Colorado Civil Unions Bill Poised for Passage
On January 31, the Colorado Senate Appropriations Committee voted in favor of SB-11, a bill that would legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. Having already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill will now move to the floor of the Senate for a second hearing. The bill is co-sponsored by every Democrat in the general assembly, giving it enough votes that it is essentially guaranteed to become law.
For LGBT Coloradans and their allies and families, this is a welcome change of pace from last year's legislative session. In May 2012, a political maneuvering by Republican opponents -- particularly then-Speaker of the House Frank McNulty --blocked a similar bill. The 2012 civil unions bill had enough support (including that of several Republicans) to have passed if put to a vote.
"I think many people in Colorado felt that the process, and their trust in government, had been abused last year," said Senator Jessie Ulibarri, one of eight openly gay members of the Colorado general assembly, who has been a vocal advocate of civil unions. "We had a seismic shift take place after that, and the legislature went from a Republican majority to a Democratic majority."
Now that Democrats control the House, McNulty has been replaced with Speaker Mark Ferrandino, another openly gay lawmaker and co-sponsor of SB-11, further ensuring the bill's passage.
Some opponents of SB-11 have argued that the bill is a roundabout way of achieving same-sex marriage, which is illegal in Colorado due to a constitutional amendment passed in 2006. Senator Lucia Guzman was careful to point out the distinction between civil unions and marriage, saying, "For one thing, a same-sex couple still won't be able to file federal or state income taxes jointly, because it's not recognized federally."
Although the rights granted to same-sex couples by SB-11 would still be a step away from marriage equality, Guzman said it would make an enormous difference in the lives of LGBT Coloradans.
"It will give opportunities for couples to make sure their lives together are protected from discrimination, and that they receive the benefits and opportunities that other couples get to have," said Guzman. "Above and beyond all of that, it offers recognition of the couples who have historically been kept out of the wider community -- recognition as individuals and couples and families that are strong and committed and whole."
Civil unions would also offer same-sex couples a host of legal protections that are currently difficult, if not impossible, to obtain outside of marriage. Ulibarri explained that while there was currently a patchwork of regulations and opportunities to cobble together support for the family through things like designated beneficiaries and domestic partners, those vehicles are limited in what they offer.
"For instance, they don’t give you the ability to assign pension benefits to anyone besides your children or spouse," Ulibarri told EDGE. "In the event of a tragedy, your same-sex partner would not have access to your pension benefits. Civil unions sum it all up into a package: you can obtain a license and your family will be protected."
Even before the dramatic shift in the legislature following the 2012 elections, the mood in Colorado had begun to swing in the direction of civil unions. In the previous two years, civil union legislation has been introduced, and made it miraculously far with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, Ulibarri explained.
"Inside and outside of the Capitol, people have seen LGBT people and their families going about the business of everyday life," he continued. On the campaign trail, I was open and honest about who I am, and I was elected with 65 percent of the vote. That indicates that we’re seen as part of the community."
"Colorado now has eight openly LGBT people in the general assembly. Our colleagues have come to know our families and our partners. I think the demonization and demagoguery we’ve seen in the past are not the same now, because you’re talking to a colleague. The people I work with understand that my family is not afforded the same protections as their families. It’s a personal issue for me, but it’s a personal issue for my colleagues now as well."
Guzman agreed that more and more Coloradans are becoming comfortable with the idea of civil unions. "It seems like we’ve moved in a hugely positive direction," she said. "Close to 70 percent of the state approves of civil unions. It’s time to get this done."
While civil unions would be a major victory for same-sex couples and their families, many still feel that marriage equality should be the long-term goal.
"I definitely believe that full marriage equality should be a goal of ours as a state," said Ulibarri. "I’ve heard people claim that voters decided on this issue in 2006 and the world hasn’t changed since then, but that’s the beauty of democracy: we can continue to debate and change our laws based on how people feel about the world. We have the ability to change our minds. We’re not set in stone."
Asked what he will do when civil unions become legal in Colorado, Ulibarri joked, "I’ll give you my partner’s number and you can ask him what he’s going to do," adding, "We haven’t made any plans yet, but we want to make sure our family is protected."
To contact your senator regarding civil unions, visit http://equalityfederation.salsalabs.com/o/35061/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=1048