Aspen readies for civil unions |

Aspen readies for civil unions

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Thursday’s signing of a bill legalizing civil unions in Colorado cheered members of Aspen’s gay community, though couples may not be lined up at the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder’s Office on May 1 to tie the civil knot.

For some, it has been a long time coming, but same-sex couples across the state are taking a close look at what the new law means. So are employers, insurers, attorneys who advise gay families and government officials who will handle the paperwork associated with civil unions.

Just a year after Republicans in Colorado’s House of Representatives blocked civil unions, the legislation passed in both the House and Senate this year, landing before Gov. John Hickenlooper Thursday for a ceremonial inking.

“I didn’t think this day would come in Colorado so quickly,” said Aspen resident Jason Burns, owner of DL Event Planning.

Burns is a planner of weddings, and he’s not ruling out one of his own with his partner of 13-plus years.

While gay couples will have the option of conducting their own unions, just as any heterosexual couple can wed by filling out the paperwork and acquiring a marriage license at the County Clerk’s Office, Aspen could be a destination for couples who want to do their civil union up big, Burns predicted.

“I don’t know why Aspen couldn’t become the gay wedding mecca of Colorado. We get heterosexual weddings from all over the world and all over the country,” he said. “Honestly, there’s not a more beautiful place in the country for a summer wedding than the top of Aspen Mountain.”

The Little Nell, Aspen Skiing Co.’s luxury hotel at the base of the mountain, has long catered to not only traditional weddings but also commitment ceremonies between same-sex couples. The Little Nell operates the Sundeck restaurant atop the mountain and will now promote the venue for civil unions, according to Sally Spaulding, who handles the Nell’s public relations.

In the past, the hotel has used stock photography of same-sex couples for marketing purposes, but this spring, it will have its own photos of gay and lesbian couples shot on-location on Aspen Mountain, Spaulding said. A photo shoot is planned in the coming weeks, in fact, to show off the potential for a wintertime civil union, employing a snowcat for a short spin into the backcountry to provide a wintery backdrop.

For the county Clerk and Recorder’s Office, civil unions mean a new license and associated application. The office will update its website at to provide an online version of the application, as well as a copy of the Colorado Civil Union Act.

Like heterosexual couples, same-sex couples will be charged $30 to obtain a license. Starting May 1, gay couples can have someone officiate their union or marry themselves, just as heterosexual couples can, according to Chief Deputy Clerk Linda Gustafson.

Brooke Peterson, Aspen municipal judge, said he officiates at fewer weddings than he used to, now that state law allows couple to marry themselves, but civil unions won’t require much change on his part. Some wording, which refers to a man and a woman for a traditional wedding, will require tweaking, he said.

“From my perspective, if the state has sanctioned civil unions, I would give them every bit as much dignity and seriousness as any other marriage,” he said.

For some gay couples, the rights that come with a civil union are what make the arrangement attractive and quick nuptials at the clerk’s office may be all they desire. Some, like Burns, envision a celebration of love.

“It’s so much more than just a piece of paper,” he said. “I would really want to put on a fabulous ceremony. My wedding would be amazing.”

Aspen resident Kevin McManamom, a member of the board of directors for Roaring Fork Gay and Lesbian Community Fund, also known by its shorter moniker, AspenOut, knows the importance of gaining the legal protections afforded by civil unions, including enhanced inheritance and parental rights. People in civil unions also would have the ability to make medical decisions for their partner.

McManamom was previously in a 14-year gay relationship in another state that led to a custody battle over two children. It would not have been an issue had they been joined in a civil union, he said.

At age 57, McManamom said he remains open to the possibility of a civil union with someone, not only for the legal protections but for the commitment it represents.

“For me the symbolic value of the civil union is important,” he said. “I would do it for both.”

Todd Chamberlin, also an AspenOut board member, called civil unions a huge step forward for a state where, in 1992, voters approved a ban on municipal antidiscrimination laws that protected gays. At that point, the Colorado native said he considered leaving the state. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court said the law, Amendment 2, was unconstitutional, ending a legal battle the city of Aspen helped wage; the city had adopted an antidiscrimination law in 1977.

Twenty-plus years after Amendment 2, Chamberlin said he’s gratified to see Colorado join eight other states that have civil unions or similar laws. Nine others, and the District of Columbia, allow gay marriage, which was banned by Colorado voters in 2006.

“I’m very excited to see the state making that leap,” he said. “It’s been a long 20 years for all those people who have worked tirelessly to get to this point.”

Still, Chamberlin said he will hold out for more with his partner of almost 16 years. Civil unions don’t put same-sex couples in Colorado on equal footing with straight couples with respect to some 1,100 rights and benefits accorded wedded couples in federal law, he said.

Two cases addressing marriage equality, however, are headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, including one challenging the Defense of Marriage Act. Chamberlin is waiting for the day when marriage, with all its rights and benefits, is available to gay couples.

“Personally, I’m holding out for marriage,” Chamberlin said.

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