public attitudes have changed.

"I'm really pleased that we have it because it helps a lot of people in a lot of very important ways."

The Legislature's action resonates across generations. Bonnie Drake, a Boulder High School senior and member of Out Boulder's Board of Directors, called it a "huge step toward equality for the LGBTQ community." But only a step.

"Let's be clear," Drake said. "Civil unions aren't marriage; they are separate, and therefore unequal. After all, what child dreams of one day being 'civil-unionized?'"

However, Drake added, "This bill gives me hope that one day I will be able to have my childhood dream wedding and walk down the aisle to my bride."

'The horse wasn't of age'

It is a long road from 1975, when newly elected Boulder County Clerk Clela Rorex was paid a visit by two men who had sought a marriage license in Colorado Springs and were directed to try Boulder County instead.

"I sought counsel from the district attorney, Alex Hunter, and initially his response was, there's nothing in the law that prohibits issuing marriage licenses to two people of the same sex," Rorex said.

Jen Spolnik, left, program and marketing manager, Aubree Peckham, center, events and office manager, and Nina Holtz, office and events intern, have a
Jen Spolnik, left, program and marketing manager, Aubree Peckham, center, events and office manager, and Nina Holtz, office and events intern, have a planning meeting at Out Boulder on Thursday. The organization is celebrating the passage of Colorado s civil unions law. ( Mark Leffingwell )

Rorex would issue about a half-dozen same-sex licenses, but not without her actions drawing the attention of international media -- and a man with a horse.

It was April 1975 when a man named Roswell Howard showed up seeking a license for himself and a horse named Dolly. Rorex denied the request, after getting legal counsel from Hunter's top assistant, Bill Wise.

"I looked at the statute, and I just said the horse wasn't of age," Wise said Friday. Dolly, as it happened, was just 8 years old.

Not long after that, Rorex said, "The attorney general got into it and said, even though there isn't anything (forbidding the licenses) in the law... it might be misleading to continue issuing marriage licenses. Couples would think they had more legal rights than they really had."

The licenses Rorex had issued were voided, but Boulder was now well established on the map of the battlegrounds where gender equity issues were being challenged.

Rorex, now 69, said her issuing of same-sex licenses was rooted in her sense of justice, rather than any deliberate advocacy on gender issues.

"I have always felt it was a civil rights issue and a human rights issue," Rorex said. "I have always felt that way -- even when I was young. I honestly didn't know any gay couples at the time I issued the licenses. For myself, I felt that this was a human issue, on a personal level. And of course, certainly now, public awareness has grown and it has come to be viewed as that."

The Supreme Court's reversal of Amendment 2 in 1996 was hailed as a victory for gays and lesbians, but that was offset by their disappointment one decade later, when in 2006 voters passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

There was cause for celebration again, however, in August 2007 when then-Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law a measure barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and again in May 2008 when he signed a bill outlawing such discrimination against those buying a home, renting an apartment or using public accommodations.

The state's somewhat erratic record on equality issues enhanced the sense of challenge that Out Boulder's Lewis felt in moving here in 2006 from Tacoma, Wash., where she had also been active in advocacy work.

"Even though the marriage recognition had not gone forward, it was clear that people in Colorado really do care about fairness, and we as a community needed to find new ways to reach out and share our experiences and our stories," Lewis said.

Second-class citizens no longer

Sheila Schroeder and Kate Burns are among the many Coloradans who didn't wait for the state to act; they marked their union in a ceremony at the Burns family's cabin in Eldora on June 21, 2003.

The fact that the state did not recognize the validity of their partnership has weighed on them in the decade that followed.

"There's always been a frustration, that we've been treated like second-class citizens," said Schroeder, an associate professor in the Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver.

"There's absolutely no difference between the commitment that we have between one another, and the one that my parents had. There just never seemed to be a rhyme or a reason for inequality," said Schroeder, 48.

Schroeder and Burns have hardly been passive on the issue.

In October 2007, they staged a civil disobedience at the Denver City and County Clerk's Office at the Wellington Webb building, earning citations for trespassing after requesting a wedding license -- and protesting by refusing to leave, when denied.

"The irony is that he (Webb) and his wife were really the first two in the state of Colorado to speak out in favor of gay rights in the early 1970s," Schroeder said.

The irony was enhanced by the fact that it was the Webbs' daughter, then Denver Clerk and Recorder Stephanie O'Malley, who turned them away that day.

Schroeder and Burns, who live in Englewood, will be in line May 1, along with many other same-sex Colorado couples, so that they can finally obtain official recognition for the bond unofficially established 10 years ago on a sunny afternoon in western Boulder County.

And while from county to county in Colorado there is already avid discussion about who will be first in line, Schroeder is not focused on that.

"The fact that there is a line," she said, "and that people will be lined up on May 1 to take advantage of this new opportunity afforded to us is what's important."

But those celebrating passage of civil unions don't see this as the final step in a larger journey they hope will lead to same-sex marriage rights.

"This is the best the Legislature can do, and this is incredibly important for protecting families and children all across our state," said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, a sponsor of the bill.

"It was absolutely worth doing, even though it stops short of full equality."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or brennanc@dailycamera.com.