How a revolutionary City Council meeting in Denver helped lead to Colorado's Stonewall moment.
October is a busy month in the LGBTQ+ community, with National Coming Out Day (NCOD) on October 11 and the entire month being dedicated to the history of LGBTQ+ people and their struggle for civil rights.
NCOD began in 1988 as a form of political activism with foundations in the feminist and gay liberation movements. The founders believed that ignorance thrives when people remain silent. If everyone were to “come out,” people would see they know many people who identify as LGBTQ+. LGBT History Month, as it was initially established, began a little later in 1994 to coincide with NCOD. Founded by a Missouri high school teacher, it is meant to uplift members of the community and highlight the role models and events that came long before the Stonewall Uprising of June 1969. Today LGBT History Month is observed in countries around the world, showing the increasing acknowledgement of and support for the LGBTQ+ community. Here in Colorado, there is another reason to celebrate in October, as it is the 50th anniversary of one of the most important events in LGBTQ+ history: the revolt on the Denver city council or, as it is known by many, “Colorado’s Stonewall.”
Many people today take for granted being open and honest about how they identify. Arguably, it is still downright awful in many parts of the world, let alone in many parts of the United States. It was much harder for people post-World War II, when the US was at the beginning of the Cold War. Part of the US government's efforts to protect national interests was to rid government agencies of anyone who was considered a threat to national security. One such group was homosexuals, as it was thought that anyone hiding who they were could easily be blackmailed into espionage for the enemies of the US. Known as the Lavender Scare, the government went after anyone who showed “sexual perversion”—in simpler terms of the day, homosexuals.
One such person who lost his job during this time was Frank Kameny. Kameny served in the US Army during WWII and after the war ended, he earned his BS from Queens College in New York City and then went on to receive his MA and PhD in astronomy in 1956 from Harvard University. He ended up in Washington DC where he taught in the Astronomy Department of Georgetown University. In 1957, Kameny was working for the US Army Map Service when it was revealed Kameny had been arrested in San Francisco a couple of years before, by plainclothes police officers who said Kameny was groped by another man in the bus terminal. Kameny had been taken in for questioning about the incident but he refused to supply any information about his sexual orientation. Kameny was fired and barred from working for the federal government in the future. After unsuccessfully fighting his dismissal, Kameny was radicalized into fighting for gay rights until the end of his life. This is one of many, many stories of how LGBTQ+ people were treated pre-Stonewall. But the fight was there, and people were risking their lives, family, and jobs for equal treatment.
This background and atmosphere created the spark that ignited the modern gay rights movement. In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, a bar in New York City was the target of yet another police raid. This was nothing new for bars in New York City, or around the country for that matter, including in Denver. New York’s Stonewall Inn is widely considered the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement. But for many, including those like Frank Kameny who had been fighting for decades, June of 1969 was different. The Vietnam War was dragging on with no end in sight, anti-war protests were the norm, and civil rights and women’s rights were at the forefront of the zeitgeist. The Stonewall Uprising was inevitable. It may not have started the gay rights movement, but it was definitely the spark that thrust the movement into mainstream consciousness.
Denver in the 70s
Back in Denver, like most major cities, people and organizations continued the national fight for LGBT rights at the local level. In 1972 Big Mama Rag began publishing their feminist newspaper, and Phil Price started OUT FRONT Magazine in 1976—still one of the longest-running LGBTQ+ publications in the country—to bring attention to police harassment and violence against the gay community. Two bookstores also opened during this time, Category Six Books and Woman to Woman Feminist Bookcenter.
Formed in 1972, five people set out to change the course of LGBT rights. Gerald “Jerry” Gerash, Lynn Tamlan, Mary Sassatelli, Jane Dundee, and Terry Mangan formed the Gay Coalition of Denver (GCD) to fight back against police harassment of the gay community. Little did these individuals know at the time, the formation of the GCD would lead to the revolt on Denver City Council—Colorado’s Stonewall—one of the most pivotal events in the fight for Colorado LGBTQ+ rights.
The GCD was more than a grassroots organization. It also became a place for people who were interested in more than the bar scene. Denver Free University donated its building for GCD to host Approaching Lavender, a coffee house that screened movies, hosted poetry readings, and many other events. Long before The Center on Colfax became the hub for the LGBTQ+ community, the GCD acted in a similar role by offering services such as doctor referrals, counseling, and even a hotline for people to call with any type of question. The GCD empowered a community to speak up and let their voices be heard.
Many feared being outed if arrested by the police. Being outed in this manner often led to disownment by family and friends or losing one’s job. The Denver Police Department began to use a bus to entrap gay men. The bus, known as “The Johnny Cash Special,” was owned by a private citizen who took it around the country and rented it out to police departments. The bus would be parked around local areas of town known for attracting gay men. Plainclothes policemen would then entice men into the bus with the promise of seeing a Johnny Cash show. Once inside the bus, the police would say or do anything that would lead to the entrapment and arrest of the men on obscenity charges. When the back of the bus was full, the men would be taken to the police station and booked. When talking with Jerry Gerash about this, I asked him why Johnny Cash tickets? Were gay men really into Johnny Cash in the 1970s? Jerry laughed a little and said no, that was how out of touch the police were with the gay community. The GCD seized on this and brought a civil lawsuit, Gay Coalition of Denver v. Denver, against the City of Denver to get access to police records that showed alarming statistics of how the gay community, and only the gay community, was being targeted under these ordinances.
The GCD started planning. On the evening of October 23, 1973, members of the GCD and over 300 of their friends showed up at the Denver City Council meeting. The purpose of the “revolt” was to have four laws that were specifically used to target the gay community such as loitering, cross-dressing, police entrapment through solicitation, and renting out rooms for the “purposes of sexual deviant purpose,” overturned. The meeting was off to a rough start. The president of the city council, Robert Koch, did not want to hear from the gathered group. After other members on the council expressed interest in hearing from the GCD and its supporters, Koch relented and said the group could have thirty minutes, and not a minute more. This posed a problem, as there were thirty-six speakers signed up to talk. After the first speaker addressed the council, there was enthusiastic applause from the audience. This would be the first time Koch warned those gathered that continued disruption of the proceedings would result in not being allowed to continue, and possibly even removed to waiting buses which would take them to the police station.
The speakers brought up many good points to the assembled councilmen. Lyn Tamlin, Jerry’s partner at the time, spoke third about police treatment of the community which catalyzed the formation of the GCD. Terry Mangan then stood to take the podium, giving an impassioned speech on the need to better define the term “lewd,” and how “straight” men were no different than gay men. He asked the council how many of the men had spent time at a bar talking to a woman with the intent of getting her to go out, or go home, with him. His speech was one of the best of the night, receiving great applause. Again, they were told by Koch to keep it down or risk being removed. The fifth speaker was Jerry Gerash. Jerry was a practicing attorney who did a lot of pro bono work for people treated unfairly by the police. In talking with Jerry about this night and his speech, he admitted to me that he almost ruined the whole night for everyone. He explained that he had prepared slides to support the statistics of the police targeting the gay community, and decided to begin his speech by announcing that he had a very obscene slide that would help make his point. Immediately, President Koch was ready to shut down the meeting, as there would be no “obscene” slides shown. (Jerry admits that it was a bad joke, as the slide he was talking about merely showed data supporting the claim that gay men were targeted almost 100% of the time versus heterosexual men.) Koch insisted, saying there would not be time for slides. However Councilman Irving Hook spoke up and said he wished to see the slides, enabling Jerry to make his case, with slides. After Jerry finished, a more relaxed feeling settled over the council. The council members began to really listen, and try to understand what the GCD and their supporters were telling them.
After Jerry’s time at the podium, the remaining speakers were allowed to deliver their remarks—in their entirety—pushing the meeting well into the early morning hours. One person who addressed the council was Dr. Lester Tobias, a psychiatrist who spoke to the fact that homosexuals are not different from heterosexuals, and that homosexuality was not a disorder such as it was pushed for decades. Minds were changed and laws were overturned within a month. All four laws used against the gay community were struck down and the police were no longer supposed to harass the gay community. Unfortunately attitudes were not changed overnight, but the foundations were being set.
The legacy of this event is still being felt and talked about all these years later.
For one thing, this was the first time a group of LGBT individuals formed a group and convinced a city to repeal its anti-gay laws, putting Denver and Colorado on the map for LGBTQ+ rights. And supporters felt empowered and emboldened. In a serendipitous moment following the meeting, Jerry met a man who had come into town from San Francisco—just to be there. He was so impressed with how the GCD had organized and conducted themselves that he handed Jerry a “stack of greenbacks” to use to continue the fight. That gift became the seed money to start the Gay Community Center of Colorado (GCCC), now known as The Center on Colfax.
More unintended outcomes grew from this pivotal event in LGBTQ+ history. Politicians running for office looked to the GCD to gain their support and endorsement. To help support what became The Center, Jerry had an idea for Unity, an “organization of organizations.” He was not sure how well this would go over, as there were dues involved to help fund the community gathering place. He was shocked and grateful that eighteen gay-supported businesses joined the new organization—and the membership kept growing each year. By the time the GCCC opened in August 1977, Unity had thirty-six members.
The Denver Police Department (DPD) has also undergone changes. The DPD is only one of three agencies in the country, and the only one in Colorado, to be certified by Out To Protect, an organization committed to creating greater awareness and support for LGBTQ+ professionals working on or pursuing a career in law enforcement. The DPD is also one of very few agencies with dedicated bias-motivated crime detectives.
October 23, 2023, marked the 50th anniversary of Colorado’s Stonewall. In preparation for the anniversary, the video of the revolt has been added to History Colorado’s YouTube channel. Prior to it being made public the film was in storage, part of a larger unprocessed collection. But after seeing the date on the film reels, I knew exactly how precious this film was. It is now digitized, ready for everyone to experience this very important moment for Colorado's LGBTQ+ community, perhaps for the first time in fifty years.