This article is part of a three series post created in partnership with IGLTA Global Partner Wheels Up, featuring Denver, New York City and Seattle.
The fight for LGBTQ+ rights is not over, but we have come a long way. Here are four ways you can further support the LGBTQ+ community in Denver and continue to make progress.
Denver is one of those rare places that has something for everyone. Its proximity to the majestic Rocky Mountains makes it a perfect destination for the outdoorsy types, while gastronomes and art lovers can spend their days touring the dozens of local breweries and art galleries that pepper the city.
And while it may not quite have the nightlife and drag culture of cities like New York or LA, Denver is up there among some of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the US. In fact, it was dubbed the “gay” oasis of the west in the 80s!
If you’re interested in exploring the Mile High City and want to support its thriving LGBTQ+ community at the same time, here are four ways to do it.
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A History Of LGBTQ+ Rights In Denver
Colorado is known as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly states in the Mountain West. But it wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine for the LGBTQ+ community of the Centennial state. It took decades of pushback from the community and ally legislators to cement laws that would protect the rights of all residents.
Here’s a brief timeline of LGBTQ+ rights in Denver.
1939: The First Gay Bars Open
Before 1939, there were few places where LGBTQ+ residents could gather safely – queerness was merely a whisper in these parts. Sometimes, the papers would regale readers with tales of lesbian lovers who were kept apart by their families before eloping or talk about an underground gay network of artists, academics, and drag queens who threw lavish parties.
The Pit was the first bar to advertise itself as a gay bar. It operated on Seventeenth Street in downtown Denver for a while, until World War II hit the US. After the war, more gay bars started cropping up, the first of which was Mary’s Tavern at 1563 Broadway, catering mostly to airmen.
1959: The Mattachine Society Goes To Denver
Early gay rights organization the Mattachine Society held its debut convention outside of California and New York in Denver. At this point, the emerging LGBTQ+ community had become a growing concern for conservatives. Following media coverage of the convention, local police began arresting society members, including local founder Carl Harding.
By 1965, six out of the eight gay bars in Denver were also dubbed off-limits to military personnel by the Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board. During this period, gay activists stepped back into the shadows out of fear of imprisonment.
1970s: Gay Liberation
Colorado repealed sodomy laws in 1972, becoming the third state to do so. However, as early as 1970, activists were already finding renewed hope thanks to the Stonewall Riots in New York City.
Throughout the 70s, the Gay Coalition of Denver staged various protests in the name of gay liberation. By 1974, campaigns and other efforts led to the repealing of the Lewd Act, Loitering for Sexual Deviant Purposes, Renting a Room for Sexual Deviant Purposes, and an Anti-Drag law.
Denver’s first Pride event – Gay Pride Week – was held in June 1974, taking the form of a “gay-in” at Cheesman Park consisting of about 50 attendees. The following year, Boulder Clerk and Recorder Clela Rorex managed to issue same-sex marriage licenses to six same-sex couples thanks to a loophole in the Colorado marriage code that didn’t mention sex in its provisions.
The 1976 Gay Pride Week saw Denver’s first gay pride parade, along with a live show and a carnival at the Hide and Seek gay bar.
1980s: The AIDS Crisis
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic swept the nation, some Denverites formed the Colorado AIDS Project to provide food, manage cases, and run a buddy program for people living with HIV/AIDS. Despite the darkness of the epidemic, Denverites saw a ray of light in Federico Peña, the first Latino mayor to be elected and a proud ally.
1990s to 2000s: Legal Protections For LGBTQ+ Denverites
By the 90s, Denver activists began to see the fruits of their labor, as the city became an early pioneer of anti-discrimination policies that included gays and lesbians. However, all throughout the 90s, the community had to keep fighting against attacks by the religious right that passed discriminatory laws and overturned existing protections.
The state of Colorado passed a hate crime law in 2001, which protects people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. By 2014, Colorado residents gained the right to marry a partner of the same sex, even before the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages. In 2018, Colorado elected its first openly gay governor, Jared Polis.
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The Top 4 Ways To Support The LGBTQ+ Community In Denver
Despite the great strides made by Denver’s LGBTQ+ community and its allies, queer people in the city still face numerous barriers, from discrimination and abuse to homelessness to poor access to gender-affirming healthcare to a higher risk of police violence.
Here are some ways visitors can support LGBTQ+ rights in Denver.
Donate To Or Volunteer At An LGBTQ+ Organization
Denver is brimming with non-profits and voluntary citizens’ groups that are dedicated to upholding LGBTQ+ rights and improving the lives of the most vulnerable members of the community. Below are a few you should consider supporting.
CENTER ON COLFAX
The Center on Colfax is the largest LGBTQ+ community center in the Rocky Mountain region. Aside from hosting the annual Denver PrideFest – one of the top 10 largest in the country – the Center plays a key role in reducing harassment and discrimination in the city, empowering members of the community through various programs and initiatives.
One Colorado is Colorado’s leading LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. The non-profit advocates for queer Coloradans by “lobbying the General Assembly, the executive branch, and local governments on issues like transgender equality, LGBTQ+ health services, and safe schools”.
THE TRANSGENDER YOUTH EDUCATION SUPPORT
The Transgender Youth Education Support or TYES is a state-wide parent-volunteer-run support network that provides peer support to parents and caregivers of gender-expansive youth. The goal of TYES is to help rainbow families find the information, resources, and social support they need for the development of their children.
Patronize LGBTQ-Owned Establishments
If you’re looking to experience Denver’s gay nightlife, don’t miss Hamburger Mary’s, a drag-themed bar and grille that hosts nightly drag shows and weekend drag brunches. The Clocktower Cabaret is also a great place to go if you’re looking to sit down and watch a drag show or a burlesque performance.
If you want to dance the night away next to club kids and go-go boys, you also have a ton of options, including X Bar, Tracks, Charlie’s, and Blush & Blu. The latter is particularly important, as it is one of the last remaining lesbian bars in the country.
Remember to always tip your server, bartender, and performers if you want to keep Denver’s vibrant queer nightlife alive.
Show Up For Local Artists And Performers
Denver is something of a melting pot of art and culture from the west coast as well as the Midwest and Southwestern regions. As such, it has a burgeoning arts scene that’s not to miss.
Every first Friday of the month, the River North Art District (RiNo) comes alive with the First Friday Art Walks. And while not exactly queer-run, the Waiting Room Gallery in Larimer Square is a curated, bi-weekly, rotating art gallery that features works by some of the most exciting artists to come out of the city – including LGBTQ+ artists who push the boundaries of queer art.
Finally, if you come out to Denver in August, you may want to catch the CinemaQ Film Festival, a queer film festival that presents the “year’s best in LGBTQ+ cinema from around the world”.
Support The Annual Denver PrideFest
Denver PrideFest is a two-day festival at the end of June that draws in over 500,000 attendees from all over the country. It’s the largest Pride event in the Rocky Mountain region and one of the oldest, too!
The organization that runs Pride holds mini-events throughout the entire month, including a formal prom for LGBTQ+ youth, a community pool party, a tea party for older adults, and a KiKi party where talented performers vogue the night away.
That being said, the organizers need a lot of help mounting all the festivities throughout June. Show your support and volunteer!
The Bottom Line
If you're looking for a way to support the LGBTQ+ community in Denver, there are plenty of options. From attending events and rallies to donating money or volunteering your time, there's something for everyone who wants to be an active member or ally.