More than 20 years ago, Rhoda Lynne Whitney and Priscilla Ann Ledbury married in the church in Denver where they were first introduced years before.
The ceremony was performed by their minister and a musician friend wrote a song to celebrate the occasion. Family and friends attended to recognize their union.
But at the time, the couple didn’t expect the state of Colorado to do the same.
“That was 22 years ago,” Whitney said. “(Marriage) just didn’t seem like it was ever going to be something that gay people did.”
But she and Ledbury didn’t give up. For the last two decades they’ve been active in the gay rights movement, pushing for marriage equality in the state they both love and refusing to codify their relationship anywhere else in the meantime.
“Rhoda is originally from Vermont, and I’m from Massachusetts and Connecticut,” Ledbury said. “All of those states have legal marriage, but we didn’t want to do it in those states. We wanted to wait until Colorado was legal. (We) feel that this is our home.”
In April, state lawmakers granted their wish. At the end of the last session, the Democratically controlled legislature approved Senate Bill 11 allowing same-sex couples to obtain legal civil unions and granting them many of the same rights as heterosexual spouses, as of May 1. A few weeks later, Whitney and Ledbury became the first couple in Summit County to enter into a civil union.
They marked the occasion with a small ceremony at their church in Denver, during which they renewed the vows they made to one another 22 years ago.
Life in union
The couple say the union won’t change their lives much logistically. Ledbury has been in the hospital more than once during their relationship, and Whitney has always been able to visit her. In 1983, they bought property together in Summit County without problems. Neither plans to change her name following their union.
Although the new law will solidify their inheritance rights, the real victory for the two is having their relationship acknowledged under the law.
“It’s absolutely wonderful to have it recognized in the state of Colorado,” Ledbury said.
She and Whitney met at First Universalist Church of Denver more than 35 years ago. At the time, Whitney was married and Ledbury was her son’s Sunday school teacher.
It was several years later, when Whitney had gotten divorced and both were participating in a church women’s group that they began dating.
Both avid skiers and hikers, they bought land and built a house in Summit County in the mid-1980s. At the time Whitney was a software developer and Ledbury was a medical researcher in Denver and the residence was a second home. In 1998 when they had both retired, the couple relocated to the mountains full time.
Colorado is now one of 18 states that recognize same-sex relationships, but Whitney and Ledbury are still not married in the eyes of state law. The Colorado Constitution defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Couples who have civil unions still cannot file joint income tax returns, sponsor a spouse for citizenship or receive social security benefits.
And for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (GLBT) community in Summit County, those differences are acutely felt.
“This is America and gay couples are entitled to the same rights and privileges as any taxpayer,” Dillon Mayor Ron Holland, who has been with his partner Marshall Helgeson for 18 years, told the Summit Daily after state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 11. “This is just a band aid. It’s not full equality.”
Ledbury said she is grateful for the opportunity to make her relationship legal, noting her appreciation for Summit County Rep. Millie Hamner’s (D — Dillon) support of the bill. But she and Whitney, long-time activists for gay rights, plan to keep fighting for marriage equality as well, both in Colorado and at the federal level.
“We know what has to happen now,” Ledbury said. “The entire state of Colorado has to vote in a referendum to change the Colorado Constitution. We’ll certainly be active in trying to encourage our friends and neighbors to support us and all other gay and lesbian people in being able to have gay marriage in the future.”