At gay-rights event, GOP Rep. Nikkel speaks on battling bigotry to advance civil unions

Colorado state Representative B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, this weekend said the experience of bigotry and intimidation she experienced last spring during the debate over a same-sex civil unions bill has strengthened her position in support of the bill. She said that, even though she’s not running for reelection and won’t be at the capitol to vote, she’s confident that conservatives will come to see the bill as consistent with their social values and that next year’s version of the bill will pass with significant Republican backing.

“I voted my conscience. I thought it was the right thing and I still do,” she told attendees at the the Ally Awards ceremony at the University of Denver Cable Center hosted by gay-rights group One Colorado on Friday.

“I want more people to commit to long-term relationships, to be able to protect their families, just as the law now helps [straight couples] protect their families.”

One Colorado Executive Director Brad Clark commended Nikkel for the swing-vote she cast last spring as a Republican Judiciary Committee member in favor of same-sex civil unions. The vote sent tremors through the state political landscape and cleared the way for a full chamber vote on the bill, where more than enough lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were committed to vote to pass the bill. In the end, however, Republican leadership ran out the clock before a vote could be called and, in a special legislative session, headed off the bill by sending it to a loyalist party-line “kill” committee.

Nikkel talked about a visit to Israel she made last year and how her thoughts about civil unions evolved partly as a result. She reflected on the discrimination Jews faced in Europe and referred to relatively open gay-rights laws in Israel now. She said she came to believe that “life would be better for a lot of Coloradans if we passed a civil unions bill” and then talked about the strong reaction she weathered in the days before and after her committee vote.

“There was a truck circling the capitol with a sign that said I was going to hell. I became aware of the bigotry many of you face every day and I happened to find out some of it would be directed at me… I received phone calls, texts, calls to my home, Robo calls, in-person criticism at my church.”

She said Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, told her the story of how some brave person had helped his grandparents escape from a Nazi ghetto.

“They escaped because of one person with a heart,” she said. “I understood just a little bit of the persecution Jews and gay people have been subjected to… I understood why Jews would support gay rights. We need to be consistent in our fight for equal rights for all.”

Nikkel praised conservatives who supported the bill this year– including Republican Reps. Don Beezley and Cheri Gerou and Spokesman for the Republican pro-civil unions group Coloradans for Freedom Mario Nicolais. She also added that she was confident that more Republican lawmakers in Colorado would come to support the bill in 2013.

“We have to have stamina, backbone… I wish we resolved this issue last session, but we will this coming session. I look forward to more Republicans voting in favor of this bill,” she said.

One Colorado hosts its award ceremony annually to celebrate individuals and organizations in the state that have worked to advance gay rights.

This year, the group hosted Rep. Nikkel as its “Honored Guest” and gave awards to Faye Tate, an executive and diversity champion at Englewood-based international engineering and construction firm CH2M Hill; Dr. Chris Urbina, chief medical officer at the Colorado School of Public Health at CU’s School of Medicine; the Girl Scouts of Colorado; and CompaƱeros, a Durango-based immigrant rights and resource group. The ceremony hosted roughly 400 guests in the courtyard space set against the stone walls of the cable center in the shadow of the 200-foot gold-topped Williams Tower.

Nikkel was mapped out of her House District 49 in the legislative reapportionment process last year and decided against running for election in a new district. The general election to represent HD 49 pits Democrat James Shelton against Republican Perry Buck.

Buck told the Independent she “couldn’t support” civil unions. Her website describes her as a “constitutional conservative and a third-generation Coloradan fiercely committed to protecting our way of life.” Shelton didn’t reply by press time.

[ Images: Top, Rep B.J. Nikkel at the Ally Awards by Ernest Luning; bottom, anti-gay rights “truth truck” by John Tomasic ]

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