By David Duffield
In the 1880s, Denver faced spectacular growth and chaos. Our population tripled and at one time may have had more bars per capita than any other city. There were 20 men for every woman, as historian Tom Noel notes in his book The City and the Saloon. As a highly transient city, and a breakwater for the region, thousands of people came and went weekly. This led to moralizing and politicizing forces that built their power upon a chaotic space, meaning bad times for gender, sexual, and racial minorities.
“It is a fairly uncommon thing for men to be caught in Denver masquerading in the clothes of a woman,” wrote one article in July 2nd, 1883 Rocky Mountain News. It referred to Ed Martino, who was arrested on 19th and Lawrence Streets, for “mashing” the hearts of young men. In Redressing America’s Frontier Past, historian Peter Boag of Washington State University gives us multiple accounts of crossdressing in 19th- century Western America. In Colorado, these cases are part of a long chain of events criminalizing sexual and gender deviance which led to the formation of the contemporary GLBT community in Denver.
In 1886 and 1891, two articles identify crossdressing men for burglary and robbery. Masculines in Petticoats appeared in the Rocky Mountain News on March 3rd, 1886, and detailed how one Mr. Copeland scared off two would-be crossdressing robbers. Another 1891 article noted the arrest of J.B. Winslow, a.k.a. “Blonde Wilson,” who was charged with robbery on Market Street. The arresting detective, Steve Ustick, noted he would like to run all such people out of town or force them into jail.
A Queer Case This, from the April 24th, 1895 edition of the Denver Evening Post, noted the arrest of Joe Gilligan and Elmer Brown, for alleged forgery and robbery. It compared the duo to Oscar Wilde in a contemporary scandal and described Gilligan, 23, as “very girlish” and “not manly.” The arresting officers happened upon Gilligan’s correspondence, some of which was alleged to be with local business leaders, in which he described his “tender love” toward other men. Gilligan was reported as an “ex-convict” from Cañon City, where he purportedly met many of the men in the letters. Gilligan said there were many “others like him” in Denver. Whether Gilligan meant criminals, homosexuals, crossdressers, or others is not certain. What is certain is that greater public scrutiny in these cases also meant greater police scrutiny.
Evidence of this is found in the very laws themselves. In 1886, for instance, Denver adopted a new class of obscenity, lewdness, and vagrancy laws which attempted to regulate public space. Any person who appeared in a “dress not belonging to their sex” would be fined or jailed. Other ordinances made it illegal to pass out contraception literature, curse, or “contribute to an opium den.” One “deformed persons” ordinance said that any “diseased, maimed, or unsightly or disgusting” person should be fined, detained, or referred to a county poor house. Yet these laws were municipal adaptations to anti-obscenity laws adopted by the Colorado Assembly in 1885, and read exactly like laws from Chicago to San Francisco.
Some of these men were arrested near Market and Lawrence from 14th to 19th streets. These areas were known for prostitution. This is why Market Street becomes Walnut above Park Avenue — it was a 19th- century attempt at dissociation by the new Curtis Park neighborhood north of Denver. In a 1979 unpublished manuscript entitled The Gay West, Terry Mangan argued that male prostitutes were in high demand by 1912. Crossdressing might also explain if Martino, Winslow, Gilligan, and presumably many others, were entertaining, tricking, or even robbing to get by. Boag notes that it was sometimes acceptable for women to dress as men for work, while Mangan quotes one sign in 1882 “no crossdressing women need apply.” Crossdressing discrimination was selective.
Professor Clare Sears from San Francisco State University argues in her book Arresting Dress, that outlawing crossdressing disciplined public awareness of gender deviance. Sears argues that denying crossdressers visibility in public spaces also denied them citizenship by participating in public discourse. She also notes that it trained the public by example of “what not to be,” reaffirming gender roles.
Be they sex worker, robber, entertainer, or even homosexual or transgender, laws of the 19th century put gay people outside their protections, and reinforced criminal, psychopath, and gender stereotypes. By 1954, the 1886 “dress-not” laws changed to make it illegal only for men to dress as women in Denver. Among other things, these laws led to police harassment in the 1950s and 1960s that spawned LGBT political activism in Colorado. Criminalizing crossdressing helped sow the seeds of rights we inherit today.
Prostitution, Police, Queens, and Money
Anthony “Irene” De Soto was killed on March 30th, 1977 at around 1am. She was chased down an alley by a young patrolman, Lawrence Subia. He was a month on the job and was attempting to arrest De Soto for prostitution. Though the circumstances around De Soto’s death are shrouded in uncertainty, the community outcry and response is not, and ignorance about both abounds.
In scattered accounts from the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post from March to April of 1978, we know De Soto was either 29 or 34, probably from San Francisco, and lived near 13th and Pearl. Her friend “Jody” described her as “a real beautiful person” and said she had been a prostitute for 15 years. Jody said she would pull as many as six tricks per night and, while the money could be good, when times were bad she would end up beaten up or in jail.
The last time Jody saw her friend, she reported De Soto to be in a happy mood. Her landlord noted that, on occasion, he saw several men come and go from her apartment. The police reported that after seeing a man leave De Soto’s apartment, Officer Subia solicited her for sex, then tried to arrest her. That’s when she ran. After a chase, police reported that De Soto pulled out scissors, and attempted to stab Subia, at which point he shot her through the heart.
A neighbor, George Hamburger, reported that Officer Subia pounded on his door saying the officer looked “real shook up,” and kicked the ground several times saying “Oh, God! Oh, God!” Hamburger reported that Subia was the “nicest officer” he’d ever met. The police reported after her death that Officer Subia had thought she was a “real woman” before killing her.
Ten months earlier, on July 14th, 1977, a 24-year- old “transient” and “black drag queen” named Eugene Levi was killed by Patrolman Daniel O’Hayre near 20th and Welton. Though there are fewer reports of Levi’s life, O’Hayre reportedly tried to arrest Levi for prostitution. O’Hayre “clubbed” Levi after he resisted arrest with his .38 caliber gun which then “went off,” killing Levi. O’Hayre was investigated by the DA and exonerated of any wrongdoing.
Levi’s death coincided with Anita Bryant’s campaign to remove the Dade County anti gay- discrimination ordinance. A group calling itself the “June Seventh Committee” formed in Denver to protest Bryant. The committee apparently lost members after Bryant’s win, but embarked upon a fight against police harassment. They called for the creation of a civilian-oversight board, an end to police entrapment, and a removal of anti- homosexuals from the police and judicial system.
“John Bjorkman, secretary of the all-male, 10-member committee, said that police harassment was one of the most important issues for gay communities across the country.”
They called the police investigation of Levi’s death “slipshod” and claimed it violated several police procedures. Bjorkman said the survival of the committee beyond its first initial campaign was “remarkable” noting social organizing was hard because of a lack of leadership and strife between gay men and women. Lesbians, the Straight Creek Journal noted, were far ahead of “antifeminist” gay men, and wondered if the committee would survive or be successful.
After De Soto’s death, her friend Monique De Marco, who met De Soto after moving from New York, helped form the “Transsexual, Lesbian, and Gay Defense Coalition. They presented Denver City Council with a petition requesting a citizen review board over police. Monique, and another person known as Mindy, also organized a protest against police harassment.
Pat Gourley, who attended the march, noted that the marchers included the Denver Socialists, many gays, lesbians, and straight allies. Gourley noted it was also brave for Mindy and Monique to go into public “in face” because they risked being arrested or harassed. Dozens of people marched and may have been watched by Denver Police. They walked around Capitol Hill, up Broadway, and around police headquarters near 12th and Bannock.
History is full of holes, yet action bears response while tragedy can bear hope. Today, Denver has a Citizen Oversight Board (COB) and the Commission’s Law Enforcement Committee which partners with the LGBT community. A new transgender policy lets inmates use their name and gender of choice, choose the gender of the person searching them, and incorporates them into work release and inmate classes. With more than a century of laws, death, violence, and ignorance, the tide turned when people stood up for themselves, and the LGBT community of Denver rallied.