Capitol Hill has long been considered one of Denver’s gayborhoods. It is where, for nearly 50 years, we’ve marched for equal rights. It’s where nearly 400,000 of us gather every June to celebrate our gains. It’s also where a young Corky Blankenship would hide more than 60 years ago, looking for friends while fearing arrest.
This year, the LGBTQ community is moving from the streets and into the governor’s seat. People from across the country came in to witness the historic swearing-in of the nation’s first openly gay, elected governor, Colorado’s Jared Polis.
“I am very conscious of the fact that there were many brave people over the years who made it possible for someone like me to be standing here giving a speech like this,” Polis said after being sworn in on a Siddur, a Jewish holy book.
Polis is also the first Jewish person to serve as governor of Colorado.
Early arrivals were greeted by members of the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus (DGMC), huddled together with heavy coats and scarves as they warmed up on the outside steps of the capitol.
Each song was individually selected by the Chorus’ director, James Knapp. The lyrics focused on hope and courage and standing alone. “They are all songs about overcoming adversity and being a beacon of light for the future to come while also remembering where we have been,” said T.J. Kizuka, DGMC vice president.
Corky Blankenship, a 74-year-old Colorado LGBTQ icon, was front and center. Not even slightly bothered by the cold, his gray hair covered by brown ear muffs, his signature jeans layered inside a blue down coat, he danced through the aisles while working as a volunteer to seat people in the VIP section. For Blankenship, this day was a long time coming.
“I never thought we would even remotely be here, just to have gays accepted in our society, let alone the average people voting for [Polis] and becoming our allies,” he said.
There were two audiences. A larger, standing-room only crowd gathered on the west side lawn of the capitol. A cordoned-off area on the capitol steps included friends, family, political colleagues, and volunteers who helped Polis get elected. The crowd was every bit as diverse as the speakers.
“It’s the first openly gay governor,” said Savannah Powell, a young, self-described radical activist who wore a Harvey Milk T-shirt. “This is the first time I’ve ever come to an inauguration. It’s a little bit of hope in these dark times.”
On the podium, poets mingled with priests. Religious leaders from the Baptist, Jewish, Native American, and Sikh faiths waited their turns to provide a prayer or a blessing. A head priest wearing a Sikh Dastaar could be seen next to a Ute Tribe spiritual leader in a full-feather Native American headdress.
Standing under a clear, blue sky and over a rainbow banner on the platform below, Polis was sworn in at noon with his long-time partner Marlon Reis and their two children by his side.
The DGMC brought down the house with a Garth Brooks song that crystalizes a new Colorado: the cowboy spirit of independence with a yearning for social justice and equal rights.
When we’re free to love anyone we choose
When this world’s big enough for all different views
When we all can worship from our own kind of pew
Then we shall be free
Too Gay? Or Not Gay Enough?
Make no mistake. Governor Polis wants to be known as Colorado’s governor, not only as Colorado’s gay governor. His sexual orientation drew a lot of national attention, but locally, the focus was more on his politics than his personal life.
It’s a tightrope to balance, meeting the needs of your larger constituency while still being a vocal advocate and role model for your LGBTQ base.
“We don’t only live gay lives,” said 24-year-old Keiko Bullock. “I’m not just a trans person. I’m a trans person who also is a student. I’m a trans person who also rides the light rail. We care about a lot of things, and when we have a political opinion, it’s not all about our identity; it’s about the fact that we love our communities; we want to see them improve; we want to see them work better; we want everyone to be happy.”
At the swearing-in ceremony, there was a gay chorus, a rainbow flag banner, and dozens of LGBTQ activists in attendance.
At the same time, Polis mentioned his partner only briefly by simply thanking him and his children (unlike other speakers, like outgoing Governor John Hickenlooper, who profusely praised and thanked his wife for her support).
At a news conference immediately following the swearing-in, one reporter did mention him shying away from LGBTQ issues during his campaign, but made note that his swearing-in ceremony was very diverse. She asked if this was a signal he would be more open in his discussion of LGBTQ issues.
Polis answered by discussing the need for diversity, but never once used the phrase LGBTQ or any variation thereof. He also used his answer about diversity to discuss the record number of women elected to state offices in Colorado.
“When you don’t talk about [your orientation] people say, ‘Why aren’t you talking about it?’ And then when you do talk about it, people say, ‘Why are you talking about your sexual orientation?’” Polis said a day later at the Purple Ball held by One Colorado, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group. “So, it’s an interesting cultural moment where you’re caught between not talking about it or talking about it. The bad news is, you’re going to be criticized no matter what you do.”
Bud Coleman agrees. Coleman is a professor of LGBTQ studies and co-director of the LGBTQ Studies Certificate Program at University of Colorado at Boulder
“Our new governor is ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ when it comes to being the first openly gay, and Jewish, governor in Colorado,” Coleman said. “The critics rarely hold the same standard to heterosexual folks in marriages with children. They are not criticized for talking [or] not talking about their sexual orientation and family status. Why can’t we let the new governor talk about his vision for Colorado?”
The Top Priorities
Here is what we do know—this governor is prioritizing issues that impact all communities, including the LGBTQ one. In his State of the State address, Polis outlined some big-ticket items. They included education, health care, the environment, transportation, and the economy.
He did not address any of the top priorities targeted by LGBTQ activists, but with a record number of LGBTQ state lawmakers, those issues are expected to be passed and signed into law by Polis.
“The rising cost of living has made it impossible for some folks to pay for quality healthcare, provide their kids with a good education, find a home in the communities they love, or save for retirement,” he said.
With education, his first priority is introducing free, full-day kindergarten and expanding free preschool. He also wants to attract more teachers to rural communities by offering student loan relief for teachers who work in high-need areas, decrease Colorado dropout rates, and bring more transparency and regulations to college loans.
The former, five-time congressman and democrat also said he plans to create a first-ever Office of Saving People Money on Health Care (SOUND). This office would work on lowering health costs while increasing quality. Plans include creating better healthcare cost transparency, more equitable insurance rates for rural communities, and finding ways to lower the cost of prescription drugs. Ultimately, the governor said he would like universal healthcare for every Coloradan.
The governor’s new budget also includes a request for paid parental leave for all state employees.
Last election, voters rejected tax hikes to improve roads. Polis said he wants to come up with funding ideas voters will accept, while maintaining there are still hundreds of millions of dollars set aside for traffic improvements over the next few years.
Economically, the governor discussed creating a more fair tax code that would reduce rates for families and small businesses. He said the current tax code gives too much power to special interests.
Moving forward, it is now up to him and state lawmakers to bring about these changes. Both Polis and legislators said it’s “the Colorado way” to sit down and work together. The new governor said he hopes to work with liberals and conservatives alike.
“There will always, always be seats at the table for those with constructive input. Though our perspectives may differ, we will create solutions together,” he said.
Photos by Brian Degenfelder & Veronica L. Holyfield