From civil disobedience to civil unions: 40 years of Colorado out activism
April 2, 2013 | 1:00 pm
(Updated: April 2, 2013 | 6:06 pm)
On June 28, 1969, patrons of the Stonewall Inn – a New York City gay bar – resisted a police raid in what came to be seen as the birth of the modern gay rights movement.
At the time, simply being openly gay could be considered an act of civil disobedience: lesbians and gays were often arrested for being out in public, and gay bars’ liquor licenses were revoked, making the establishments illegal. When police raided Stonewall, its working-class gay and transgender patrons – many of whom were teenagers and some homeless – began a two-day riot, gaining the upper hand against police. News of the event sparked the Gay Liberation Movement.
1969: Immediately after the Stonewall Riots, the Gay Liberation Front is founded.
June 28, 1970: The Christopher Street Liberation Day March in New York City marks the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
March 26, 1975: Boulder City Clerk Clela Rorex issues the first-ever same-sex marriage license in the United States, citing an absence of laws prohibiting same-sex unions in Colorado. The license was later declared invalid.
1976: The GLBT Community Center of Colorado is founded.
April 1976: Phil Price, a 23-year-old gay student in Boulder, launches Out Front.
June 27, 1976: First Pride March in Denver.
October 14, 1977: Famous anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant takes a pie in the face from gay activist Thom Higgins on national television during a press conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Bryant, singer and former Miss Oklahoma beauty pageant winner, founded “Save Our Children,” a political organization that launched a successful campaign to overturn an anti-discrimination law in Dade County, Florida, and made similar efforts to repeal gay-friendly laws in jurisdictions across the country.
January 8, 1978: Harvey Milk, an unapologetic grassroots gay activist, is sworn in as a San Francisco City Supervisor, becoming the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to political office in the United States.
November 27, 1978: Milk, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, are assassinated by former city supervisor Dan White.
May 21, 1979: The “White Night Riots” break out in San Francisco after Milk’s assassin Dan White, whose criminal defense had been supported by the city police, receives a lenient 5-year sentence for the murders of Milk and Moscone.
In the midst of a 5,000-person march, police cars are burned, trolley cables are dismantled, storefronts are smashed and more than a hundred protesters are injured. Police retaliate by raiding and vandalizing a gay bar. The next day, San Francisco gay community leaders refuse to apologize for the riots.
March 1987: ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) forms out of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City. AIDS is now known to be caused by HIV, and activists demand the release of potential treatment drugs as the United States death toll from AIDS approaches 20,000 a year. On March 24, more than a dozen ACT UP protestors were arrested in a protest on Wall Street.
1987: the ‘NAMES Project’ AIDS Memorial Quilt is founded.
December 21, 1993: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell begins, which allows lesbians and gays to serve in the military but forbids them to come out under penalty of discharge from service.
1994: Colorado philanthropist Tim Gill founds the Gill Foundation, an organization to fund LGBT nonprofits around the country and boost the image of lesbians and gays as engaged in community charities and volunteer work.
September 17, 1998: Texas gay men John Lawrence and Tyron Garner are arrested in Lawrence’s Houston apartment for having sex and charged under Texas sodomy laws, launching an appeals process by Lawrence and LGBT activists against laws criminalizing gay sex.
May 2003: Gay activist and sex columnist Dan Savage pens a column seeking to come up with a new definition for “Santorum,” for outspokenly anti-gay GOP Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum who compared homosexuality to “man on child, man on dog” sex in an interview about the Supreme Court case on sodomy laws. The winning entry defined Santorum as “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex,” which dogs Santorum as the top Google search result for his name even well into his candidacy for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
June 26, 2003: The U.S. Supreme Court abolishes laws criminalizing gay sex.
May 17, 2004: Same-sex marriage begins in Massachusetts, the first place in the U.S. to extend full marriage equality to lesbian and gay couples.
Nov. 7, 2006: Referendum I is defeated by Colorado voters at the same time that voters pass Amendment 43 prohibiting same-sex marriages through the state constitution. A rally follows at the state Capitol.
November 2008: California voters approve Prop. 8 banning same-sex marriage in California’s state constitution during the Nov. 4 election, sparking immediate protests around the state, especially around Mormon temples because of the church’s heavy financial support to the Prop. 8 campaign. Another round of protests occurs nationwide on Nov. 15.
March 2009: Lieutenant Daniel Choi, an Army Arabic translator, Iraq veteran and West Point graduate who had been transferred to the New York National Guard, publicly violates the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy by coming out as gay, including a high-profile televised statement that he is gay on The Rachel Maddow Show.
June 20, 2009: A panel of National Guard officers orders Daniel Choi’s discharge for saying he is gay in violation of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
March 18, 2010: Choi and a group of protesters in military uniforms are arrested for chaining themselves to the White House fence protesting Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
September 21, 2010: After a series of publicized gay teen suicides related to bullying, Dan Savage posts a video online of himself and husband Terry Miller telling young LGBT people that “It Gets Better.” The campaign spreads rapidly and numerous celebrities, politicians and public officials, including President Barack Obama, post their own videos with words of encouragement for bullied youth.
December 22, 2010: President Obama signs a repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
2011-2012: Leading up to the 2012 presidential election, several GOP presidential candidates advocating anti-gay policies are “glitter-bombed” by various LGBT activists. Candidates Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann are famously targeted, but eventually so is gay commentator Dan Savage for statements seen as offensive to transgender individuals, conservative activist Randal Terry, and political operative Karl Rove.
September 20, 2011: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell officially ends, allowing lesbians and gays serving in the military to come out.
May 9, 2012: President Obama publicly endorses same-sex marriage, the first sitting president to do so.
Colorado’s LGBT movement since 1973
By Holly Hatch and Matthew Pizzuti
This publication – founded in 1976 and 37 years old this month – was just a twinkle in founder Phil Price’s eye when the birth pangs of our Colorado community sounded out 40 years ago, in October 1973.
Gay attorney Jerry Gerash, a name that should ring familiar to those who know Colorado’s LGBT history, had been part of a small group of activists who founded the Gay Coalition of Denver in 1972 in his Denver apartment. But most people in the city’s lesbian and gay scene were still not out at that time.
Even socializing discreetly then in Denver’s low-profile gay bars and meeting places was a risk; undercover police officers frequented the spots where they’d proposition gay men, arresting them under the city’s vice ordinances if they accepted. Continuous arrests of gay men and lesbians on obscure or trumped-up charges, with the shame and embarrassment associated with being outed that way, led to 1973’s dramatic breaking point.
“The Denver gay community was extremely closeted,” Gerash said in a description of his documentary , detailing the uprising when the community had finally had enough. “300 came out of their closets and overflowed the Denver City Council Chambers on Oct. 23, 1973 for a public hearing to review the city’s criminal laws.”
The city council meeting dragged on for hours as 36 outspoken lesbian and gay activists stood to express their frustrations, and their humanity. Some of the city council members were sympathetic, others were not, but at the end of the meeting they voted to repeal four anti-gay laws, Gerash said.
The time was ripe for it: The social change of the 1960s, culminating in the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, sparked a new sense of power among LGBT people and what was then called “the Gay Liberation Movement.” Though Colorado activists started organizing here right away, one could call the 1973 uprising Denver’s own Stonewall – the community’s breakout moment.
Donaciano Martinez, who had lived in Colorado Springs through his formative years, spoke about energy that drove the era.
“Living two decades in a very racist environment in Colorado Springs politicized me,” he said.
Martinez said he discovered other gay men in the late 1950s, though the life they lived was “underground” and not very political. The event that pushed Martinez into open activism wasn’t LGBT rights.
“It had to do with Vietnam,” he said. President Johnson promised during his 1964 campaign for a full term that he would avoid the war, a message that resonated with Martinez, so he volunteered for the campaign. After Johnson won, though, the Vietnam War escalated.
“He betrayed us,” Martinez said, “and then we were in the streets.”
Martinez’ story reflects a generation galvanized by Vietnam to become active on a broad range of issues well beyond the war, including LGBT rights. In 1969, Martinez helped found the Gay Liberation Front branch in Colorado Springs, which he called “a very militant organization – we were very much in your face.”
He used the word “radical,” but said that doesn’t mean extremist. “It’s about addressing social problems at the roots,” Martinez said. “We had a profound distrust in the political system back then, and had not even the slightest interest in becoming part of it. We weren’t lobbying or writing to our legislators like you see today.”
Gay activism in Colorado between 1969 and 1973 often meant making your statement anonymously – to reveal your name, especially in print, carried risk. The word “out” at the time referred more to being out in the gay scene than out to family or coworkers. But 1973 was a turning point, Martinez said. It brought the movement into the open, and at the same time instilled a sense of responsibility in the activists.
Around then, Martinez said, “we decided to pull up the reins and become more moderate.” Martinez relocated from Colorado Springs to Denver in 1975. “I was involved in the Unity group charged with founding the Gay Community Center,” which is now the GLBT Community Center of Colorado. “Jerry Gerash was the driving force,” he said. “By the late 1970s it was a lot of buckling down, getting the Center going.”
The emerging lesbian and gay community had growing pains to go through, too, addressing the complex cultural, ethnic and gender diversity in a cause based on identity rather than background. The movement known as “gay liberation” would shift to “gay and lesbian rights” with women increasingly recognized for a distinct though central role. Meanwhile activists began to heed how gay and lesbian life intersected with race.
“There were three gay bars that actively discriminated against African-American gay men,” Martinez said. He and other activists launched civil rights complaints and picketed the Denver establishments. “We were out there every night – it was cold as hell,” he said. “It was the first time you started seeing gay Chicanos and African-Americans become active in the movement, to see a need and a space for their own groups.”
“The bars were the biggest advertisers in Out Front,” Martinez added, and that put Phil Price, who still owned this publication, in a corner. “He was a very nice guy,” Martinez said of Price, “but was reluctant to cover the protests because they were the source of his revenue. We understood he was in an awkward position.” Martinez said a Colorado lesbian newspaper, called , devoted a lot of attention to the protests. None of the bars they targeted are still around.
In the 1980s the mood shifted with the outbreak of AIDS. “As a result of seeing so many of my friends lost, it kind of simmered me down,” Martinez said. Instead of combative activism, his time was spent volunteering as a caregiver and supporting friends who had the disease.
But the community’s combativeness flared again in 1992, when Colorado voters passed Amendment 2, a state constitutional amendment that forbid the state or municipal governments from having laws protecting LGBT individuals from discrimination. Martinez had been involved in the fight against the initiative, which threatened to undermine the hard-won victory of gaining anti-discrimination protections in Denver, but Martinez said that he and his circle had seen the writing on the wall when Amendment 2 went on the ballot.
“We knew that [Amendment 2] would win, even though we fought against it,” he said. That wasn’t the case for all observers; when the initiative passed, “there was a lot of tension because people were shocked,” Martinez said. “They had assumed the voters would do the right thing and vote against it. You started seeing the rage. They just poured out into the streets. Mayor [Wellington] Webb and Gov. [Roy] Romer were out there marching with them, urging calm.”
Amendment 2 – which would be overturned as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996 – “spawned a whole new generation of activists,” Martinez said. Many of them, plus waves of activists to come, had been children or not yet even born during the combative 1970s, and sought institutional change rather than uprising.
“I think creating change from the inside is important because we have to work with what we’ve got,” said Preston Dickey, the Development Director for One Colorado, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization founded in 2010 to organize, campaign and lobby for state laws such as civil unions. “Policy has a real effect on people’s lives. But we’d never be where we are today without protests and civil disobedience.”
Dickey said he sees his work as activism to challenge stereotypes used against the LGBT community. One Colorado shares stories from LGBT individuals – and committed same-sex couples and families – in its efforts advocating policy benefitting LGBT couples, patients, students, and coalitions between the LGBT community and other groups.
“I think people might be surprised if I called myself an activist,” Dickey said, “considering that most of what I do is raise money and plan large events for a policy advocacy organization – but I’m still an activist. Some of my proudest moments have been disrupting the status quo. I sometimes wish I engaged in more protests; I get really angry about the lack of rights and protections for LGBT people and I think protests are a great way of channeling that frustration. But, I’m happy and proud of the work I do, and hope it continues to make a difference.”
One Colorado maintains a grassroots element, notably organizing rallies outside the state Capitol for the civil unions bill. “I think [public policy and activism] compliment each other really well,” Dickey said. “We wouldn’t be doing this work if people hadn’t acted out and demanded a stop to discrimination.”
It’s community’s own identification of its needs that informs One Colorado’s policy initiatives. “One Colorado relies on our community organizing to influence how we lobby – and we give people the opportunity to lobby on behalf of themselves and their families,” Dickey said. And it’s the activists of the past who laid the foundation for work being done today.
That’s something Martinez might concur with. “I do not forget my radical roots,” he said. “I have a tremendous respect and pride in them. There needed to be someone out there raising hell in the streets.”
And even now, achievements as remarkable as the one that defines the present – Gov. John Hickenlooper signing a bill for civil unions into Colorado law March 21 – start from the same 1973 sentiment: being open and out, telling the truth, refusing to settle and making demands.
“Our opponents throw around the term to scare folks,” Dickey said. “But I think it’s time we reclaim it … it’s vital that we keep telling our stories and keep coming out.”