Denver, CO

Colorado evolves from 'hate state' to LGBT trailblazer

David Heitz
Brielle French/Unsplash

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Fifty years ago, LGBT people in Denver held little political power. Police regularly harassed gay men and arrested them for lewd conduct, according to the Center on Colfax.

"Gerald Gerash, Lynn Tamlin, Terry Mangan, Jane Dundee and Mary Sassatelli set out to create a grassroots movement in Denver to expose the unjust treatment of gay men by police," the website said.

"At the time, gays were being singled out for arrest for simply dancing or kissing. The five colleagues formed the Gay Coalition of Denver."

Over time, conditions slowly improved for LGBT people.

But in 1992, voters passed Amendment 2, a ballot initiative that prevented cities and towns from enacting legislation to protect gay rights. Colorado became known as "the hate state" to the LGBT community.

On the golden anniversary of five people organizing a gay liberation movement in Denver, Colorado boasts the nation's first gay governor. Denver has two openly LGBT City Council members. And until recently, Aurora employed a lesbian police chief.

Out LGBT Denverites help create change

"PrideFest was not in its current form at that time—it was a significantly smaller event," Center on Colfax CEO Rex Fuller said in a statement. "It was only one day. But because of the hard work of Center leadership and volunteers, Denver Pride grew to a beacon for the entire community to demonstrate that LGBTQ people were here and visible. It sent a message to a community that was in the closet to encourage them to come out. And it sent a message to those outside the LGBT community that we are your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family."

It was a long, difficult fight to get where we are today and The Center, along with many other groups, played a significant role in turning Colorado around.

Polis 'delivering real results'
State of Colorado

In a statement, Gov. Jared Polis said he's committed to delivering results to help Coloradans, including:

· Saving families money with full-day kindergarten or universal preschool

· Increasing access to and affordability of healthcare coverage

· Taking a common-sense, data-driven approach to the COVID-19 pandemic

· Expanding affordable housing options

· Working to make Colorado one of the safest states in the nation.

Wishing Coloradans a happy Pride month, Polis said, "I ran to create a Colorado for All, where everyone in our state can thrive no matter who they are, where they live, where they come from, or who they love."

Kniech a working LGBT mom
City and County of Denver

Gay politicians like Polis and Denver City Councilmembers Robin Kniech and Candi CdeBaca represent voices once stifled. Kniech became Denver's first openly LGBT official in 2011.

"I was out and proud during all my campaigns, including pictures of my family," Kniech said in a statement.

"Voters seemed to embrace that and were overwhelmingly excited to support an out candidate, regardless of their own sexual orientation. I received only a few ignorant messages. I think community enthusiasm for diverse representation is part of what makes Denver such a great city."

Legal protections for LGBT people in Denver pre-date most state and federal laws, Kniech said. "As we know there are still significant gaps in federal law in terms of employment and transgender rights. But we know that a fully inclusive community is about more than just legal rights and protections. Transgender individuals still face barriers to employment and equal earnings (and) finding culturally competent health care providers can still be a challenge in Denver. So, it's important for our city to keep improving to deliver on the promise of equal opportunity."

Some people have speculated that Kniech may run for mayor in 2023. If she does, and if elected, Kniech would accomplish another first for LGBT people in Denver.

CdeBaca a voice for the marginalized
City and County of Denver

CdeBaca declined an interview, but a representative from her office referenced a 2019 campaign story on CdeBaca in Out Front LGBT magazine.

"There has never been an LGBTQ Latina on Denver City Council, so I would be the first," CdeBaca said.

"My entire career as a social worker and a community activist has been devoted to lifting up the voices of marginalized groups. From the Women's College at DU, to working for the federal government for people with disabilities, to working in our community with immigrant populations it's in my DNA to do that work. There is a lever for change that I'm trying to press to see how far we can go in advancing the rights of marginalized groups."

Aurora hires, fires first LGBT chief
City of Aurora

Vanessa Wilson became the Front Range's and perhaps Colorado's first LGBT police chief when Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly hired her in 2019.

At the time, Twombly called her a "dedicated and proven leader." He said she could bring healing to Aurora after Elijah McClain died after police put him in a chokehold.

"Let's be honest. I'm stepping in at a very turbulent time," Wilson said during the news conference announcing her appointment. "I acknowledge that the community is angry, that their trust has been shaken, and our relationship has been fractured.

"I promise you today that we will work tirelessly to regain that trust. Because I will state no one is above the law and you expect professionalism from this police department and that is what we are going to deliver."

Twombly fired Wilson last month after the police union repeatedly complained about a lack of leadership. At a community town hall last week, some residents defended Wilson and suggested she could sue the city for wrongful termination.

Wilson did not respond to a request several weeks ago for an interview.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career at local newspapers. Today, I report on Denver and Aurora city halls for NewsBreak. Prior to joining NewsBreak, I worked several years as a health reporter and branded content writer in the healthcare space. I also worked many years as a news editor and city editor. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver.

Denver, CO

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