Activism

Black Pride Colorado Co-Founders Reflect on Its Inaugural Year

Black Pride Colorado co-founder Tyrell Rae (as Miss Zarah, left) with BPC team member John E Roberts (as Juiccy Misdemeanor).
Black Pride Colorado co-founder Tyrell Rae (as Miss Zarah, left) with BPC team member John E Roberts (as Juiccy Misdemeanor). Eboni Boneé Coleman from EB Pixs

Black Pride Colorado was born from a meeting of two kindred spirits: psychotherapist Dr. Tara Jae and performer and activist Tyrell Rae, who is also known as beloved Denver drag icon Miss Zarah. It was February 2021, and Dr. Jae, who uses the pronouns they/them, had brought in Rae to do a special drag queen storytime event for Black History Month, hosted by the nonprofit YouthSeen.

"We were talking, just getting to know each other, and the topic of Black Pride came up, and why we didn't have one," Rae recalls. "We were like, 'Let's do it' — and that's what we did. We got an incredible team together of really talented, smart go-getters and made it happen in six weeks."

Now in the home stretch of Black Pride Colorado's inaugural year, the founders look back on the triumphs and trials they've experienced so far.

Before co-founding Black Pride Colorado, Dr. Jae had already been doing outreach work in the Colorado queer community through YouthSeen, founded in 2017 after they moved here from New York.

"There's not many of us — we're at a 4 percent population in the state for Black folks...so it's probably even smaller for queer Black folks. I really wanted to focus on what mental health looks like, as a therapist myself," Dr. Jae says. "We do focus on youth, but even at the age that I'm at, I still look at myself as a youngster."

YouthSeen provides services such as support groups for queer youth and their parents, summer camps to help queer kids explore their identities, workshops and training sessions for organizations seeking to be more inclusive, and short-term case management for queer youth in need of legal assistance. YouthSeen also unites LGBTQ+ kids with community elders to show them firsthand that living an authentic truth is possible.
Dr. Tara Jae, founder of YouthSeen and co-founder of Black Pride Colorado. - EBONI BONEÉ COLEMAN FROM EB PIXS
Dr. Tara Jae, founder of YouthSeen and co-founder of Black Pride Colorado.
Eboni Boneé Coleman from EB Pixs
The network that Dr. Jae established through YouthSeen provided a ripe opportunity to create Black Pride Colorado. "We say that Black Pride Colorado is powered by YouthSeen, because it is essentially a program, and ultimately we are going to be pushing it out into its own organization," Rae explains. "The attachment with YouthSeen helps to cultivate what we are already building and spread that out even more."

The mission of Black Pride Colorado is simple: "Take up space," says Dr. Jae. "And ownership," adds Rae, noting that many milestones in the battle for queer rights were won by people of color.

"There's lots of queer spaces here, but a lot of Black and brown queer folks don't feel comfortable going to those spaces," Rae says. "So it was important for us to be like, 'No, these spaces are for us, too, and we have just as much right as anyone else to be a part of these spaces.' Because if it wasn't for Black people, we wouldn't have the rights that we have now as queer people."

After pooling their contacts to assemble the Black Pride Colorado team, Rae and Dr. Jae began the daunting task of producing Colorado's first official Black Pride in a matter of six weeks.

"I don't think we had a choice," says Dr. Jae of the decision to jump right into planning. "There wasn't a different option. We keep talking about all these resources that we need, and it's like, 'You know what? They're not going to do it for us.' So we went ahead and built it."

Rae agrees that the time crunch gave Black Pride Colorado a running start. "It just got us going," he says. "It lit a fire under our butts. We were reaching out to the resources and networks that we had, asking, 'How can you help? Can we do something like this? Are you willing to support and help us out in creating these events?'"

Neither Dr. Jae nor Rae were expecting the overwhelmingly positive response to their plans to create Black Pride.

"I guess for me it was kind of surprising how supportive the community was. There was no pushback like, 'Why are you doing this?' It was like, 'Oh, my God, this is great, how can we support, and how can we help?' It was really awesome to see the community be so supportive," says Rae. "We were able to work with Juneteenth Music Festival and The Center, which puts on Denver Pride, and that was really awesome. And surprising, too."

Dr. Jae believes their supporters were drawn to how Black Pride Colorado outlined real, tangible ways for the community to support Black queer folks. "I think it was outside of the performative aspect. There's performance and there's action, and we were asking for people to do actions," they explain.
A performer at the Black Fantasy Ball hosted by Black Pride Colorado. - EBONI BONEÉ COLEMAN FROM EB PIXS
A performer at the Black Fantasy Ball hosted by Black Pride Colorado.
Eboni Boneé Coleman from EB Pixs
Black Pride Colorado's week of celebrations in June was a huge success, and confirmed to the team that they were on the right track.

Others took notice as well, including Dana Juniel, who works with the Matthew Shepard Foundation. She was so impressed with the work of Black Pride Colorado that she nominated the organization for the Mayor's Diversity and Inclusion Awards, yearly accolades given out by Mayor Michael Hancock and the Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships to people working to make Denver more inclusive and accepting. Of all the organizations nominated, Black Pride Colorado was named the winner.

Neither of the founders were expecting the external affirmation. "When Tyrell called me and was like, 'By the way, we got this,' I was like, 'I'm sorry? What?' I think the whole team is like that, where we're just like, 'Thank you for acknowledging us, and we're here to do the work, not for the recognition,'" says Dr. Jae.

"It's cool that people see us," Rae agrees. "I feel like for us, we're just here doing the work, and you don't realize that what you're doing is really making an impact. We're just doing what we want to help build our community."

Building Black Pride Colorado has not always been smooth sailing: The venue for one of its main fundraising events recently became entangled in a legal controversy. The Majestic Melanated Cabaret at Blush & Blu is a monthly drag show hosted by drag queen Juiccy Misdemeanor (aka John E Roberts, who is part of the Black Pride Colorado team) to raise money for Black Pride Colorado. After performing in several shows at Blush & Blu, Juiccy was approached by owner Jody Bouffard and a former bartender about taking over a previous drag show the venue had hosted.

The intimate show, which premiered in June to kick off the first Black Pride Colorado, consisted of performances from Juiccy and two additional guest performers, a Q&A session with the audience and a raffle with proceeds going to Black Pride Colorado. Juiccy had several months of successful shows, but in November, just after the last Majestic Melanated Cabaret of 2021, news broke that Blush & Blu is being sued by former employees alleging racial discrimination and wage theft.

In a statement given to Westword, Bouffard and Blush & Blu denied the allegations: "Bouffard has never intentionally belittled anyone in the manner described or otherwise. This filing is an unfortunate retaliation against Bouffard and Blush & Blu for unrelated staffing decisions, and does not accurately represent the work environment at Blush & Blu. ... Blush & Blu feels strongly about their responsibility to create and maintain a safe and accepting space."
Felony Misdemeanor, who also serves on the board of Black Pride Colorado, performing at the Majestic Melanated Cabaret. - EBONI BONEÉ COLEMAN FROM EB PIXS
Felony Misdemeanor, who also serves on the board of Black Pride Colorado, performing at the Majestic Melanated Cabaret.
Eboni Boneé Coleman from EB Pixs
While Rae says he was not aware of problems at Blush & Blu, he admits that the lack of awareness points to a larger issue of agency for queer people of color. "That's another thing that I think we want to work on as Black Pride Colorado — empowering people to feel comfortable with speaking up when they're being discriminated against," he says. "Because that's one of the biggest problems with discrimination: People don't feel empowered to speak up and say something. They're constantly silenced."

Juiccy says she had heard rumors about Blush & Blu but decided to form her opinion based on her own experiences working there. The venue controversy has not been easy for her to navigate.

"I will say that I did not personally experience it towards myself — no one was racially discriminatory towards me, as an individual and collaborator who works with the establishment. However, I have seen and witnessed some unfairness," she says. "But the thing is, I also know that when I see those inequalities, myself and Jody have always talked about it, and it was rectified. I want to make that clear, as well. Because I think that, seeing them and nothing being done about them is one thing, but seeing them and bringing it up to someone, and them being like, 'That's not the case, I'm so sorry, let me explain,' is very beneficial. But, I'm only one person, and I'm only there once a month."
The judges at the Black Fantasy Ball presenting their scores. - EBONI BONEÉ COLEMAN FROM EB PIXS
The judges at the Black Fantasy Ball presenting their scores.
Eboni Boneé Coleman from EB Pixs
Dr. Jae and Rae agree that swiftly condemning Blush & Blu is not a long-term solution, and warn against the pitfalls of "cancel culture."

"We can't cancel Blush & Blu. But we can ask for them to be accountable. Cancel culture, I feel, is even more harmful. I think it's a conversation that we need to continue, because as much as we are here to support community, we also need to...hold our partners accountable as well," says Dr. Jae.

"If we cancel Blush & Blu," Rae explains, "then Blush & Blu is gone — nobody learns anything, we lose another queer space, and then there's room for this to happen again in the future. That education part has to come first, before you cancel. You have to give people the opportunity to educate themselves, learn and want to make change."

Juiccy and the rest of Black Pride Colorado are currently discussing the future of the Majestic Melanated Cabaret. Despite the venue's shortcomings, the Majestic Melanated Cabaret was an event that brought in record numbers of people of color and fostered difficult but necessary conversations about race and inequity.

"I had a therapist come to my last show and say, 'Hi, I'm a therapist, I'm white and I know that I personally have some things to work on, but how do I express this to someone without sounding rude?'" recalls Juiccy. "And I was like, 'You know what? This is what the show is for.' And everyone was applauding — I love that. It makes me feel good."
From left to right: Dr. Tara Jae, Miss Zarah, and Juiccy Misdemeanor at the Strange Fruit of Black Excellence Gala. - EBONI BONEÉ COLEMAN FROM EB PIXS
From left to right: Dr. Tara Jae, Miss Zarah, and Juiccy Misdemeanor at the Strange Fruit of Black Excellence Gala.
Eboni Boneé Coleman from EB Pixs

Overall, Black Pride Colorado has had an incredible first year and is already raising the bar for future Black Pride organizations across the country. Because the group is powered by YouthSeen, it had a large network of connections off the bat, and Rae and Dr. Jae hope that other fledgling Black Prides follow suit.

"A lot of times, the other Black Prides in other cities are a group of people that come together as a volunteer effort," says Dr. Jae. "That's how we started, but people keep it that way and don't take the step forward for a 501(c)(3). The opportunity that we have right now is because we already have that network, we already have the 501(c)(3), we already have connections with these different foundations."

Rae adds, "We've also been approached by the Black Pride commission in D.C. that oversees all Black Prides nationally, and they were telling us that what we're doing is unheard of, the way that we're doing it. So I would love to see things change with Black Prides nationally. Instead of just coming together on one day, having a full weekend of events and celebrations to honor the accomplishments and contributions of Black queer people. I think that would be awesome."

With no signs of slowing down any time soon, plans are already in the works for Black Pride Colorado 2022 and 2023.

For more information on Black Pride Colorado and to see its events schedule, visit the Black Pride Colorado website.
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Cleo Mirza recently graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in English and anthropology. She enjoys good food, cheap wine and the company of her dog, Rudy.
Contact: Cleo Mirza