Angela Garza and Lauren Sandifer were both cops working in the same police station. Angela calls it love at first sight. But for Lauren, the connection wasn’t so immediate. Then one day while on the job, Angela tackled a guy just as he was about to punch Lauren in the face.
That’s when she knew it was love. “She was quite my knight in shining armor,” Lauren says.
A year or so into the relationship, they began planning a wedding. The women wanted what any other couple hopes for on their big day: to bring friends and family together to celebrate their commitment. But for LGBT couples like Angela and Lauren, making that happen can be significantly more difficult than it is for their heterosexual counterparts.
“Lauren is more religious than I am,” says Angela, who now goes by Angela Garza Sandifer. “We didn’t just want a justice of the peace; we wanted a minister. So we started searching for someone who would marry us. It was really difficult, but we found three people who said they would marry same-sex couples. The first minister we met with told us she was ‘OK’ with doing it, but you could tell she was uncomfortable.”
That wasn’t OK for Angela and Lauren.
“It was very important during that process—and still to this day—that we support people who support us,” Angela says.
Then they met Reverend Kristen Hepp of Colorado Commitments. Her website stated that she did commitment ceremonies as well as straight weddings; at the time, civil unions were not recognized by the state of Colorado. The three met up, and what sticks out in Angela’s mind about that meeting was a piece of marketing collateral that Hepp had brought with her. “It had two women on the cover,” she says.
Hepp has performed commitment ceremonies, civil unions and weddings for both straight and LGBT couples for more than 15 years. During that time, she’s asked every same-sex couple she’s married what terms they want her to use during their ceremony.
“And every single person has said, ‘Yes, we consider this a marriage. We are husbands.’ Or ‘We are wives,’” she says. “Even though legally on paper they’re not really married in this state, everyone considers themselves married.”
Before one of Hepp’s first LGBT weddings—in Colorado Springs in 2000—a relative of the couple showed up drunk with a gun.
“He was stomping around saying, ‘This is an abomination, and we can’t do this,’ and so they had to call the cops and have that guy escorted out,” Hepp says. “So they rescheduled their wedding for the following day. It was really upsetting to everyone.”
Since then, the political and social climate has evolved: “I’m actually very happy about how the gay movement has gone in the last 15 years,” Hepp says. While Amendment 43, approved by voters in 2006, altered the state constitution to define marriage in Colorado as only between a man and a woman, on March 21, 2013 Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill to allow same-sex couples to join together in civil union.
But honestly, no policy in recent history has stopped Colorado’s LGBT couples from saying their vows, nor has it stopped Hepp from pronouncing them “married.”
“[Before the civil unions bill] people still wanted to have a marriage ceremony even though it wasn’t legal,” she says.
“They would do the same thing that you would imagine a straight couple would do. They had the reception halls and the white dresses and flowers and hired musicians and, you know, a big cake. Everything like that. They still did it even though it wasn’t legally recognized—they did it because it meant something to them, rather than something to the state.”
Hepp, who was raised Catholic, now affiliates with Episcopalian, but she officiates weddings catered to any or no religion. Even though religion fascinates her, Hepp hadn’t planned on being a minister. She was ordained in the mid-90s but never actually anticipated practicing in a church.
“I studied religion, and at the end of it I became ordained. That was just kind of part of graduation,” she says. “…My first wedding wasn’t done until years after I’d become ordained, and it was kind of as a favor to people who were friends of mine.”
After her first wedding, word of mouthtraveled fast.
“And it just kind of snowballed after that. It took a couple of years, but I finally got so many referrals by word of mouth that I decided to actually start paying taxes on the money and call it a business,” tells Hepp.
Hepp does about 50 to 55 weddings each year; a lot of which are “mixed religion” weddings, and many of her couples are Christian but are not regular church-goers. On average, 30 percent of her ceremonies are for LGBT couples. She had a spike in numbers when the civil unions law went into effect on May 1, 2013. Hepp arrived at the Boulder County Clerk and Recorder’s office just before midnight—greeting couples as they made their relationship official in the eyes of the state.
“A lot of the folks at midnight just went, and they signed the papers and bang: they were unioned or whatever you want to call it. There were quite a few people—I was not the only minister there—but [people knew that] we were going to be there in case people wanted some sort of officiant. And we did religious and non-religious weddings all night long,” Hepp remembers.
She also hosted a free event at Chautauqua Park the following Saturday. Couples said their vows surrounded by friends and family with the sun shining and the Flatirons beaming in the background.
“We wanted it low key. In our eyes, we were already married,” Angela says of her civil union ceremony to Lauren. Hepp had found the couple’s original vows, so they could renew them for the civil union. Their newborn daughter and mothers were there as well.
Hepp and others see the civil unions bill as a small victory. They hope that the state and its residents will continue to be progressive.
“It has been very hard for those who are GLBT in the last 20 years—specifically in Colorado—who’ve been vying for complete equality,” Hepp says. “I really do believe that people’s thoughts will change dramatically in the next 20 years. Hopefully in my lifetime we will see true equality. I really hope for that.”
When asked the difference between straight and LGBT weddings, Hepp gets right to the point: nothing. “I see no significant difference. Really, it’s about people celebrating love,” she says.
David MacNeal contributed to this story.
For more information on Reverend Kristen Hepp and Colorado Commitments, visit