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Marriage Equality

Colorado: From State-Sanctioned Hate to a Gay Governor

 Kate Burns in paddy wagon after her arrest. (2007)

In this excerpt from The People's Victory: Stories from the Front Lines in the Fight for Marriage Equality, Kate Burns recounts how she helped Colorado turn a corner.

November 2006 was a time of heartbreaking news for many lesbian and gay Coloradans. The religious right and ultra-conservative politicians passed a "marriage = man + woman" amendment to the state constitution. And the humble counter-initiative, Referendum I, developed by LGBTQ leaders to preserve a few rights for non-heterosexual couples, was soundly defeated. The trauma of that double blow seemed to knock the wind out of activism. Out of the agonizing stillness, a dozen or so of us formed a local group led by Chris Hubble that was associated with the international Soulforce movement, dedicated to ending religious and political oppression of LGBTQ people through relentless nonviolent resistance. Our group created vigils, direct-actions, and acts of civil disobedience in the shadow of the fundamentalist mega-organization Focus on the Family, headquartered in Colorado Springs.

Focus on the Family had sponsored the campaign to prevent any form of legal recognition for Colorado lesbian and gay couples. We decided to develop a protest that exposed the symbiotic connection between Focus on the Family and Colorado politicians. On September 24, 2007, my spouse, Sheila Schroeder, and I walked into the Denver County Marriage License office, hand-in-hand with our Unitarian Universalist Minister, Rev. Mike Morran. Since so much of the anti-queer effort had been driven by the religious right we knew it was important to have a clergy member with us to show that religion in America is not owned by conservative fundamentalism.

The first half hour of the action was electrifying. We had alerted the media, and were surprised by the amount of media attention we actually got: six television cameras, three newspaper photographers, and reporters from little neighborhood newspapers all the way to the New York Times. The cameras popped their flashes each time we did something significant: when we asked for a marriage license, showed our drivers licenses, kissed each other with the anticipation of being newlyweds, explained our pain and anger when we could not receive the same benefits that thousands of other taxpayers receive in the same office, and then, when we sat down in protest in front of the counter after being refused a license.

Since we were blocking only one of the three counters, the County Clerk tolerated our sit-in. The camera operators put their heavy loads down and sat in a semi-circle around us. Sheila began to talk to the reporters and photographers, asking them about their families and relationships. We all sat together for an hour, sharing stories and joking. At one point a cameraman paused and said, "My fiancee and I will be getting married next month. I don't see any reason why you two shouldn't be able to get married, too. I wish that you could have the same sense of anticipation that I have today--the comforting thought that I'll be putting a ring on the finger of the one I love soon." Many of the other reporters and photographers murmured their agreement. Tears sprang to our eyes at the reminder that every moment of an action is important--not just the dramatic, camera-flashing moments.

The dramatic moment did come when the office closed and we refused to leave without receiving what was rightfully ours--our marriage license. The Clerk called the police, and we were read our rights, handcuffed, and hauled into police cruisers. Rounding the corner in the back of the squad car, we saw about a hundred supporters holding signs and waving to honking cars passing by, bringing a new wave of tears to our eyes.

We were booked for trespassing and then released, and thought the action was over. But we soon found that we could keep the issue alive by making a media-worthy action of each of our numerous court appearances. The law firm of Killmer, Lane & Newman took our case pro bono, with Mari Newman as lead counsel.

After our lawyers argued fiercely for cameras to be allowed in the courtroom, the trial began. Our lawyers mounted a strong defense for us, arguing that we were forced to commit a lesser crime--trespassing--in order to enforce a higher law, the Constitution. We knew that this "lesser evil" defense was a long shot, but it allowed us to talk about why we were in the marriage license office in the first place, something that wouldn't have been allowed if our defense merely addressed the trespassing charge. The television stations aired our story that evening.

At trial's end, we were found guilty. We asked to address the court before sentencing. "Your Honor," I said, "if you are considering jail time or fines, we ask you to commute as much as you can to community service hours. We did this out of a love for our community and the belief that our actions would ultimately benefit the county, our state, and our nation. Please let us continue to serve our community--we would welcome such a sentence!" He complied and gave us each 28 hours of community service.

We found out that our Colorado LGBT Center was among the hundreds of organizations where we could perform community service hours. Hooray! We served our sentence by organizing a fundraiser for the Center. We put on a screening of our film, SoleJourney, a documentary about the Soulforce movement. Over 300 people attended, raising $1,500 for the Center. And of course we made sure the media was there to keep the issue in the public eye once again.

We planned another civil disobedience action in 2009, that time with five participants. We spent an evening in jail and some of us received harsher sentences. I served my new sentence of 40 hours of community service by recording oral history videos for our local PFLAG organization. Again, I saw that serving time could help the cause.

Thanks to the marriage equality movement, I have learned to take a broad view when it comes to activism--to anticipate and utilize the hundred small opportunities to make change along with the big events. Activism encompasses not just the dramatic demonstrations or direct actions, but the whole journey.

From The People's Victory: Stories from the Front Lines in the Fight for Marriage Equality. The book tells the extraordinary stories of everyday volunteers doing the grassroots work to win marriage equality. Its stories are meant to inspire the next generation of activists to fight for their critical issues. The book is available to download or order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Google Play and more at marriageequality.org/book.

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