With Ref. I The Personal Is Political Again

Sean Duffy sounds confident when he talks about bringing domestic partnerships to Colorado.

“The campaign is right on track,” he says.  “All of our advertising is hitting its goals, our fundraising is completely on track, our plan is coming together as we expected it would.”

Duffy is the executive director of Coloradans for Fairness and Equality, a group seeking to establish legal rights for gay and lesbian couples with Referendum I, a measure that would create partnerships recognized by the state government. “Referendum I would provide basic legal rights,” explains Duffy, “such as the right to hospital visitation, end of life decision making, and property inheritance rights to committed same-sex couples who take the step of going to their courthouse and obtaining a domestic partnership license.”

It’s not marriage the campaign says, but it is an improvement over current state law that bans gay marriage . 

The referendum shares the ballot with Amendment 43, a constitutional measure that, if passed, would define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman. It is the first time in United States history that a ballot has had both questions.

But perhaps no issues on the ballot will be more personal than the subject of sexual orientation. Just ask Maria Swall, a community activist in Fort Collins. For people like her, the issue is resoundingly personal. Her sister is a lesbian, and seeks the same legal rights married couples enjoy.

For example, when Swall took a hiatus from work to take care of her 11-year-old son, she was covered under her husband’s health insurance. Her sister doesn’t have it so easy.

“They’ve been fortunate in terms of both of them being employed and both of them having access to their own health insurance,” says Swall, when speaking about her sister and her sister’s partner.

“We didn’t have to factor in the cost of health insurance for me because I was considered family, because I’m covered under my husband’s health insurance,” she says. “But for my sister and her partner, if there was some reason that one of them needed to take time off from work, their individual employer health insurance would not cover the other person.”

In opposition to Referendum I stands Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization that is against not only gay marriage, but domestic partnerships as well.

In a 2002 article published by Focus, the group clearly summed up its opposition to domestic partnerships:

Focus on the Family opposes extending benefits to the unmarried domestic partners – homosexual or heterosexual – of city employees because it places the government’s stamp of approval on extramarital relationships, and funds those benefits with the money of taxpayers – many of whom oppose such relationships on moral or religious grounds.

Focus is a national organization, but it is headquartered locally in Colorado Springs with its own marked exit off of Interstate 25.

However, Swall is also a religious woman, and a member of the Plymouth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. She says she’s determined to show that Christian groups like Focus on the Family don’t hold a monopoly when it comes to talking about GLBT issues.

“The conservative Christians, they seem to get all of the attention as far as making it seem they’re the one religious view to have on this issue,” states Swall. “I just don’t buy it. I think God cares more about how we treat other people, than that we need to ‘fix’ people who are gay.”

Swall is organizing a group of faith-based organizations to come out in support Referendum I, with 11 different faith groups already signed on. There are also plans for an interfaith worship service to celebrate volunteers supporting the campaign.

A Rocky Mountain News poll has shown Ref. I leading with 58%, and 52% of voters also said they would vote for Amendment 43, the gay marriage ban.

“I think it’s possible to make some changes, but I think it’s also something that’s going to take a long time,” Swall says.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at erosa@www.coloradoindependent.com.