From making history with cannabis legalization to showing his support for minorities and marginalized folks across Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper is certainly someone who is going to make it into the local, and national, history books.
Hickenlooper is being honored with an Ally Award from One Colorado to celebrate his achievements so far for queer people. During his two terms in office, he has championed LGBTQ rights many times, most noteably signing the Colorado Civil Union Act in 2013, an act that made Colorado the 18th state to recognize same-gender unions. This historic signing, and his general attitude and statements towards the queer community after taking office, helped Colorado to shake the stigma of “hate state” that plagued it during the 90s and early 2000s.
Most recently, he also vowed to protect transgender rights, a topic many politicians, even those who claim to support the LGBTQ community, shy away from. During Transgender Awareness Week, he referenced the 2008 law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and reflected on how far the community has come. He also reaffirmed his promise to stand with the trans community, remember those who have lost their lives, and continue to fight for easier access to birth certificate changes within the state.
For Hickenlooper, these values didn’t come about after years of interacting with the community, or as a result of needing to save political face. From the time that he worked in the food service industry, he was shocked and surprised by the fact that LGBTQ employees were still treated differently than their straight counterparts. This dedication to standing up for the underdog spurred him on to get more involved in politics.
Hickenlooper’s term as governor is finally drawing to a close, and in yet another stand with Colorado’s queer community, he is recommending openly gay man Jared Polis as his successor. He realizes that no matter how strong of an ally he has been, nothing can compare to someone who has lived the everyday struggles that an LGBTQ person faces.
In honor of this historic award, and Hickenlooper’s final days in office, OUT FRONT sat down with the governor to talk about inclusion, being an ally, and what is still to come for Colorado.
What do you feel are some of your greatest achievements for the Colorado LGBTQ community?
It’s funny; I have such a long history with family and friends in the community, so I don’t really see a beginning or end from when I got into office. When I was in the restaurant business and my first restaurant manager left, we promoted a guy named Chris Horner to be our bar manager. He was openly gay, and this was in 1989. It was different back then, and that sticks with you.
Then, when I was mayor, we made sure that we covered every aspect of city rules and regulations and laws to make sure that everyone was treated equally. We dealt with some things that were really divisive, like back then, the community was really focused on prevention and response to the AIDS epidemic, so I focused on making sure that Colorado was a leader in that. Also when I was mayor, obviously same sex marriage was a huge issue, which we embraced. We called a special session, and even though we didn’t win, I think we elevated the issue and set the stage for success.
What challenges do you think the LGBTQ community is mostly faced with today, and what can state governments do to help out?
There are always going to be challenges.I met a woman on an airplane two weeks ago when I was flying back to Denver and I was on my way back to the restroom; she grabbed my arm, and almost no one ever grabs my arm, and she looked up into my eyes and started to cry, and then she just said, “thank you, thank you, thank you.” She said her daughter was transgender and bipolar and was really struggling, and the fact that I came out and spoke for trans individuals ment the life for her daughter.
That’s really the first time anyone in a public space became so emotional, and it showed me how deep the challenge really is. If my public support for trans individuals being able to have every right, every privilege, every access, if that provokes so much response, it’s a reflection of how vicious and accusatory the world is to people who are different.
What was it like to be an ally governor in this current political climate?
The political climate has certainly hardened and gotten more divisive and vicious and full of acrimony. You see these swastikas painted on buildings and the evidence of hate crimes, the cruel things people are doing, but in a funny way for many of us in public service, it hardens our reslove. It makes us want to work harder.
When I meet somebody that is just boldly attacking the gay culture or gay people, I’ve been trying harder and harder to ask some questions and really try and see where they are coming from and where those feelings are lodged. How deeply in the past did someone teach them that differences are something to be scorned? And it’s funny; I feel like we almost get more progress on the individual level, not on the mass level. On the mass level you need action, laws, protest, and social mobilization. On the individual level I think the opportunity to talk to people really is powerful, and too often we don’t utilize it.
How did it feel to win an Ally Award, and why was this a big deal for you?
It just means a tremendous amount. My dad got very sick and died when I was in third grade, and partly because of that, partly because I was a year younger, partly because I looked like a dork—I had these big, plastic glasses with really thick lenses—I was always interrupting people, always teasing them because I wanted to be liked.
I became that kid that was ostracized and marginalized and made fun of. I know I never lost that sense, and I think most people don’t, and to be recognized with an Ally Award makes me feel like I’m part of a much larger community, and appreciated as part of a larger community, which is always a good feeling.
What would you like to see your successor do to help further your legacy supporting LGBTQ rights in Colorado?
I hope that my successor is Jared Polis, and he will be the first openly gay governor in the history of the United States. I told him that we have a good track record here and he better pick it up, but I was just teasing him, because obviously he lived that life and I think he will have the insight and get the support.
I think it is critically important that the gay community comes out strongly behind Jared, because I think having him in office will be one of the greatest things—seeing how an openly gay man leads successfully. I’m not sure there is much else that can match it. It’s a unique and powerful opportunity, and I think I view it as part of my responsibility to make sure he wins and make sure he goes down as a great governor.
What are you going to do to continue advocating for LGBTQ rights after you step down?
Like I said, when I was in the restaurant business, I think we were one of the first mainstream restaurants in Denver to have our general manager be openly gay. In my life in the private sector, I will just as out front as I’ve always been and continue to be to work and make sure that everyone gets their fair share of the American Dream. I will continue to help people live and create and realize their dreams.