1858: Prospectors from Georgia crossed the Colorado Territory and literally struck gold at the base of the Rockies. In short order, the dusty trails of a barely-sought region became the feverishly traveled roads of a Gold Rush frenzy. Teepees and tents that were slapped together gave way to shoddy lean-tos which gave way to buildings that marked the makings of a small boomtown. General William H. Larimer staked flags along Cherry Creek’s eastern side and began his version of urban development. In an effort to curry political favor, he named the land Denver, after the governor of the neighboring Kansas Territory, James Denver.
Couple the Civil War and battles with Native Americans with rampant fires and flash floods that nearly obliterated the city, and you get an idea of the hardships Denver faced the next few decades. But like any grizzled company of Americans, the boots were dusted off, the horses were remounted, and it was onward prosperity into the future we see today.
But when did we — the LGBT community — start our movement? Who were our pioneers and what sorts of setbacks did we face? For the answers, Out Front combed the history books, but admittedly found very little about the LGBT community. In fact, there was almost nothing at the public library. Lucky for us — and the region as a whole — the enormous body of work that Out Front Magazine’s forebears archived for the community are kept safe for reverence and posterity.
But how, in such a short amount of space, could we possibly fit nearly 40 years’ worth of archived LGBT goodness without skipping over pivotal turning points in our history? Even if we chose one event from each year since Out Front began, we’d have a tough time paying true homage to each historical event. Our task was a daunting one, indeed. As such, we decided to chat with some locals who lived through the days when the word ‘gay’ was practically profanity and devise a timeline of events they felt most notable.
“The best way to visualize the progression of our history is to think of it in waves,” advises Phil Nash, longtime Denver resident and first director of the GLBT Center. As it turns out, it is easier to tell the story that way. So without further ado, we present: Out Front’s LGBT history of Denver and surrounding.
1860s: In spite of a population of 4800, Denver has no churches, schools, hospitals, libraries, or banks. What it does have? 35 saloons where “loose morals and same-sex bondings” are the norm. The town reportedly has a few “ladies of the night” in a red-light district of its own. My my, Denver. Weren’t you an oasis for the weary traveler?
Moses Home is a possibly gay bar in the settler days. A local newspaper reports that a man left the saloon to commit a “crime against nature” with another man he met there.
1889: The Denver Times tells the story of two women — postmistress Miss Clara Dietrich and Miss Ora Chatfield — whose passionate letters were discovered, only to have their families attempt to keep them apart. Undeterred, they eloped.
1899: Citizens of Denver read of denizen W.H. Billings, who left his wife to be with his lover, saloon entertainer Charles Edwards. The scandal!
1914: “Homosexuality in Men and Women” is published, regaling readers with a report from a gay Denver professor that the city’s underground gay network was alive and kicking — especially at the university. The prof curiously listed the occupations of some of his gay colleagues: “five musicians, three teachers, three art dealers, one minister, one judge, two actors, one florist, and one women’s tailor.” He goes on to describe parties thrown by a “young artist of exquisite taste and a noble turn of mind” that many gays in Denver attended — some in drag. In contrast, the professor also tells the story of an engineering student who, after being busted “carrying on with the boys in the YMCA building,” felt such shame at his arrest that he shot and killed himself.
1939: Denver’s first gay bar, The Pit, opens.
WWII: With the men off to war and the women left at home, same-sex bonding was a requirement. For gays and lesbians, the war made it easy to find and identify one another. It’s noted by a local historian that small groups of airmen from Lowry AFB transformed Mary’s Tavern on Broadway into a gay bar. At attention, indeed.
1959: Activist-led homophile organization The Mattachine Society settles a chapter in Denver years earlier, but holds its first convention out of New York and California in — you guessed it — Denver. This is where many believe Denver was put on the proverbial Big Gay Map. After the local media cover the convention, police crack down on openly gay members of the society by raiding their homes and imprisoning them. The Denver police arrest Carl Harding, one of local Mattachine’s founders, for the possession of obscene (nude, male) photography. The society’s mailing lists are also confiscated. Some of the outed members are fired from their places of business; others stop attending Mattachine meetings and events, effectively dismantling the group. Gay activism in Denver has a sustained period of lights out.
1970s: Fresh on the heels of the Stonewall Riots in NYC, Denver’s enthusiasm to fight the man rushes in anew. The community bands together in the form of activism and community, but pays gives particular attention to the creation of the gay and lesbian publication. As well, bookstores such as the Woman to Woman Feminist Center and the Woman’s Voice provides a safe haven for women in need of support groups, a place for artistic expression, and a lesbian-friendly library.
1972: Colorado becomes the third state in the nation to repeal sodomy laws. The Gay Coalition of Denver, the city’s first gay liberation group, is founded in an apartment by five members.
1973: Angered by the 214 “lewd offer” arrests of gay men, the Gay Coalition of Denver manages to pack city hall with protesters. 36 brave souls stood before the crowd and gave impassioned speeches concerning their rights to freedom and happiness as gay citizens of Colorado.
1974: The efforts put forth by the Gay Coalition of Denver leads to the successful repeals of four city ordinances: Lewd Act, Loitering for Sexual Deviant Purposes, Renting a Room for Sexual Deviant Purposes, and an Anti-Drag law. A lawsuit filed with the city results in a major win for Denver’s gays and lesbians. The final verdict declares acts that are legal between heterosexual couples just as legal for homosexual couples.
The First Metropolitan Community Church is established, providing a welcoming home of worship to the gays and lesbians of Denver. Gay Coalition of Denver works with Denver’s City Council to abolish anti-gay laws. Big Mama Rag, a feminist lesbian news journal, is created.
The Imperial Court of the Rocky Mountain Empire forms, giving gays and lesbians a fun way to raise money for charitable organizations.
Capitol Hill emerges as Denver’s premiere gay-borhood. Cheesman Park hunkers down as “the gay park,” and is the site of the first gay pride rally — or “gay-in” — as it was called back in good ol’ ’74.
1975: Clela Rorex issues first same-sex marriage licenses to a gay male couple, inciting hate-filled phone calls and death threats to her home.
1976: Out Front Magazine launches and remains, to this day, the third oldest LGBT publication in the United States. Thanks, Colorado!
1977: Former Miss Oklahoma and Florida Citrus Commission spokeswoman Anita Bryant becomes the face of “Save Our Children,” a conservative Christian organization with staunch beliefs regarding homosexuality’s inherent “sinfulness,” the perceived threat of pedophilia, and the “gay recruitment” of children. “Save Our Children,” based in Dade County, FL, manages to dismantle a new ordinance by the city that makes discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. The ordinance is repealed, much to Bryant’s satisfaction, and discrimination is back on the books. Gay bars across the country, however, boycott orange juice and make vodka and apple juice drinks called the Anita Bryant. Proceeds of the sales go to gay civil rights activists who are fighting Bryant’s initiatives, now on the move across the nation.
1978: David A. Noebel of the Summit Ministries of Colorado publishes “The Homosexual Revolution,” and dedicates it to Anita Bryant.
Early 1980s: During the Reagan era, America sees a more conservative shift in politics and to a time that more closely resembles the closeted ’50s culture that has no place for the gay and lesbian movement. At the same time, a relatively unknown disease winds its nasty, virulent links around the gay community prompting a quiet panic. A group of Denverites meet to discuss the growing concern. From the meetings, the Colorado AIDS Project is formed. With humble roots, the organization manages a food pantry, case management, and a buddy program to those with HIV/AIDS. Today, the Colorado AIDS Project is the largest AIDS service organization in the Rocky Mountain region.
1982: The Colorado Gay Rodeo Association is formed, and the very first rootin’-est, tootin’-est gay rodeo is hosted in Denver.
1983: The gay and lesbian community mobilizes to elect Federico Peña, Denver’s first Latino mayor and a fierce ally to the community. Peña takes strong stances on anti-discrimination issues for gays, including zoning laws that weren’t favorable toward unmarried occupants living under one roof. (Since gay marriage was — and still is — not an option, same-sex couples were in violation of some pretty gnarly Denver zoning laws that were enacted under the apparent guise of being “family-friendly.”)
1984: Ryan White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac, is diagnosed with AIDS, taking the issue out of the sole realm of the gay community to the realm of humanity at large. No longer able to ignore pleas for assistance, the government sets aside more funding for HIV/AIDS research and resources.
Late 1980s: The push for public policy changes regarding gay and lesbian issues — with a heavy emphasis on HIV/AIDS — emerges.
1990: Denver becomes one of the first municipalities in the nation to adopt an anti-discrimination policy including gay and lesbians.
1991: Denver voters supported the anti-discrimination policy despite opponents trying to overturn it at the ballot.
Beloved basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr. holds a press conference to announce that he is HIV-positive, raising the public discourse on the disease to
1992: Voters approve Amendment 2, preventing any city, town, or county in Colorado from taking any legislative, executive, or judicial action to recognize gay and lesbian individuals as a protected class. The legislation passes with 53 percent of Coloradans voting in favor.
1994: Denver businessman Tim Gill creates the Gill Foundation, an organization to advance LGBT rights through charity and education.
1996: The U.S. Supreme Court hears the case on Amendment 2. Dubbed Romer v. Evans, the amendment is ruled unconstitutional, sending shockwaves of relief and celebration throughout our community.
From the March edition of The Public Eye Magazine: An eerie unease hangs in the air in Colorado. For lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals, nagging questions pervade everyday life: did the kindly person who just gave me her parking place vote for Amendment 2? Did my landlord vote for the amendment, knowing that I am gay? Will gay rights be pushed back to the days before Stonewall? Who or what is behind this hate?
Late 1990s: The community becomes distinctly aware that it’s under direct and active attack from the religious right. The new trajectory for LGBT advocates becomes the prevention of discriminatory laws (think same-sex adoption and marriage, to start) and the overturning of extant anti-LGBT legislation. The Center’s account is nearly drained fighting a slew of political battles and, according to Phil Nash, the organization “nearly died.”
2001: The state passes a hate-crimes law, providing protection based on both sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
2006: Amendment 43 passes, adding a new section to the Colorado Constitution that defines marriage in the state as only a union between one man and one woman. It passes with 56% of the vote.
2007: Governor Bill Ritter signs a bill into law allowing unmarried couples to adopt each others’ children, thereby granting same-sex couples the ability to take on the legal rights of being a parent. Now, children of LGBT couples can have two legal parents. As well, he expands the Employment Nondiscrimination Act to add protections for sexual orientation, including transgender status.
2008: Governor Ritter signs the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, providing protections for LGBT people in the areas of housing and public accommodations.
2009: The Designated Beneficiaries law is enacted, allowing same-sex couples the benefit of insurance, inheritance, hospital visitations, funeral arrangements, death benefits, and other important legal matters.
Thought to be “the first [case] in which a hate-crimes law was applied in a murder trial where the victim was transgender,” a Greeley jury convicts a man of first-degree murder, finding it a hate-crime under state law.
Pat Steadman is appointed to the Colorado Senate, one of eight openly LGBT members of the Senate. A longtime advocate for gay rights, Senator Steadman is instrumental in the push for same-sex civil unions, introducing the bill two years after his official appointment.
2010: The GLBT Community Center of Colorado, which produces PrideFest — Denver’s version of the Gay Pride festivals seen in other cities around the word — adds a second day of festivities.
2012: Denver PrideFest ranks third largest in America!
2013: Colorado adopts the Colorado Civil Union Act establishing relationship recognition for same-sex couples. As well, Colorado welcomes Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, who is openly gay — a first for the state!
2014: The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rules same-sex marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma unconstitutional, prompting cheers from the gay and lesbian community in Colorado, which is also under the 10th Circuit’s jurisdiction. Boulder County Clerk and Recorder Hillary Hall issues more than 200 marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Colorado’s Supreme Court orders Hall to stop to the issuances immediately, citing that it will hear the cases at a later date.