DENVER (KDVR) – PrideFest will take place this weekend and the City of Denver will be celebrating with its annual parade.
However, the celebration of LGBTQ culture was not so heavily attended in years long gone, nor was it fully supported by the local government throughout its history.
Here’s a look at the history of the LGBTQ community in the Centennial State.
Colorado’s early history with LGBTQ culture
According to History Of Colorado, the presence of homosexuality in Colorado can be traced back to a saloon called Moses’ Home in 1885. The saloon, located at the intersection of 15th and Larimer, was known to draw in gay patrons.
It wasn’t until 1939 that a gay bar would advertise itself as such when The Pit opened its doors along 17th Street.
Mary’s Tavern, then located at 1563 Broadway, opened after World War II and became a go-to joint for the Lowry Air Force base airmen stationed nearby. Shortly thereafter, according to records saved by History Colorado, the Amed Forces Disciplinary Control Board jumped to address this trend by prohibiting any servicemen from attending six of the eight known gay bars in town.
Leading up to 1973, the general tone and mindset around gay culture were not accepting. Denver police were reportedly attempting to draw in and trap gay men with buses nicknamed “The Johnny Cash Special.” According to History Colorado, the bus would patrol down by the Civic Center, which at the time was an area carrying a high concentration of gay prostitutes.
This practice of targeting gay people is arguably what instigated the forming of the coalition that would help protect gay rights in Colorado going forward.
The forming of Denver’s Gay Coalition
In 1972, as these targeted practices were going unaccosted, five activists came together and formed the Gay Coalition, which today is housed at The Center on Colfax in downtown Denver.
According to The Center, Gerald Gerash, Lynn Tamlin, Terry Mangan, Jane Dundee and Mary Sassatelli set in motion changes for the LGBTQ community across the state, when they filed a civil lawsuit that gave them access to Denver Police records.
After looking through Denver Police’s records, they discovered that 98% of people who were arrested on charges of offering lewd conduct were gay men. Once this was discovered, the Coalition took its objections to the Denver City Council, who in turn repealed four laws that were being used to target LGBTQ people in Denver.
The laws repealed included:
- Renting out rooms for “purposes of sexual deviant purpose.”
- Other policies enabled police entrapment through solicitation.
The first Pride event in Denver
According to History Colorado, the first pride event was held in June of 1974 and was focused on celebrating the then-recent progress made for the group as well as commemorating the Stonewall Inn riots that had occurred a few years earlier. Attendance was rather tepid at the Cheeseman Park-based event with an estimated 50 people showing up.
The mid-70s in Denver would bring with them the arrival of 14 gay bars, three gay churches, several bathhouses, a gay theater, a gay coffeehouse and gay news publications.
According to VisitDenver, the inaugural Pride parade was held in 1975.
Several years later, in 1978, the tone of the celebration had shifted from a celebratory one toward a more protest-driven one. This was in response to a growing outcry from opposition groups that wanted to repeal gay rights ordinances across the country.
Pride in the 1980s
As the 80s arrived, so did the AIDS crisis, which was spreading through the gay community at the time.
The organizer of 1984’s Pride Week, Pam Young, told a reporter from Out Front how she felt about the scenes at Civic Center Greek Amphitheater, where the largest Pride crowd to date of 2,000 attendees had gathered.
“In San Francisco, we have bigger parades, but here, everybody marches,” Young confessed.
A few years later, in 1985, Mayor Federico Pena officially declared June 27, as Gay Pride Day in Denver. He had carried a large amount of support from the gay and lesbian population, which helped make him the first Latino elected to the position.
The 90s, PrideFest is born
The official name of PrideFest was created for the celebration in the first year of the 90s. However, with this naming came the rise of some opposition based out of Colorado Springs.
According to History Colorado, the group Colorado for Family Values gathered thousands of signatures in favor of introducing a bill for Coloradans to vote on.
The group was in favor of battling any legislation that provided protections for the gay community, which was a sentiment repackaged into Amendment 2. In November of 1992, the amendment passed in Colorado with 54% in favor.
The following year during the 1993 PrideFest, previous attendance records were blown away as 40,000 people from 100 organizations raised their voices in opposition to the passing of Amendment 2. In 1995, the United States Supreme Court deemed Colorado’s Amendment 2 illegal and struck it down.
PrideFest into the 21st Century
According to organizers, PrideFest 2001 broke the 6-figure attendance mark with at least 100,000 people joining in the festivities. A few years later a family day was added for Saturday to continue making the events more welcoming for all.
In 2011, the theme of the celebration focused on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was a military policy that resulted in the firing of over 14,000 gay men and women servicemembers due to their sexual orientation. On Oct. 7, 2014, Colorado legalized same-sex marriage, which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of just one year later.
Just three years later, Jared Polis, the state’s first openly gay governor, was elected.