Long before Jared Polis ran to become the nation’s first elected gay governor, One Colorado and other organizations were paving the way.
With Colorado earning the nickname the “Hate State” after passing an anti-LGBTQ rights Amendment, civil rights organizations jumped into action, targeting Colorado for change.
Change that culminated this past election, with Colorado voters not only electing Polis, but a record number of LGBTQ state lawmakers as well. And so it was fitting that the state’s largest LGBTQ rights organization titled their Governor’s Ball “From the Hate State to the Great State.”
Also called The Purple Ball, more than 1,000 people paid between $50 and $500 to attend at Exdo Events Center the night after Polis took office. And while the official inaugural ball held the night before was magical, the Purple Ball was, well, fabulous!
Drag queens mingled with Washington dignitaries. The Denver Gay Men’s Chorus shared a stage with Melissa Etheridge. Those in attendance ranged from young to old, straight to queer, and represented all shades of the rainbow.
“There’s been so much we as a community have experienced, so much rejection, that we love like no other community out there. And that’s something really unique and something we should share,” said Daniel Ramos, executive director of One Colorado.
While this night, with its lighted rainbow arches and modern, white leather couches set against stark, black warehouse walls, was a night for celebration, Ramos reminds us there is much yet to be done.
Ramos said One Colorado was organized in 2010 to act as an arm to already established political groups. Its mission? To provide a voice for the LGBTQ community. To operate as a place where people can tell their stories and bridge the gaps of understanding.
“We have to come out. We have to tell our stories. We have to share our experiences, because we are their friends, their teachers, their doctors, and for us to share those experiences was really important,” he said.
Ramos said they were established with three founding principles: relationship recognition, LGBTQ health, and a safe schools program. Moving into advocacy, they also work closely building coalitions between leaders in business, faith, politics, law enforcement, and family and child advocacy.
One Colorado’s new Deputy Director Sheena Kadi said she’s not just impressed by the record number of state lawmakers elected this season; she’s impressed with the diversity. Kadi has worked on a number of national and local political issues, as well as three presidential campaigns, a number of Senate congressional races, and most recently, she managed Faith Winter’s successful run for state Senate.
Colorado elected its first transgender representative, as well as an African American lesbian and two queer Hispanic folks. They range in age from 28 to 61.
“How do people of color that also share identity show up in this space? How do millennials that identify show up in this space? How does that differ from someone that may be considered an older LGBTQ? We’re really starting to see it’s not just how [that] single [person] identifies,” she said. “As long as we continue to have those conversations and show up in those spaces, we start to see more and more representation.”
It’s an historic moment and a long time coming. Singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge said the so-called hate amendment (which was later found unconstitutional) spurred her to become politically active. She came out just two months after it was passed.
“The best thing to do is to come out, because it shows that we are everyone, everywhere,” she said. She claimed that for 30 years, she’s watched Colorado grow and lead the way in forward thinking.
“You all, you did it; you started working, and oh my God, before I knew it, you legalized cannabis; you are raising consciousness, and showing the world how to love when you elected the best person for the job, a truly beautiful man, Jared Polis.”
Polis came out to thank everyone, but this evening his partner of 16 years took center stage in his speech.
“He’s shy by nature, but he’s a wonderful writer, poet, inspirational force for me,” he said. He also gave Colorado’s first first gentleman credit for being a supportive father for their two children.
Tall and lanky, Marlon Reis is soft-spoken. At the same time, he has a commanding presence. Speaking to the crowd, he reminisced about their life in Washington where Polis served as a congressman for five terms.
With pride, Reis said Polis “pushed the door open just a little bit further. And in 2018 [Colorado] elected eight openly LGBT lawmakers.”
Reis also has a good sense of humor. He joked about them not always living up to gay stereotypes. Known for his signature blue sneakers, Reis reminded the crowd GQ magazine once named Polis the worst-styled congressman in U.S. history. Polis later lost the spot when the magazine reported an upgrade in his clothing.
Reis ended by saying he and Polis are excited about the future in Colorado and working on issues that impact the state.
One Colorado lists a ban on conversion therapy for teens and an easier, more streamlined system for non-binary and/or transgender people to update their birth certificates as their top legislative priorities for the future.
LGBTQ lawmakers at the ball agreed.
“Now we have one of the largest LGBTQ caucuses in the country with eight legislators. I think it will only go up from here. Conservatives in Colorado have learned that standing against equality is a losing issue for them,” said State Senator Dominick Moreno, who is openly gay.
State Representative Daneya Esgar, a lesbian from Pueblo, just won her second term in the state house. She said these issues are nothing new.
“We’ve been talking about trying to ban conversion therapy for years, and we’ve met roadblock after roadblock, and I think we’re gonna finally move forward this year,” she said.
Nationally, far-right groups continue their religious freedom battle cry. By cloaking discrimination in religious beliefs, they’ve been going state-to-state pushing for laws to make it illegal for LGBTQ people to adopt or foster children and allow businesses to refuse service.
“Colorado is the epicenter around the fight against religious exemption,” said Ramos, who pointed to the local bakery that won the right at the U.S. Supreme Court to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay Denver couple.
The Masterpiece Cakeshop is back in court after Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission threatened new charges for refusing to make a cake that would have celebrated a transgender woman’s transition, as well as her birthday.
“We have to remember if we let our foot off the gas, we may see some rollbacks, so we need to continue to push; we need to continue to tell our stories, and I think we need to continue to really build alliances,” Ramos said.
But this night was about celebrating accomplishments. Josh Miller works as a government affairs consultant by day, then at night slips into a sequined ball gown and heels to perform as Laura Menorah at places like Drag Nation and Hamburger Mary’s.
Dressed to the nines for the Purple Ball, her sky-high red curls are matched only by her piercing blue eyes and eyelashes so long they brush your cheek if you move in for an air kiss. On this night, the fifth-generation Coloradan summed up how a lot of people felt.
“Never in my life have I had this kind of representation, and the fact that Colorado went from ‘Hate State’ to electing a gay Jew as our governor gives me a lot of pride to live here.”
Photos by Brian Degenfelder