One of the country’s largest Pride parades will wind through the streets of Denver this weekend. The grand marshall is the first openly gay governor in United States history. For many, it’s seen as a symbol of hard-won tolerance for LGBTQ residents in what used to be known as the hate state.
Last month, on the steps of the Capitol building, Gov. Jared Polis addressed a cheerful crowd of LGBTQ rights advocates, many waving rainbow flags.
They were watching him sign a statewide ban on conversion therapy. The practice is used to attempt to change a patient from gay to straight.
“Not only is there no evidence whatsoever that anybody can change their sexual orientation, but in fact many of these therapies are counterproductive,” Polis said.
It was hailed a big win for the community, which hasn’t always felt at home in Colorado.
“In just 27 years we’ve had a remarkable transformation from what was derogatorily called the ‘hate state’ to a place where the rights of all Coloradans are respected,” Polis added.
But things were much different leading up to the 1992 election. A group in Colorado Springs called Colorado For Family Values ran a ballot measure called Amendment 2, which said the state couldn’t pass any law where homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation was the basis of any protected status or claim of discrimination.
It was in direct opposition to cities like Denver and Boulder that had recently passed local anti-discrimination laws.
Equal rights groups led an aggressive No on 2 campaign. That included Glenda Russell, a psychologist from Louisville. On election night, she and her partner attended the watch party. They were optimistic it would fail. But when the results came in, the room fell silent.
Amendment 2 won with 53 percent of the vote
“I started crying,” she said. “Because even though I had sort of expected it, you know, you expect lots of things to happen but when they happen, there's still a psychological hit.”
Immediately after, calls for a boycott of Colorado came from around the country, as did the now-famous “Hate State” epithet. That’s when Russell started studying the social and psychological impact it had on the community.
“People had a sense of what I called psychic homelessness,” she said. “Like, ‘I used to feel safe here. This used to be where I lived. Now I don't feel like this is my state anymore.’”
Even though the measure had negative impacts, Russell said, it also led to something positive.
“You just had incredible mobilization of political groups all over the state,” she said. “Some people estimate over a hundred political groups got born.”
After court battles, a challenge to Amendment 2’s constitutionality eventually made it to the Supreme Court in 1996. And it was struck it down.
David Duffield, a historian with the Colorado LGBT History Project, said it was the first supreme court decision ever upholding gay rights. It also helped erase the “Hate State” nickname Colorado had earned.
“After ‘96, we entered this period of quiescence, of quietness,” Duffield said.
The activists working to overturn Amendment 2 needed a new place to channel their momentum. Wealthy donors started pouring money into candidates and political organizations supporting a nationwide movement for marriage equality.
“People were working towards slow incremental steps to create a bridge between the rights that married people have and the 1,157 rights that queer people couldn't have under the law then,” Duffield said.
One example was a state referendum in 2006 to create domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. John Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver at the time and advocated for its passage.
But it was defeated with 52 percent of the vote.
“Suffice it to say it was finally passed in 2008 and it established at a state level, domestic partnerships in protections for all people,” Duffield said. “The next logical step was civil unions.”
That was the legal recognition of a relationship similar to marriage, but without the title and federal benefits. That same year, the legislature passed statewide LGBTQ non-discrimination laws. Voters also elected one of the first openly-gay state senators, Pat Steadman.
Along with other members of the newly-formed LGBT caucus, Steadman worked to legalize civil unions. In this 2012 senate floor speech, he’s flanked by hundreds of handwritten cards against what he was doing.
“I don’t care how tall this stack of postcards grows,” he said. “Because in my mind, it is outweighed by this one book I’m going to set right here. It’s the Colorado and the United States’ constitutions.”
Lawmakers killed the bill that year. But a similar version passed in 2013. Then-governor John Hickenlooper signed civil unions into law in front of a roaring crowd.
Despite the momentum, it took a United States Supreme Court ruling in 2015 to fully legalize same-sex marriage in most states, including Colorado.
“It was like living in a very fast paced river,” Duffield said. “Everything was changing constantly.”
Duffield said Colorado is still feeling the aftershocks of overturning Amendment 2. Last year, voters made history by electing the country’s first openly gay governor. They also elected the state’s first openly transgender representative.
“It’s taken us a long time to get where we are,” he said. “But that’s because we’ve had to be awakened so quickly through so many different things.”
During last month’s bill signing, Gov. Polis also made note of another piece of legislation he was putting his name on.
“We’re also signing a bill called Jude’s Law,” he said.
Named after a local student, the bill makes it easier for transgender residents to change the gender marker on their birth certificate or driver’s license.
Daniel Ramos was standing in line for a piece of rainbow cake that was being served at the ceremony.
“I’ve seen a lot of change (since Amendment 2 passed),” he said. “I came out in northeast Colorado - in Sterling - at the age of 13 and a lot of folks didn’t understand what being LGBT meant.”
And now as director of the advocacy group One Colorado, he said Colorado is a leading state for equal rights under the law. But he added that laws can only do so much.
“We’re finding that people are experiencing more discrimination on the street, in their schools, in their workplace and even in their houses of worship,” he said. “Now is a rally cry.”