Hickenlooper signs civil unions legislation

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There rarely was a speech that was made inside Denver's History Colorado Center on March 21 that didn't bring Sue Westervelt to tears.

The Colorado Springs woman made the hour drive north to be a part of history – to see Gov. John Hickenlooper sign legislation that legalizes civil unions for gay couples in Colorado.

“In my lifetime, I can't believe this is becoming a reality,” said Westervelt, who is gay, as tears trickled down her face. “I've been discriminated against my whole life. Now, I don't feel like a second-class citizen any more.”

There were plenty of tears and plenty of cheers inside the sleek, Capitol Hill-grounded cultural center, as onlookers filled the rafters to witness the signing of Senate Bill 11, which will allow gay couples to enter into commitments that are similar to marriage, beginning May 1.

Colorado now becomes the eighth state to recognize civil unions, or similar domestic partner laws. Nine other states, along with the District of Columbia, allow gay marriage.

“It is a moment that the whole community has waited for, for so long,” said Hickenlooper. “And it is really the beginning of the country changing. That change has gotten here, it's gonna keep going. It's not going to stop in Colorado. But I'd like to think this is a crucial point, a very crucial point.”

Joining Hickenlooper on stage were lawmakers who were instrumental in passing the bill, after two failed attempts in previous legislative sessions. They included Denver Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman. Steadman, who is gay, lost his partner of 11 years to pancreatic cancer last year.

“He would be so proud standing right here with you,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, as several onlookers were seen wiping away tears. “He was an amazing man. I'm so glad you were able to do this in his honor and to be able to make this a reality.”

After the signing came the celebrating.

Democratic Sen. Jessie Ulibarri of Commerce City kissed his partner, Louis Trujillo, as the two wrapped their arms around each other.

“I told him don't cry, don't cry. You're gonna make me cry,” Ulibarri said. “But It was more romantic than that. We've been fighting for this for a long time.”

Trujillo added, “I told him I love him with all my heart.”

Amid the revelry there quietly stood Christine Bakke-O'Neil and her partner of four years, Theresa Bakke-O'Neil. The Aurora couple held hands and soaked in the moment, which, for them, had been a long time coming.

Christine Bakke-O'Neil recalled walking dejectedly out of the Capitol two years ago, when a civil unions bill failed.

“I remember thinking that I don't count here,” she said. “I don't count. This is not a state for me. I never felt so disenfranchised in my life, and it was really heartbreaking.

“Now, I'm so surprised as to how emotional I was (during the signing). This means so much.”