Posted May 31, 2022

How LGBTQ+ History and Culture Have Shaped Denver

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As one of the fastest growing big cities in the nation, and one that’s famously pioneered liberal laws like legalizing recreational marijuana, Denver has emerged as a beacon of progressive politics in the Rockies. This is certainly true of its diverse LGBTQ+ culture too, from gay-run art galleries like Tracy Weil’s and non-binary tattoo studios like Friendship Tattoo, to trans-friendly hair salon Bee Sweet, which charges by the hour instead of the gender. The Mile High City also boasts a perfect 100 score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipality Equality Index, and it’s home to one of the largest LGBTQ+ populations per capita in the country, with 8.2% of the 2.9 million population identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

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Denver isn’t just a pioneer with pot policies, either. After Colorado’s Jared Polis became the second openly gay U.S. governor elected in 2019, he swiftly banned the practice of conversion therapy, setting a precedent for other progressive cities and states across the nation. As a relatively young city, at least compared to the likes of New York and Philadelphia, or any European metropolis, Denver eschewed much of the the longstanding homophobia and police harassment entrenched in older cities. Instead, early action from organizations like the Gay Coalition of Denver saw success in the courts far earlier than other cities with its fight for equality, and its movement to repeal discriminatory laws. In 1973, shortly after the formation of the Gay Coalition of Denver was established to stand up to homophobic treatment from police (gay men were routinely being arrested for kissing or dancing, deemed “lewd conduct”), and bring their voices to the courts. With hundreds of vocal supporters in tow, the group took their testimony to Denver City Council, which was met with great success and social progress: the repeal of laws on cross-dressing and police entrapment, along with a ruling that forbade arrests or harassment for kissing, dancing, holding hands, or hugging.

Photo by Evan Semon

Police harassment aside, Denver’s LGBTQ+ community still had its share of growing pains. After the repeal of these laws in the early ‘70s, the city’s queer population still feared judgment from family, friends, and employers, resulting in an uptick of depression, drug use, and suicide. Thus, yet another pioneering organization was born: Unity was formed by Gerald Gerash, one of the founders of the Gay Coalition of Denver, in 1975. Its mission? To establish a first-of-its-kind community center, and they did so by aligning with various likeminded committees and groups throughout the city, culminating with the opening of the Gay Community Center of Colorado in 1977.

Around this same time, Denver’s Pride was starting to shine brighter. Denver’s first Pride event was a small — and quaint — picnic in Cheesman Park in 1974, followed the next year by its inaugural Pride Parade. Keeping the momentum going, Out Front Magazine became one of the longest running queer publications in 1976, the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association was formed in 1982, and the city’s first Hispanic mayor, Federico Peña, was a huge ally upon election in 1983. Not to be confined to one parade, the Mile High Freedom Band was the first LGBTQ+ band to march in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1985, showing that queer people deserve to celebrate year round, not just during Pride Month. And by 1990, Denver was one of the first cities in the nation to enact anti-discrimination policies for LGBTQ+ people, once again setting a precedent for other U.S. cities to follow.

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Thanks also to its unique geographic location, making it the largest urban hub within a 600-mile radius, it’s long been a magnet for travelers and transplants from all walk of life, instilling it with an inherent melting pot mentality — and a naturally laid-back, judgment-free vibe that’s come to be synonymous with Colorado at large. Nowadays, following in the footprints of earlier innovators like the Gay Coalition of Denver and the Gay Community Center of Colorado (later renamed the more inclusive Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado), the city has kept apace with its forward-thinking businesses and organizations. Denver PrideFest has ballooned to annual attendance of nearly 500,000 each June, while CinemaQ is an LGBTQ+ film festival held every fall. While certain neighborhoods, like RiNo and Capitol Hill, tend to be regarded as the gayborhoods, the entire city is welcoming and open-minded, with LGBTQ-owned and LGBTQ-friendly businesses, events, and nightlife to be found in every pocket. So whether you’re looking to dance under the disco ball at Tracks, peruse literature on sexual identity at Tattered Cover, take the stage for open mic night at lesbian-owned Blush & Blu, snack on peach bourbon hand pies from LGBTQ-owned Bubby Goober’s Baked Goods, or have your own gay rodeo at longstanding country western bar Charlie’s Denver, you needn’t look for to find acceptance and camaraderie in a city with a proven track record for progress.

Following the Gold Rush in the late 1800’s, shortly after Denver’s founding in 1858, it was only a matter of time before new residents flocked here for more than mining. Other riches, like social acceptance, quickly turned Denver into the western oasis it’s become today.

Kimpton Monaco Denver, Photo by @starkbellamy

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