Shawna Kemppainen and Lisa Green live in conservative Colorado Springs in El Paso County and yet they seem cautiously optimistic that Colorado’s same-sex civil unions bill will pass out of the House Judiciary Committee today. “The four members of the committee from El Paso County, we know they’re committed family people who are interested in our city being a thriving, vibrant community, and that’s what this is about,” Kemppainen told the Colorado Independent. “This is about fairness and limited government. We’re not asking for anything special or anything more. We just want the everyday hurdles for us to be at the same height as they are for other families. Many families struggle with getting health insurance for their partners. Many families struggle with chronic illness and overwhelming medical bills. We just want to face those struggles with the same rights as other families do.”
In a few hours, the 11-member Judiciary Committee will decide whether or not to send Sen. Pat Steadman’s SB 172 civil unions legislation to the House floor for a full vote. The hearing today has long been seen, even before it was announced, as the great hurdle the bill will have to jump to pass into law. Well more than 70 percent of Coloradans support the bill and it passed in the Senate last week with bipartisan support. Yet Republican faith-based social conservatives dominate the committee and could well vote down the bill and end its journey through the legislature. Those Republicans have echoed Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty in saying they will give the bill a fair hearing.
Rights and luck
Kemppainen said that for years she supported civil unions legislation only in a sort of abstract way. She felt as a lesbian that she deserved equal rights. The idea, however, has been brought home with great power in recent years.
She is now executive director at Inside/Out Youth Services, an LGBT nonprofit in Colorado Springs, and in her work she sees up close the damage the message of inequality delivered by the nation’s laws can do to young people’s self esteem. She is also now in a longterm relationship with Green, who has developed Multiple Sclerosis. The couple spends $1200 on medication each month and medical decision making plays large in their thoughts.
“We’re doing all the things that America wants couples to do,” said Green. “We own a home together. We pay our mortgage on time. We both work and pay our taxes. We take our dogs to the dog park. We pick up the dog poop. We return our library books. I feel like we’re doing what we have to do to be quote-unquote good American citizens. We vote. I worked since I was 16.
“I feel like I’m doing my part and America has kind of left me out because I’m sick and because of who I choose to love,” she said. “So they’re not upholding their end of the deal and I’m upholding mine and it makes me really angry… you say the Pledge of Allegiance and it says ‘liberty and justice for all.'”
Kemppainen said that, because she and Green are a same-sex couple, a crucial segment their life every day has hinged and continues to hinge on luck.
“I’m lucky. I love my job and I enjoy same-sex partner benefits through my job. So Lisa’s medical condition is covered. We’re really lucky,” she said.
“So far, Lisa has never been rushed in an emergency to another hospital [where the staff doesn’t know us]. She fell down in a parking lot but it didn’t come to that… So I have never been denied visitation. That’s lucky. But it shouldn’t be about luck. It should be a basic right.”
Specialists, girlfriends and boxes to check
Kemppainen said that when they go to a specialist in Denver, there’s a certain amount of explanation required.
“She’s my girlfriend,” Green said, short-hand imitating the conversations they have to have with medical staff. “Well, no, not a ‘girl friend.’ She’s my girlfriend. She’s my partner. This is the person who’s responsible.
“The thing is, there’s no box on the form. It says ‘single’ ‘married’ ‘divorced’ ‘widowed.’ I’m none of those things.”
Same-sex couples now enjoy some basic partnership rights but they come with a cost. They can secure powers of attorney and medical decision-making and designated beneficiary rights but that can get expensive with attorneys fees and it’s no guarantee they won’t run into trouble at a crucial moment. Gay couples have to carry those papers with them in an emergency or ask their lawyers to fax them to a hospital.
“We have better standing with a power of attorney,” said Kemppainen, “but Steadman’s bill is much more solid.”
The legislation would grant roughly 25 new domestic partner rights. Steadman combed through the state statutes in writing the bill to find areas of the law where gay couples and families, in effect, fall through the cracks. The bill would extend insurance and death benefits, for example, and allow couples to formally arrange for alimony and child care and visitation rights, should their relationship dissolve.
These laws that focus on adults and adult rights and responsibilities, that’s just half of why this bill is a family bill, Kemppainen said, circling back again to the message lawmakers choose to send to children.
“There’s over 600 kids that came through the [Inside/Out Youth Services] program last year, and I can tell you, 16- and 17-year-olds, long-term relationships and savings accounts… it’s not on their radar. What is on their radar and penetrates their whole lives is whether or not they’re seen as equal human beings and whether or not they’re recognized as worthwhile people just for who they are. So, if we say no to legislation like this, it’s a clear message to those kids that says ‘No, you’re not as good as….’
“The implications of that message have been seen across the nation and right here in Colorado Springs. When a kid doesn’t see themselves as equally worthwhile, that puts them in danger, and it’s something we can have an impact on. Our vision is for our community and state and nation to send a message that says ‘Yes, you are worthwhile and just as good as’ to our young people, whether they’re gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, however they identify. We want them to know they have the chance for a loving full life and family and relationships.
“That’s one of the reasons this legislation is so important.”