DENVER (AP) — The support for civil unions became clear when dozens of audience members stood up in largest hearing room of the Colorado state Capitol, many wearing red shirts that read, "One Love."
Later Thursday night, the civil unions bill to provide legal protections to gay couples similar to marriage passed in the Republican-led committee that rejected the same legislation last year. A Republican who previously voted against the bill said she switched her vote.
The measure faces two more committee votes, but sponsors are optimistic they have enough support to get the legislation within a week to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is firmly behind the plan. The measure has already passed the Senate.
The newfound support means Colorado could become the latest of more than a dozen states to provide such protection.
Gay couples and their straight allies who waited into the night for the vote were initially hushed after the 6-5 vote. But moments later burst into tears and hugged one another, milling around the committee room long after the vote was taken.
"My hope just shot through the roof. I feel like I'm sitting in the middle of an amazing place in history," said Cristina Aguilar, a gay-rights activist from Denver.
Rep. Mark Ferrandino, the Democrats' leader in the House and a gay lawmaker who sponsored the bill, said before the vote that he and other people just want equal rights. He noted the law books behind the Republican chairman overseeing the House Judiciary Committee's hearing.
"All we're asking is for equal access to those books that are behind you, Mr. Chairman," Ferrandino said.
Rep. Bob Gardner, the House Judiciary chairman, asked supporters at one point to stand up because the first phase of testimony was ending and they wouldn't be able to speak. Their numbers of audience members who stood were far larger than the opponents.
Rep. B.J. Nikkel, a Larimer County Republican who isn't running for re-election, was the deciding vote. She voted no on the bill last year, but said after her vote Thursday that she was swayed by the crowd of gay couples who wore red and spent hours sharing painful personal stories of the pains of lacking legal protections.
"I was looking over the crowd and thinking, 'These are all folks that deserve to be treated equally,'" Nikkel said.
Opponents argued that civil unions undermine traditional marriage and that voters expressed their position on the issue when they banned same-sex marriage in 2006.
Byron Babione, with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative group that stands for religious freedom, echoed the concerns of some of the opponents when he said civil unions are "marriage without the name."
However, supporters say the bill still does not allow marriage between gay couples.
Opponents also said gay couples already have some of the legal protections they're seeking under a state-designated beneficiary law.
But supporters said there are still important rights same-sex couples lack. The civil unions legislation gives gay couples more authority in medical and end-of-life decisions and enhances parental rights, among other things.
"I ask you to vote tonight in favor of all of your constituents," said Jason Cobb, a Denver attorney who is raising a son with another man. "We're more than a political issue. We're your family, we're your neighbors, your sons, your daughters, your grandchildren. I ask you to vote for family tonight."