COLORADO SPRINGS — The Pikes Peak Pride Parade, which happens July 24 in Colorado Springs after two days of festivities, is expected to gather thousands of visitors from across the state.

Per the event’s website, the goal is to “foster a festival where people feel safe, accepted, and supported while raising awareness for issues facing LGBTQ+ people living in the Pikes Peak Region.”

And many of those people tell me they’re hoping they’ll see those things happen soon.

Leah Davis Witherow, curator of history at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum says the LGBTQ+ movement in Colorado Springs started quietly. Slowly.

“During the early 1990s there must have been a lot of fear,” she told me over the phone. “There must have been a lot of stigma attached to being an LGBTQ person in Colorado and specifically in communities like Colorado Springs.”

The first pride parade happened in New York City in 1970 to protest the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

But they weren’t organized in Colorado Springs until June of 1991, according to Davis Witherow.

“Before that, most LGBTQ+ folks in Colorado Springs would attend the parade in Denver,” she said. So the move to bring the parade to Southern Colorado was a significant one – and it was put together as a response to the city.

“There had been a community discussion in 1991, as part of something called the Human Relations Commission, a discussion about creating a municipal ordinance protecting race, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and age from discrimination,” she said.

That ordinance did not pass.

“They launched the first pride parade sort of as a result or an outgrowth of this community discussion,” Davis Witherow said. “And even though they were disappointed [the ordinance] wasn’t enacted, they were thrilled that this discussion about human rights took place in Colorado Springs – among city council and members of the public.”

That year, parade participants walked from Cache La Poudre Street in downtown Colorado Springs, to Acacia Park – just about seven city blocks. They only gathered together for an hour or so.

“It was a celebration of identity and pride, connection amongst the LGBTQ+ community here, and then they really built it out from there,” Davis Witherow said.

But the historic view of a movement can be much different from the perspective of someone who’s lived through it.

Pride Parade_74448
Pride Parade, Colorado Springs, 2019

I sat across a table from Colin Gregory in Cerberus Brewery with a plate of warm, soft pretzels. It was still cold outside that day and a little drafty at our table near the front door.

“I just remember – you know when you feel like you’re going to throw up a little?” He asked me, leaning forward. “You know, like, your stomach is in your throat and you’re just like, ‘oh God,’” he said.

I’d asked Gregory, a well-loved yoga teacher in Colorado Springs, what it was like to be a gay man in this town.

And I learned it’s a unique kind of stress that comes from giving other people – strangers oftentimes – access to your most intimate self, knowing they may disagree with you, hurt you, or worse.

“People are mean,” Gregory said. “And people don’t realize the power their words hold over each other.”

Liss Smith as a high school student in Colorado Springs / Ctsy: Liss Smith
Liss Smith in her current role at Inside Out Youth Services / Ctsy: Liss Smith

“Colorado Springs is kind of a weird and lovely and hard place to be a queer person,” said Alissa Smith, communications manager at Inside Out Youth Services. “And somehow it’s all of those things all at once.”

Inside Out Youth Services, a 501(c)3 in Colorado Springs, provides help – some of it at no cost – to LGBTQ young people in the Pikes Peak region. And, IOYS is finding the group they serve is growing.

Some of that may be due to politics in other states surrounding transgender youths.

“Children who persistently question the sex they were designated at birth are often referred to specialty clinics providing gender-confirming care,” the Associated Press reported this year. “Such care typically begins with a psychological evaluation to determine whether the children have ‘gender dysphoria,’ or distress caused when gender identity doesn’t match a person’s assigned sex.”

This year, the governor of Texas, citing a legal opinion by the state attorney general, classified gender-affirming medical care as child abuse. Similarly, in Alabama, the legislature agreed to impose felony penalties on any person who provides gender-affirming care to anyone younger than 19.

That isn’t the case in Colorado.

(Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

The state Transgender & Gender-expansive Youth Bill of Rights guarantees youths the right (without parental or guardian consent) to:

  • Gender-affirming healthcare (also requires a diagnosis of gender dysphoria)
  • Get a haircut that affirms their gender identity
  • A legal name change
  • Gender markers on legal documents that align with their identity
(AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File)

But some say the state and, more specifically, the City of Colorado Springs still has a lot of work to do – noting the LGBTQ community has not, historically, been welcomed here.

“We have such a fraught history. And that kind of generational trauma and the effect that that history has had on us is still very present,” Smith said. “Just knowing that we live in a place that was once known as ‘The Hate City,’ that is enough to make us more cautious.”

A lot of the negative sentiment grew – and publicly so – in the early 90s, when Amendment 2 passed.

“Colorado was called ‘The Hate State’ after the Amendment 2 issue passed,” Davis Witherow confirmed. “And Colorado Springs was the center of this movement.”

According to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, the measure, written “to prohibit minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discrimination for homosexuals,” made it onto the ballot in 1992.

“A local car dealership owner named Will Perkins was really a leader in the effort to put Amendment 2 on the ballot,” Davis Witherow said.

It was approved by 53% of Colorado voters.

“Our identities have historically been marginalized and criminalized and punished – that’s enough to make us wary,” said Smith.

Gregory agreed.

“I’ve been harassed by straight people in every single major city,” he said. “From people throwing drinks out their car window, screaming f****t.”

We’re seeing in our youth that mental health issues that they have already been experiencing, discrimination that they have already been experiencing is just compounded right now.

Liss Smith

The US Supreme Court overturned Amendment 2 in 1996, but many conservative people – and their ideals – remained. And it took awhile for Colorado Springs to catch up to its LGBTQ population in many ways, Gregory said – including socially.

“I wasn’t involved in [the Underground] until about 2011, but I was a patron there before that,” he said of the now-shuttered gay bar. “You know, there were two options in Colorado Springs back then: The Underground or Club Q.”

Gregory spent some time socializing at the Underground, where he found some community and, eventually, a job. After that, he found love there, too – he’s still happily married today.

“He made a joke and I remember looking in his eyes and being like, ‘oh, God,'” he said.

But the number of outwardly gay-friendly gathering places were few in the Springs, even as the city’s population burgeoned.

“We’ve had to grow into this kind of disjointed, very sprawling city where every neighborhood has its own culture,” Smith said. “And some of us try really hard to be inclusive and accepting – some of us are more traditional,” she added.

She grew up in Colorado Springs and went to school in Cheyenne Mountain School District 12.

“It was a really good school. I mean, it was terrible being gay there,” she said, allowing herself a chuckle at the memory. “But it was a really good school.”

Smith said she was lucky to be part of a family that – although they may not have understood when she came out as a lesbian – continued to offer their support.

“So much of a young person’s life is really dictated by their family,” she said. “They cannot make a lot of decisions for themselves: where they go to school, where they live, oftentimes what faith community they’re a part of. So all of that affects how they show up in our space, too.”

And part of the driving force behind change – specifically related to this topic – has rested in the hands of the LGBTQ+ children, who’ve grown up in Colorado Springs.

“The best part of being a kid,
is that you’re going to grow up.”

Colin Gregory

Josh Franklin and John Wolfe sat closely together at the bar inside ICONS on Bijou Street. They talked about their recent travel and work in theatrical productions across the country, while I set up my recording equipment.

Franklin went to Doherty High School in Colorado Springs School District 11.

“I was in high school in the 90s in the same age as Matthew Shepard. And I was coming out when the Matthew Shepard tragedy happened, which – obviously – made things really real for me,” he said. “Our high schools were the same size, you know, we had a similar story.”

The murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 is, many say, one of the most notorious anti-gay crimes in American history. Shepard was tied to a fence by two men, severely assaulted, beaten, and left to die, according to a foundation set up by his parents in his honor.

Josh Franklin and John Wolfe own and operate ICONS in downtown Colorado Springs.

“I absolutely felt like I didn’t belong, which is sad because I was so prominent in my little community and I went to church. I stopped going to church,” Franklin recalled. “I was told by friends – they were shocked that the church was still allowing me in after I came out – so that in turn told me that I wasn’t welcome there. And one by one I felt I’m not welcome here, I’m not welcome there. I had to get out of here.”

So he left Colorado Springs. And it was years before he returned.

Eventually, on a visit home to see family, Franklin and Wolfe, his husband, took another look around and found themselves surprised by the differences they saw.

“We felt the change that had happened in Colorado Springs and the momentum that was building,” Franklin said, noting the emergence of intentionally friendly LGBTQ business owners in the downtown area.

He and Wolfe decided to stay.

“We really wanted to be a part of that [momentum] as a beautiful – sort of full circle – moment. To be spearheading the sort of revolution that’s happening here in Colorado Springs,” Franklin said.

They took their love of theater, their love of community, and their hope for the future – and they built ICONS, now touted as “the one and only food and beverage establishment designed and geared toward the LGBTQIA community and its allies in downtown Colorado Springs.”

Wolfe said the idea was to fill a noticeable void in the city.

“[Josh] kind of wanted to give himself what he wished he would have had, which is just representation and knowing that there was a place for him,” Wolfe said of his husband.

Franklin said the move home has been a rewarding one.

“To provide a place called ‘Icons’ that celebrates queer icons throughout the course of history. What a beautiful full circle moment to have been discriminated against in high school come back to that same community and give a place that celebrates the people that were so badly treated in the 90s in Colorado.,” he said. “It’s overwhelming at times.”

I was not apologetic about my authentic self.

Josh Franklin

Now, more and more, queer acceptance is more visible to those who move through downtown.

Ladyfingers Letterpress, “a Queer and Trans-owned-and-operated stationery and gift brand,” per the store’s website. The “about us” section notes the store’s owners “have used our platform to promote women’s, LGBTQ+, POC and immigrant rights, using our ‘power of the press’ to produce work that helps mobilize social movements.”

Not far from there, La Burla Bee, a cabaret, makes a point of letting guests know it provides a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. They’re now performing shows in the space that once held The Underground.

And even more obvious, visual support for the LGBTQ+ community will soon appear downtown, ahead of the Pikes Peak Pride Parade. The Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs began installing a rainbow crosswalk, temporarily, at Colorado and Tejon in 2019 in July.

“Downtown Colorado Springs welcomes everyone and it’s important to show that, not just say it. Something as visually simple and beautiful as the rainbow crosswalk is universally symbolic and speaks more than words can,” said Carrie Simison, director of marketing and communications for Downtown Partnership.

Signs of change in downtown Colorado Springs.

The Downtown Partnership recalled the community responding positively to its first such installment. FOX21 covered the event in 2019 and in our on-camera interviews, the responses were all supportive of the gesture.

But social media comments posted by community members reacting to our web story at the time told a much different story.

“Why do they need a special pride month, sounds like a bunch of insecure little children. I feel so sorry for them,” one person wrote.

“Why do we continue to have rainbows shoved down our throats? I’m sorry but I’m sick of the lbgtqlmnop (sic) shoving their choice at us. Live your life. I live mine,” said another.

Still another wrote, “Morals, values, nature….nothing is as it should be. Evil world! Even in celebration its (sic) evil. Saying you have no time is an excuse so you do not have to recognize the fact of whats (sic) against nature. Disgusting!”

There were more than 430 comments left in response to the story about the installation of a temporary rainbow crosswalk. The majority were negative.

But change happens over time.

Just be. To be and to live in this moment is powerful.

Colin Gregory

“We are actually living through the change as we speak,” Davis Witherow said. “It’s almost visceral. You can see it. You can feel it.”

It’s trickier to measure, she admitted, especially in such a relatively small period of time.

“I would say from 1992 to today, there’s been a remarkable change. And you see that in the quotes from organizers and people who attend pride parades and pridefests. They say, time and time again over the years – from 1991 to the present – that this is a celebration,” Davis Witherow said. “And they feel more and more supported by their neighbors in Colorado Springs. They feel safer.”

That’s supported by spaces that allow for and celebrate authenticity. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“We get letters all the time and gifts from people just – whether they’re from an older generation – and about how they’re grateful it’s happening now,” Wolfe said of ICONS. “They wished they would have had something like this. Or people that’ve just moved down here that are able to find their home and their community here.”

LGBTQ+ Resources are Available in Colorado Springs