Trial nears for women who stood up by sitting-in

Tears fill Sheila Schroeder’s eyes as she recalls being arrested last September.

On that day in 2007, she and Kate Burns, her same-sex partner of six years, applied for a marriage license from the city of Denver, but they were refused because Colorado does not allow same-sex marriages. The couple responded by refusing to leave the Clerk and Recorder office when it closed at 5 p.m.

Denver police arrested the two women on charges of trespassing; their trial in county court is set for May 6.

Seven months after the arrest, Schroeder sits in a computer lab, describing the experience. As they waited, she recalls, a man in the crowd watching their sit-in spoke out. “[I see] no reason why you guys shouldn’t have the same rights as my wife and I have,” the man said.

Schroeder weeps silently as she speaks of how much the man’s words meant to her and the support she’s received since then.

“That was just beautiful,” the DU assistant professor of mass communication and journalism says. “You realize how good people are.”

The support of strangers was a wonderful surprise, the women agree, but their arrest was no shock. They knew they’d be denied a marriage license and had alerted the police of their intent to conduct the sit-in. Their non-violent action was to protest what they believed to be an unconstitutional law.

The demonstration was in conjunction with Soulforce, a group that works to advance lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues through nonviolent means. The target was Amendment 43, a proposal declaring marriage as a union between a man and a woman, which Colorado voted into the state Constitution in 2006.

“Our argument is we broke a lesser law (trespassing) to shine light on a greater law (Amendment 43),” Schroeder says.

Judge James Breese ruled recently that he would not allow the two women to defend themselves on trespassing charges because they wished to protest Amendment 43, Schroeder says. Nevertheless, he ruled they can testify as to why they decided to do the sit-in.

Currently, Massachusetts is the only state that permits same-sex marriages.

“I was raised with the belief that to be a good citizen you need to first acknowledge what’s good about your community,” says Burns, a Digital Media Studies office assistant. “But if you see something that’s wrong, you need to stand up and say something.”

Schroeder says the couple had two goals during their sit-in — to “draw attention to the fact that we have written inequality into our Constitution” and to “activate” people to change that inequality.

“I think the global message is that we have a history in this country of denying people rights and taking a long time to see those denials,” Schroeder says. “We rely on certain traditions to guide us, [but those are] built on false logic and misunderstandings.”

The fight is as much about race, gender and religious freedom as it is about gay rights, Schroeder says. She says their effort is symbolic of a larger fight for equal rights for all people.

“We try to connect the dots for people. When you talk about gay marriage, you have to talk about race and gender,” she says.

Schroeder and Burns remain optimistic about the future. Both predict that same-sex marriage will be allowed in Colorado within their lifetime. They are less optimistic about similar change on a national level.

“The more we as a gay community are out … the better off as a world we’re going to be. It’s way harder to shut the door when you know your sister or your aunt or your cousin or your mentor is one of those people,” Schroeder says.

Burns agrees. “[It is] inevitable that we as citizens who believe in democracy and freedom will eventually recognize that barring people … is wrong,” she says.

“We won’t stop fighting.”

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