Boulder’s LGBTQ+ History

In honor of Pride Month, the Museum of Boulder interviewed Glenda Russell, a psychologist and researcher who has been working to understand and write about Boulder’s LGBTQ+ history for many decades. Hear Glenda and others discuss LGBTQ+ history in Colorado on June 16th at 5pm.

You came to Boulder in 1970. What was it like for LGBTQ+ people here at that time?

When I came to Boulder in 1970, the town was in many respects on the edge of making significant changes. It had been a quite conservative town, as evidenced by a history of city councils that consisted largely of middle-aged and older white male businessmen. The changes that were coming were part of broader changes in the United States: the turmoil in the country brought about by a series of assassinations and riots, the Vietnam War; the promise of the activism of disenfranchised groups; the murders at Kent State and Jackson State; 18 year-olds winning the right to vote; the youth rebellion of the late sixties in general and against the war in Southeast Asia in particular. Within a couple of years after I arrived here, the complexion of Boulder’s council changed dramatically: with no precedent whatsoever, council now counted in its membership an African American mayor, several women, its youngest member ever, and a gay man who was not widely open about his sexual orientation but who espoused quite liberal politics. It felt like the dawning of a new day. In some respects, it was. But what many of us had not yet learned, dawns and new days are almost inevitably followed by backlashes.

How did you get into LGBTQ+ rights?

I stepped in rather gingerly at first. I was drawn to some events sponsored by the Gay Liberation Front, a group that formed in 1970 on campus that included community as well as campus folks. I also attended some of GLF’s great barn dances, which were held at Hidden Valley Ranch north of Boulder. These dances drew queer people from all over northern Colorado and Wyoming. They were fun, and they represented the first time in the area that queer people created their own social spaces—not beholden to organized crime and not subject to police harassment. That was a dramatic step, out of the closet certainly but also out of isolation and self-hatred.

For me, things would have gone on casually for probably a long time, but Boulder history intervened. Boulder’s city council passed a Human Rights Ordinance. At the urging of some of the leadership of Boulder’s Gay Liberation Front, council considered including sexual orientation in the non-discrimination ordinance. There was an incredible hue and cry from Boulderites. Hundreds showed up for a council hearing on the ordinance. It was an amazing show: one woman likened Boulder to Sodom and Gomorrah; another warned that the town was about to become known as “Lesbian-Homoville.” A gay man who was the minister of Denver’s Metropolitan Community Church (which then as now ministered largely to the LGBTQ+ communities) softly said, “God loves me, and He knows I am a homosexual.”

I sat through this entire evening taking notes. I instinctively knew that history was being made in front of me. That perspective allowed some distance between me and the vitriol that was being said about my group. I walked out of that hearing knowing I wanted to be a part of this movement.

Did you have an LGBTQ+ person that you looked up to?

I knew very few gay or lesbian people in those days. Such was the power of the closet. But I was reading all sorts of things. Even in high school, I had started reading James Baldwin after seeing him on a public affairs TV show.  I devoured everything by Baldwin I could get my hands on. I still love his writing—the power of his words and stories, of course—but even more what he knew about oppression and internalized oppression. I was struck when I saw the film, “I Am Not Your Negro” a couple of years ago by how well his insights about internalized oppression hold up all these years later.

Last year I was walking on Pearl Street and there were gay pride flags flying everywhere. Has Boulder always been so friendly to the LGBTQ+ community? If it hasn’t, when did it change and why?

Well, let’s go back to the history I mentioned earlier—the history that included Boulder’s Human Rights Ordinance and that public hearing I mentioned. That was in 1974. The city really did get polarized over what we called gay rights then. In fact, the official city record says that it was the most divisive time in the city in recent memory. Many citizens pushed for city council to allow a referendum on whether the Human Rights Ordinance should include sexual orientation. Council was sitting on a live firecracker, and they were willing to throw it out into the open for everyone to vote on.  And vote we did. The good people of Boulder voted against gay rights by a landslide Not only that, anti-LGBTQ+ forces in town initiated a recall against two members of council—Mayor Penfield Tate and Tim Fuller. Mayor Tate barely survived the recall and, in fact, lost his later re-election bid and, with it, his political career. Tim Fuller was recalled and left Boulder not long afterward. So Boulder certainly wasn’t a terribly friendly place in any official sense in 1974, which is not to say there weren’t some wonderful allies in this town then.

In 1987, several young lesbians noted that Boulder had been left behind. We still didn’t have an ordinance that prohibited discrimination against queer people. Kat Morgan, Sue Larson, and several other women approached city council with the idea of having them add sexual orientation to the Human Rights Ordinance. Council members recalled all too well the polarization that had been a part of the 1974 effort and declined to raise the issue. Not to be deterred, these same women went the petition route and forced the issue to go on the ballot. The second time worked: Boulderites accepted the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Human Rights Ordinance. They did so by fewer than 300 votes. So, I guess you could say Boulder was getting friendlier by then.

To your question: When did it change, and why? It changed gradually, as attitudes tend to do. In many ways, it changed as the entire country changed. And it is still changing. And, if I may say, it still has a lot of changing to do.

Rainbow flags are lovely. And they really do convey a welcoming sentiment to LGBTQ+ people. That is real. And that is on the one hand.

On the other hand, rainbow flags are cosmetic. Flags and “Hate-free zone” signs, and other such things are quite nice, and they say little to nothing about whether people have really examined the heterosexism and transnegativity that virtually all of us grew up with and that continue to be part not only of our heritage but of the air we breathe. These symbols do not guarantee that a person who displays such signals really understands what oppression does to LGBTQ+ people or how their own actions—right here, right now—might negatively affect LGBTQ+ people and unwittingly reinstate the power differentials between them and queer people. This is not at all unique to LGBTQ+ people in Boulder. I think many groups of people who are marginalized have this feeling in Boulder (and certainly elsewhere). It takes enormous courage and humility and work to really see how we participate in the power dynamics when we are sitting in the powerful seat relative to a particular form of oppression.

Things have changed, and things are changing. And there is more change to be thought and acted into being.

Which people or actions have had the biggest effect on Boulder’s attitudes towards the LGTBQ+ community?

It is quite difficult to pinpoint the many variables that contribute to changes in attitudes and behaviors. Social sciences offer some clues about what tend to be important factors to look for. But every situation is different, of course. And there is at least some amount of happenstance—we might call it luck—in social change.

Decades of research have left us with the very strong impression that contact between groups is very important to changes in attitudes at least at the individual level, and changes at the individual level can move social groups toward bigger changes at broader levels. The importance of contact to produce change has probably been especially important in the case of LGBTQ+ people where sexual orientation and gender identity are not always or even usually obvious to other people. As long as queer and trans people were deeply in the closet, any benefit from social contact was pretty much out of the question. I can work with Fred on a daily basis, but if I never know he is gay, my contact with him doesn’t do much to change my attitudes about gay people. Even if I suspect he is gay but we never mention it, that silence tends to reinforce the negative understandings about being gay that float around the world.  It’s the opposite of Mr. Rogers’ famous observation: “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” If it’s not mentionable, then there must be something about it that makes it unspeakable.

When it comes to considering social change around queer issues, I think my primary nominees for situations that have had a significant impact on attitude change on this issue in Boulder are those things that allowed for more contact between queer and trans people and the rest of Boulder. That is especially true if the contact promoted the humanization of queer and trans people in some way—that in contrast to, for example, a hate crime against a queer or trans person that gets a lot of publicity but is allowed to stand with no public outcry or action that can begin to create a new norm. 

That by way of prelude, I conclude I have to start my list of change agents with the courageous members who started and joined up with Boulder’s Gay Liberation Front back in the early 1970s. They really were a courageous lot. To be openly gay or lesbian in that climate required overcoming a good deal of fear, carving a way out of little other than the example that had been provided by liberation groups that had been organizing before us, and the willingness to tackle their own internalized oppression, which of course got better the farther they ventured out of the closet.

In the same era, I would nominate Mayor Penfield Tate whom I mentioned earlier. Mayor Tate represented the consummate ally, a straight man who, despite holding a generally politically moderate position, was willing to take a very early stand for gay rights, in the process subjecting himself to widespread harassment and sacrificing a promising political career. Along with Pen, I would nominate Tim Fuller who also fought valiantly for gay rights at the same time, albeit from the closet, which ironically takes a lot of courage. Tim also sacrificed his political career to the issue. Together, they never backed down; they held the standard for doing the right thing despite widespread disapproval. And their actions created a real conundrum for Boulder. The city’s refusal to provide anti-discrimination protections for gay and lesbian people provided an unflattering mirror in which Boulder, with its emerging liberal aspirations, would have to view itself.

 Not long after that election, a young lesbian named Linda Kowach drew together a group of women to start what became known as the Boulder Community Women’s Center. Situated in an explicitly feminist position, the Women’s Center attracted mostly lesbians along with a handful of straight women who were willing to look at their heterosexism. That center and, later, a more radically creative group that came up with the consensus name, the Socialist-Feminist/Feminist-Socialist Collective, made important inroads into creating links between queer liberation and the women’s movement.

In the mid-eighties with the advent of HIV/AIDS, the country at large and Boulder in particular had the opportunity to be introduced to many, many men who were forced out of the closet by their illnesses and eventual deaths. America could no longer look away from its sons and brothers and friends. I think that pandemic—yes, that was a pandemic—insisted that people think about the LGBTQ+ community. Some of this long-overdue acknowledgement of gay men by straight people was based on sympathy or empathy, but some was based on observations of the incredible humanity with which the LGBTQ+ community rose to take care of one another.

In this litany of change agents, I will mention the young women whom I mentioned before—those who in 1987 gave Boulder the opportunity to change the unflattering image in the mirror and finally include sexual orientation—gender identity came later—in the city’s human rights ordinance.

During this same general era, the CU campus again became an important site of queer activism. Early on it was led, curiously enough, by a small handful of faculty, several staff members, including, notably, a couple of counselors at the counseling center, who brought in speakers, held conferences, and created all sorts of opportunities to make queer issues and people more visible in the community at large.

Colorado’s notorious Amendment 2—passed by referendum in 1992—represents a major moment for queer rights. A painful loss at the ballot box inspired countless LGBTQ+ people to activism and influenced countless heterosexual people to want to disassociate themselves from the negative rhetoric and actions of the proponents of Amendment 2. Through a judicial fight led by Boulder attorney Jean Dubofsky, another remarkable ally, Amendment 2 ushered in a sea change at the U. S. Supreme Court—not just for Colorado but for the entire country. On the surface, the substance of the decision was significant: Colorado could not effectively legalize discrimination against LGB people. More subtly, but arguably more importantly, the decision was the first opinion from the highest court in the land that spoke of LGB people as persons deserving of dignity and fairness. And, as we know, lower courts tend to echo the Supreme Court not only in substance but in tone. 

We could probably add the two marriage decisions—the Windsor decision and the Obergefell decision—as two other events that had a huge impact on queer rights in Boulder, as everywhere else. But I would also add the decision by Hillary Hall to start issuing marriage licenses in Boulder County as a significant decision in its own right. Hall, with the support of the county attorney and other county administrators, saw an opening and started giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Beyond that, she was willing to go to court to keep doing so. That represented a big model of what being an ally could mean. 

The closer we get to events, the more difficult it is to evaluate their impact and importance. I would add two specific events: The PFLAG Mountain West Regional Conference in September of 2008 brought in Mara Keisling as a keynote speaker. Not only was she fabulous, she injected a new level of understanding about trans issues into the community. And let us not forget the arrival of Mardi Moore as the new executive director of (then) Out Boulder. Mardi’s time at (now) Out Boulder County has raised the stakes in many ways—outreach to all parts of Boulder County, much greater work on transgender and gender-creative people and issues, greater emphasis on queer and trans people of color, and real success at getting OBC better integrated with other social justice groups and activities in these parts.

The LGBTQ+ movement has become a lot more visible, which groups in that community still are less visible?

LGBTQ+ people come from every part of the broad make-up of the country. Consequently, in many respects, the LGBTQ+ community in this country has always been something of a microcosm of larger U. S. society. We share many of the same problems with equitable treatment within our own ranks. This community has plenty of work to do with regard to race, sex, class background, disabilities, religious diversity, age, and the like.

In addition, I think it is clear that, within the LGBTQ+ community, we still have real trouble with the equitable visibility of bisexuals and trans and other gender-creative folks. Beyond visibility, all of these groups suffer from elevated social and health disparities over and above the already inequitable situations experienced by gay men and lesbians. 

There is a hint of better news: There is some evidence that, as a group, LGBTQ+ people make somewhat greater efforts to reduce racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, religious bias, and other forms of marginalization than does the population in general. 

How can non-LGBTQ+ people be the best allies they can be while still honoring that they have never had that experience?

I have been conducting research on heterosexual allies for several decades now. There is no straightforward answer to your question. Allies come to their positions from many perspectives and through many motives. When I have sat with research colleagues of all sexual orientations and gender identities analyzing data about allies, we almost always get to a specific kind of question: If you were in trouble as an queer or trans person, would you trust this person to help you out in a way that does not require you to be a victim, passive, too beholden—in short, in a way that does not reinstate the power imbalance between heterosexual and queer people?

I think a couple of things really contribute to that in allies. First, they have been willing to look at their own levels of heterosexism and transnegativity on an ongoing basis. They do not claim they are free from bias, but rather are committed to the work of reducing overt and subtle bias in themselves. Second, they figure out the often complex roots of their desire to be allies, and they are especially careful to examine the motives that have more to do with what’s in it for them than with justice and morality and other important principles. Third, allies become familiar with their privilege as heterosexuals. That is challenging work, as all of us tend to assume that we have no more privilege than anyone else.  In fact, every heterosexual/cisgender person enjoys lots of privilege along the dimensions of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Fourth, allies should be willing and even impatient, in the words of Suzanne Pharr, to “spend their privilege well.”  Fifth, allies do not make being an ally the center of the struggle for the rights of LGBTQ people. Allies are allies. They are important to the movement—that’s one of the reasons that I have been studying them for decades—but they are not the center of the movement, nor should they be. To draw a rather obvious parallel, I have been doing work as an anti-racist white person for longer than I have been doing research on allies. But I would be extremely concerned if I saw myself in any way as at the center of the anti-racism movement or as a person who should make decisions about that movement. As one really stellar ally in my research said to me years ago, “LGBTQ people figure out what they need and where they want to go. I use whatever skills I have to make that happen.” Finally, and I absolutely mean this, allies should have fun doing ally work.

Do you think increased visibility is going to make the next generation more accepting?

This is a more difficult question than I wish it were. If social change happened in a linear fashion, I would say absolutely. Recent decades have witnessed a generally favorable trajectory for LGBTQI people. Generally. However, in the past several years, we have seen a very troubling roll-back of any number of rights at federal, state, and municipal levels.  And especially since the last presidential election, we have also seen the enactment of laws, executive orders, and legal decisions that have effectively placed more restrictions on the rights of queer people and especially on trans people. In particular, we have seen increasing permission for laws to be written and interpreted in such a way as to allow discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community by people who say they want to be exempted from obeying various laws because of their “deeply held religious beliefs.” Moreover, we have seen huge legal setbacks for trans and gender-creative people. It really looks like the current administration has targeted these folks as the most vulnerable members among queer communities and are using them as the toehold for a campaign to take back the rights of the entire community.

As a student of history, I can only conclude that progress is not linear. Asian Americans, for example, always knew they were marginalized in some important ways, but very few people expected the recent surge in harassment and hate crimes against Asian American people in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Those who might have predicted this development were probably familiar with the history of similar scapegoating that has occurred in prior pandemics. Progress is never guaranteed. It must be guarded and fought for. That is the duty of all of us.

Where would you like the LGBTQ+ movement to be in 5 years?

First, I want to see the LGBTQ+ movement survive within a renewed and thriving democracy. I would also like the queer and trans community to work fiercely and enthusiastically on further reducing the biases we inevitably have brought to our rich community. In a similar way, though at a very different level, I would like to see queer people commit to working openly against the internalized oppression that infects all marginalized people, in the process throwing off the shackles of self-hatred and self-doubt and discarding scripts that suggest we are inevitably victims.   I would also love to see a renaissance among allies—a change in which allies deepen their commitment to and understanding of working with LGBTQ+ people while LGBTQ+ people are making the decisions and leading the way. Oh, and I want a new Supreme Court.

Is that too much to ask?


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