The Colorado House of Representatives was widely panned Tuesday night when lawmakers blocked full debate on a measure that would extend to same-sex couples many of the same rights that married couples enjoy. The criticism was deserved, and in responding quickly by calling lawmakers into a special legislative session to address the issue, Gov. John Hickenlooper exhibited impressive leadership: He recognized a policy window that had opened and forced it to stay that way – and for all the right reasons.
The movement toward sanctioning committed relationships among couples of any gender has been gaining steady support across the country, generating, of course, the counterpoint in hateful reactionary responses. As more states adopt measures allowing civil unions or gay marriage – there now are 14 that extend some level of recognition for same-sex couples’ relationships – others are stringently opposing the concept. On Tuesday, North Carolina voters passed an amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions – a move that further fueled the momentum pushing the discussion onto the national stage.
That forum further broadened when President Obama announced Wednesday that his evolution on gay marriage is complete: He supports the notion. This national fervor provided just the right opportunity for Hickenlooper to force Colorado legislators to persevere through the civil-union discussion – or at least try to. While Hickenlooper can call the special session and set the terms of what it can consider, he cannot compel legislators to give the measure the full hearing it deserves, nor can he force its passage.
What Hickenlooper has done, though, is forced legislators’ hands by not allowing them to slink off into the sunset with little more than admonishing finger wags from the many critics disappointed by the Legislature’s failure to formally discuss the civil unions measure, which is sponsored by Denver Democrats Rep. Mark Ferrandino and Sen. Pat Steadman. Instead, Hickenlooper is calling on legislators to give the measure the full hearing and vote it deserves and live with the political consequences of that action. It is a strong statement for accountability, but an even stronger one for fairness.
At its core, the argument about civil unions and gay marriage is about the sort of society we collectively value and work to shape through our laws. As more individuals live alone, list loneliness as a chronic condition and raise children in single-parent settings, we lament the loss of community and committed relationships that such a societal shift engenders. By refusing to extend the benefits of that commitment to couples who happen to be of the same gender, we send the message that only certain relationships have merit in American society, regardless of the nurturing environments, supportive families and community engagement that all committed relationships are known to help create. Taking a stand for those values is hardly controversial, it is simply the right thing to do.
Recognizing that the issue is well beyond ripe for full consideration did not take razor-sharp political acumen on Hickenlooper’s part. Gay marriage and civil unions clearly are at the top of the national dialogue, in part because of the Colorado Legislature’s attempt to skirt the matter for the session. The governor’s strength was in seizing an opportunity to push lawmakers to action on a long-suffering issue of what is fair and what is right. Legislators will have to account for their next steps; what an opportunity they have been handed to promote the best of family values for citizens too long marginalized in their desire to pursue them.