‘Standing up for the right of people to love who they choose’

The Colorado Statesman

The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Colorado celebrated a big legal win and bestowed awards on a pioneering transgendered woman who recently retired from the attorney general’s office and on a rookie state senator at a gala fundraiser for its legal arm last Thursday in Denver.

More than 100 revelers packed the Center’s Legal and Advocacy Program’s annual Jokers, Jewels & Justice party at the Grant-Humphreys mansion for a night of casino-style games, but before the festivities got under way officials marked the occasion.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signs Senate Bill 11, establishing civil unions for same-sex couples in Colorado, on March 21 at the History Colorado Center in Denver. Surrounding him are the bill’s primary sponsors, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, and Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver. The bill passed easily with bipartisan support in both chambers this year after two previous attempts when the then-Republican-controlled House killed it. The law takes effect on May 1, and some county clerks have said they plan to open their doors at midnight to allow couples to start applying for civil union licenses without any delay.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Noting that the Center’s legal program was launched just over two decades ago to oppose anti-gay Amendment 2 — subsequently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court — Denver Mayor Michael Hancock marveled at Colorado’s shift from “the hate state” to a state on the verge of instituting civil unions for same-sex couples.

Denver County Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson catches up with Elizabeth Harris at the GLBT Community Center of Colorado’s annual Jokers, Jewels & Justice bash on March 14 in Denver. Johnson says her office is revving up to start issuing civil unions licenses when the clock strikes midnight on May 1.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Tonight, we celebrate the courage of Democrats and Republicans who stood up and said this will be the state where we include everyone at the table,” Hancock told the crowd. “We will stand up for the right for people to love who they chose, to celebrate who they chose.”

Barrister of the Year to Former Assistant Attorney General Clemmie Engle, left, accepts the GLBT Community Center of Colorado’s Barrister of the Year award, presented by Colorado Civil Rights Division director Steven Chavez and the Center's legal director Mindy Barton.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Steven Chavez, director of the Colorado Civil Rights Division, presented the organization’s Barrister of the Year award to Clemmie Engle, a former assistant attorney general who retired last year from the Colorado Department of Law, where she spent most of her 32 years working in the appellate division.

Colorado has come a long way since it was labeled the “hate state” two decades ago, says Denver Mayor Michael Hancock at the Gay, Lesbian Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Colorado annual Jokers, Jewels & Justice fundraiser.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“I’m a bad activist. All I’ve done is lived God’s holy plan for my life. But if the personal has been the political on the way, I’m glad for it,” said Engle. She noted that she’d spent the first half of her career as “Mr. Engle” and caused a stir when she came to work as a woman.

“I am amazed at how far we have come as a GLBT community, and especially how far the T” — standing for “transgender” — “in the GLBT has come in a mere 10 or 15 years,” she said. Citing Susan B. Anthony, Engle concluded: “We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. And as the suffragette said, it is not for ourselves alone, not for ourselves alone that we toil.”

State Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, had high praise for the “feisty” state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, recipient of the Visionary in Action award, reminding the crowd that the freshman lawmaker had presided over the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on civil unions and the Senate debate on gun control legislation.

“Doing the right thing shouldn’t be extraordinary, it should be ordinary,” Ulibarri said. Citing the “alphabet soup” of gay-related acronyms, Ulibarri smiled, “I’m a YBBG — I was born young, brilliant, brown and gay.”

Ulibarri said he’d worked with the Center to establish an inclusive policy for transgender inmates held by the Denver Sheriff’s Department and said it was an example of his guiding principle. “Regardless of where you come from, regardless of who you love, regardless of your sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, the world should be fair,” he said.

After the awards presentation, Mindy Barton, legal director for The Center, told The Colorado Statesman that the legal operation anticipates being as involved helping implement civil unions as the organization was in helping pass the law, which Gov. John Hickenlooper planned to sign on Thursday, after press time.

The law takes effect on May 1 and some county clerks’ offices plan to open their doors at midnight for impatient couples.

“We’re facing some tough legal questions and may not always know the answers,” Barton said, adding that her team has been working with county clerks and state officials to resolve “hiccups” along the way.

Same-sex couples could face legal hurdles, for instance, if they’ve gotten married in other states and want to enter into a civil union in Colorado, while domestic partnerships or civil unions formed in other states might transfer to Colorado.

“Right now, being married is a bar to getting a civil union,” she said. “So it makes it a little trickier to figure out.” She said her team is urging couples to “documents their intentions” to help sort through what might be a “jumble of different paperwork in different states” before filing for a Colorado civil union.

Down the road, she said, the Center might be involved in lawsuits challenging a state constitutional amendment that restricts marriage to one man and one woman, though she added, “There’s no way to predict if civil unions could lead to specific litigation.” Instead, she said, “It would be a case-by-case situation, to look potential instances of disparate treatment of a couple that has a civil union in this state and a couple that is married in this state. We know there are distinctions between those two areas.”

Still, she hastened to add, “The reason behind going forward with civil unions was never to try to set up a lawsuit. The reason behind civil unions is we want to make sure that committed couples, right now, have protections for their families under a state-relationship-recognition structure.”

Denver Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson said that the clerk’s statewide association has been working to iron out the wrinkles as the law’s effective date approaches, including coordinating with the Colorado Department of Health on the civil union form itself.

“The biggest thing for the clerks is the processing. Because we do a lot of it electronically, we want to make sure our vendors are updating our processes and updating our forms so we can do it,” she said. “I think we’re going to be really ready on May 1.”

Johnson and Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall’s office have announced that they’ll open their doors at mid-night, as soon as the law takes effect.

In Denver, at least, there could be a big crowd in the lobby. The gay-rights advocacy organization One Colorado, a driving force behind the civil unions law, is planning a celebration the night of April 30, capped by the chance for couples to apply for the licenses. Dubbed the “Civil Soirée” — a twist on last year’s gathering, called the “Uncivil Soirée” after the bill had died in the legislature — the party at the McNichols Building Civic Center will feature a dinner, a photo booth, cake and dancing until midnight, when the party moves across the street to the Denver clerk’s office.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com