Gay marriage is still forbidden by the Colorado state constitution, but the new law gives same-sex couples in Colorado most of the state-level protections of marriage.
Brennan Linsley / AP
Civil unions for gay couples got the governor's signature in Colorado on Thursday, punctuating a dramatic turnaround in a state where voters banned same-sex marriage in 2006 and restricted protections for gays two decades ago.
Cheers erupted as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill during a ceremony at the History Colorado Center near the state Capitol. Hundreds looked on, with many chanting "Equal! Equal!"
Some wiped away tears and others hugged during the signing ceremony.
"There is no excuse that people shouldn't have all the same rights," Hickenlooper told the crowd, which included dozens of gay couples and others watching from floors above.
The law takes effect May 1.
"It means I can change my name finally," said 21-year-old Amber Fuentes of Lakewood, who plans to have a civil union with Yolanda Martinez, 34.
"It's not marriage, but it still gives us a lot of the rights," Martinez said.
Colorado will join eight states that have civil unions or similar laws. Nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage.
The signing in Colorado comes less than a year after the proposal was blocked in the House by Republicans.
"It's really meaningful. To have the recognition of your love and relationship just like any other relationship by the state is an important both legal and symbolic thing," said Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, a sponsor of the bill and the first gay lawmaker to hold the title of speaker in Colorado.
Supporters of civil unions say the passage in Colorado also is telling because in 1992, voters approved a ban on municipal antidiscrimination laws to protect gays. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court said the law, known as Amendment 2, was unconstitutional — but not before some branded Colorado a "hate state."
Ferrandino said the shift "shows how much through hard work and through a very thoughtful approach you can change public opinion."