The History of Denver Pride: Becoming One of the Biggest US Pride Fests | Westword
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How Denver PrideFest Became One of the Country's Biggest Pride Events

Until 1973, it was illegal for same-sex couples to hold hands in public. Now, after decades of dedication, Denver PrideFest is ringing in its fiftieth anniversary as one of the largest celebrations in the country.
This is Denver's fiftieth Pride celebration.
This is Denver's fiftieth Pride celebration. The Center on Colfax
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You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
Over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
— “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver

The poem flashed through Lonnie Hanzon’s mind as the legendary Denver artist began working on his ninth art installation for Denver PrideFest. Titled E Pluribus Unum, the sculpture will soar 26 feet high, fluttering with silk flags in 27 colors representing the variety of Pride flags and their meanings. From a bird's-eye view, the installation’s shape will emulate the protective evil-eye symbol, and Oliver’s poem will be printed in the center. At the base of the flags will be familiar phrases that remind us of the LGBTQ+ community’s diversity and intersectionality.

“And the main message is: vote, vote, vote!” Hanzon notes.
click to enlarge man in purple shirt
Lonnie Hanzon
Kristy Rowe
Hanzon is known for pioneering immersive art in Denver through such successful installations as Camp Christmas and Cabinet of Curiosities, and has a talent for conveying stories or making sharp points through his work. The Pride installations he creates reflect immediate issues confronting the community while also celebrating LGBTQ+ identities.

“We started the art to try to get away from just chaps and drag,” Hanzon says, “because I was tired of that representing me and everybody.”

His sculpture for this year’s festival could never be accused of leaving anyone out. E Pluribus Unum involves colors reflecting every imaginable identity, from bears to demi-sexual to asexual and more, with the piece's title clarifying the overall meaning. Pride “has included more and more and more people on the spectrum, and now I'm just saying: It's E Pluribus Unum — ‘Out of the many, one,’” he explains. “That's how this country was founded. That's what we're all about. That's what this country is about.”

This is Denver’s fiftieth Pride festival, with 500,000 people estimated to attend the two-day event on Saturday, June 22, and Sunday, June 23. Although he grew up in Colorado, Hanzon never attended the annual affair until he was asked to do his first installation there, in 2015.

“My husband and I have been together 43 years now. But when we first were together, we met each other six weeks before AIDS. Once AIDS was named, that drove us all back into the closet — you didn't want to be seen in public. And so we really didn't go [to Pride] as youngsters, and then we felt like we were too old. We were the trolls,” Hanzon explains, laughing.

click to enlarge a 24-foot-tall wedding cake
Lonnie Hanzon's installation for the 2015 Pride was a 24-foot-tall wedding cake.
Lonnie Hanzon
Of course, Hanzon is hardly a troll, with his warm smile, long silver hair and violet shirt with matching shoes — an ensemble that indicates his artistry before he has a chance to tell you what he does. But his art speaks volumes. For his first Pride installation, he created a 24-foot-tall wedding cake, an appropriate emblem for the major issue at the time: The festival took place four days before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. When the decision was made, Hanzon took the top of the cake to the Colorado Capitol for the celebratory rally.

His 2016 installation also reflected a timely issue...but instead of anticipating a celebration, it mourned a tragedy. The mass shooting at the gay club Pulse, in Orlando, Florida, happened just four days before Denver’s festival. The massacre killed 49 people, and a heavy police presence loomed over the Mile High event — a reminder of very real threats the community faced.

“We built a huge black box and put out gallons of chalk and little signs that said, ‘Bring your light to this darkness with a message of love,’” Hanzon recalls. By the end of the weekend, the black was barely visible under the reflections of strength, resilience and pride.

Hanzon remembers that as he and the Center on Colfax’s then-director, Deborah Pollack, strolled around Cheesman Park after the shooting, she turned to him and made a solemn observation: “This morning, I had to understand that I may die today. And I’m okay with that."
click to enlarge a black cube art installation that people are drawing on with chalk
The 2016 installtion.
Lonnie Hanzon
But the festival went on that year, undeterred by hatred that has been aimed at members of the LGBTQ+ community since before the community itself even formed. And Hanzon kept creating: In 2017, it was an installation called Shrine to Humanity, a series of “Burning Man-style shrines” with a totem of the chakras at the center. “It was very sexual. We did that because of the religious right,” Hanzon explains. “This community is assumed to be atheistic, this community is assumed to godless or spiritless. We wanted to make a statement on that."

Another installation, created for the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City, “took fifty moments of the human-rights movement, showing everything from Anita Bryant to the National Psychiatric Society taking homosexuality off the diseases list, which didn’t happen until the 1970s,” Hanzon says.

For the year of the pandemic, he covered Civic Center Park with the thirty-plus iterations of Pride flags.

“That was the last time somebody yelled ‘faggot’ at me,” Hanzon says, recalling how a man shouted the slur as he was hanging the flags. “I had forgotten how that cuts — as a little boy, to be called a faggot, or queer. ‘Queer’ still bristles with me. I have a really tough time hearing that. It’s been reclaimed by the young folks, but…” he trails off.
click to enlarge A rendering for an art installation
A rendering for E Pluribus Unum.
Lonnie Hanzon
The festival is a surreal experience for Hanzon, something he couldn’t have imagined when he was a kid growing up in Pine. “It's really interesting for me. It blows me away now to see all these young people and to see families coming,” he reflects. But there’s more to it than that. “We have to really tamp down our PTSD, our feeling that we're going to get arrested or that we're going to get beaten, or that we're going to get yelled at or that we're going to get fired,” Hanzon says. “Because all of that was part of our experience.”

And such experiences are why Pride came about. Police were cracking down on gay bars, arresting patrons for lewd behavior, as any same-sex display of affection was illegal, even holding hands. The Stonewall Uprising, which lasted for five days after Stormé DeLarverie fought back against a police officer on June 28, 1969, was a catalyst for the nationwide gay liberation movement. Members of the LGBTQ+ community across the country became activists, pledging to forge a future in which discrimination against sexual orientation would be illegal and same-sex relationships and all gender identities could openly exist.
click to enlarge pride march in denver
The first Pride parade marched from Cheesman Park to Civic Center.
Christi Layne

The Birth of Pride in Denver

“For many years, same-sex relationships were highly policed and illegal. Things like same-sex dancing or or other signs of affection could often get you arrested,” says Rex Fuller, CEO of the Center on Colfax, which has fully run Denver’s annual Pride festival since 1990 and whose roots go back to the very first.

Colorado was the third state to decriminalize sodomy — in 1971 — “but that really didn't stop harassment of gay folks in gay spaces,” Fuller notes. “Gay bars were very underground. There were many arrests made for lewd and lascivious behavior.”

In response, and inspired by Stonewall, activists Jerry Gerash, Lynn Tamlan, Mary Sassatelli, Terry Mangan and Jane Dundee formed the Gay Coalition of Denver in 1972. On October 23, 1973, it staged a peaceful protest against sexual-orientation discrimination before Denver City Council with an event that’s now known as Denver’s Stonewall.

“About 300 activists all showed up to testify and kept council in session until about one in the morning,” Fuller says. “This led the council to change several laws that started to help curtail that practice, and that was really considered a big victory. There was also a lawsuit involved, in which the Gay Coalition won a judgment that created the first liaison to the gay community from the Denver Police Department."

Four discriminatory laws were repealed after the protest, but the GCD was just getting started. On the heels of its success, and seeing other Pride events popping up around the country to commemorate Stonewall, the group organized Denver’s first Pride on June 29, 1974. It was billed as the “Gay-In,” and about fifty people attended, each receiving balloons emblazoned with “Gay Pride,” according to LGBTQ Denver, a new book by one of GCD’s first volunteers, Phil Nash. The next year, the Gay-In crowd reached an estimated 500.

Nash’s new book is an excellent and comprehensive history of the LGBTQ+ community in the city, and he'll be selling
click to enlarge vintage pride event in denver
Gay Pride Week in 1976 marked the first Pride parade.
Christi Layne
 and signing copies at the Center’s booth at PrideFest. He’s witnessed much of that history, too, having moved to Denver in 1976 with his now-husband. While perusing the LGBTQ publication Out Front, he read about the GCD’s efforts to form a committee called Unity to create a community center, and decided to get involved. He joined the committee as a volunteer in May 1976.

By Gay Pride Week that year, Unity comprised 39 groups, including the still-active Imperial Court of the Rocky Mountain Empire, and in September 1976, Unity members met to form the Center. After raising funds, GCD transformed into the Center in 1977. “I applied for the first paid position at the organization,” Nash recalls, “and I was hired in May of 1977.” With that, Nash became the first director of the Center, which created coming-out programs and support groups for the LGBTQ+ community, providing more opportunities to meet like-minded people outside of gay bars and clubs.

And Pride continued each year. Nash's first Denver Pride was in 1976, when drag queen and activist Christi Layne got the first parade permit for the event. This year, Layne will be the parade's grand marshal. “The parade lined up in Cheesman Park and, with the permit in hand, marched down to Civic Center Park, where there was a drag show, and I'm sure there was beer,” Nash says.

The next year “was kind of a turning point," Nash recalls. "The Pride celebration got much bigger because just before the celebration was the success of Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign in Dade County, Florida.”

The campaign, which overturned an ordinance that protected people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, only lit a fire under the gay rights movement it sought to repress. “That really brought a lot of people out of the closet, because they thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, the threats are real; they can take away our rights,’” Nash adds.

“The growth in Pride over the years has alternated between when bad things happen, people come out, and then when happy things happen, people come out,” he explains.

That includes 1993, when Amendment 2 passed, and “there was a huge surge in participation of Pride,” according to Nash. The voter-approved amendment to the Colorado Constitution, which would have obliterated discrimination protections for members of the LGBTQ community, was immediately appealed; in 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional. That year at Pride, there was a multitude of "people coming out to celebrate, because they were so happy that it never went into effect and that it essentially stopped this effort — not just in Colorado, but every other state that was keeping their eye on Colorado to see if it worked,” Nash says.
click to enlarge
A map for the first Pride parade.
Christi Layne

A Dark Decade

Pride took on a new meaning in the ‘80s, with the dawning of the AIDS era. It was a dark time. “The first inklings of something amiss, that something was happening that was almost too weird to explain, was in 1981, when the Centers for Disease Control said that they had uncovered a cohort of gay men who had been previously healthy, got sick with a rare kind of disease and died fairly quickly from it,” Nash recalls.

Nash was the first person to report on the issue in Colorado, in a Westword story in July 1981, and he helped found, and chaired, the Colorado AIDS Project. “I would compare it to a verified landing of aliens from another planet,” he reflects. “It was just too weird to think gay men were getting this sudden disease and dying quickly from it.”

He compares the community's reaction to that of COVID — people tried to rationalize it in strange ways. Was it from a bad batch of poppers? Were the religious nut-jobs right, and this was a reckoning? Was it even real?

“Those of us who were trying to send out a warning were considered to be alarmists,” Nash remembers. And the fear among the community climbed to new heights as more people died. It was hard to think “that all of a sudden, everything that they had worked for and come out for and built community for in the previous ten years was going to be completely shattered and shut down,” Nash says.

As he wrote LGBTQ Denver, Nash reflects that he felt a “sort of survivor’s guilt.” Many people in the photographs died during that time. “There were so many funerals, I couldn’t take off work for all of them,” he says.

“The Pride movement was trying to throw off this idea of living in shame,” Fuller says. “It was largely a movement of celebration of who you are. I think that when AIDS became an issue, there was a lot more activism around trying to get funding to research AIDS, trying to to address this crisis. And there were a lot of people who had died, who were once leading activists that were no longer there. … It really took a devastating toll.”

By the end of the decade, the Pride event “had really started to go into decline,” Fuller says. “It was the twentieth anniversary of Stonewall in 1989, and it was a very small event. There were maybe 100 people there.”

The next year, the Center took on organizing Pride in its entirety. “It grew from a parade into a festival, and then a two-day festival,” Fuller says. “And it just kept growing for the last thirty-some years, and now it’s the biggest Pride event in the Rocky Mountain region.”

And one of the five largest in the country, too. From its humble picnic beginnings with fifty people, PrideFest is now estimated to draw in half a million visitors. And after it took over Pride, the Center was able to raise enough capital to move into its building at 1301 East Colfax Avenue, where it’s been for thirteen years.
click to enlarge a rainbow art installation outside the Denver capitol building
Hanzon has made nine Pride installations, including this year's.
Lonnie Hanzon

A Heap of Trouble

As Hanzon looks back on the sculptures and installations he’s built for Pride, it’s difficult not to reflect on his own journey, as well. He recalls relentless bullying in his childhood — “I got my face pushed in dirt many times,” he says — as well as the inexorable pressure to be “normal.”

“We were raised in a generation that, in the ’50s and ’60s, it was a family’s dirty little secret,” he says. “When I was coming out, we could still be arrested for holding hands, for any public display of affection. … I remember finding a book next to my parents' bed and reading that a homosexual was a pedophile crossdresser. That was the definition: It was a cross-dressing man that abused children.”

His own identity terrified him, as well as others confronting the same truth at that time. When he was fifteen years old and the first Pride gathering in Denver took place, Hanzon was still grappling with being gay, and his high school art teachers were his comfort. But when he was taken to see the original cast of A Chorus Line, he burst into tears. “I had the realization for the first time that I was gay, and realizing that meant a lot of stuff — there was a whole heap of trouble on your front porch now,” he says.

“I remember being terrified. Because I was certainly an effervescent kid, for sure. I was raised in the mountains and I was the token hippie, so I was bullied a lot,” he continues. “I was very aware at an early age that I had to carry myself right, I had to walk right, I had to blend in. And there are parts of my family that are Evangelical, so I was definitely the black sheep and the shameful secret. ... There were a lot of other secrets, but those were good, Anglo-Christian secrets.”

And with such figures as even Liberace declaring they were straight their whole lives, there was no one to look to. “There were ‘confirmed bachelors.’ There were ‘spinster sisters,’” Hanzon says. “Those were the acceptable terms at the time.”
click to enlarge Pride celebration in Denver
The Denver event is the-fifth largest Pride in the country.
The Center on Colfax

"How Can Love Harm?"

Pride and the gay liberation movement brought much-needed protections to the community, from legalizing same-sex relationships in the first place to housing and workers' rights to same-sex marriage. And as the burgundy colors in Hanzon’s installation at the upcoming PrideFest represent, many people have shed blood to bring the movement this far. It's a stark reminder that Pride is still so important to celebrate because more work needs to be done.

It was only a few weeks ago that the Colorado Republican Party sent an email to members with the subject line “God Hates Pride.” Signed by party chair Dave Williams, the email derided members of the LGBTQ+ community as “godless groomers,” “woke creeps” and “evil.” A link to a video — with the thumbnail “God hates flags” — shows a pastor saying the Pride flag is a representation of “the demonic realm” and “human indecency.”

Hanzon read the Westword article about the email. “I want to say to the people that are so upset, to the far right: Your interest in my sex life is really disturbing,” he says.

“If we can set the sex aside for a moment,” he continues, “if it's about emotions, or intellect, where's the argument? How can love harm? That’s why we’re claiming 'e pluribus unum': We belong to the society. We are not godless. We are not spiritless. We are not emotionless, to treat us like we're animals of a different ilk. Is there any reason not to have compassion? Is there any reason not to have empathy?”

Such vitriol is observed on the national level as well, from state laws against drag to policing trans health care. Former president Donald Trump vowed that if he were to win the 2024 election, he would create policy changes in education to “promote positive education about the nuclear family, the roles of mothers and fathers and celebrating, rather than erasing, the things that make men and women different.” He threatened to sign an executive order to force federal agencies to end any program involving gender transition “at any age,” harming transgender adults and youth alike. A year into his presidency, he tweeted that transgender people could not serve in the military (perhaps unaware that tweets do not make laws), and his Department of Justice announced that it would no longer protect LGBTQ+ people from employment discrimination at the federal level in order to protect “religious freedom.” He made a concerted effort to appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices who not only overturned Roe v. Wade but agreed with Justice Clarence Thomas that they would look at Obergefell v. Hodges, too.

“When I'm hearing about all the attacks on the trans community that are going on, with trying to prevent quote-unquote groomers, or banning drag shows or all that sort of hateful, stupid stuff,” Fuller reflects, “it’s the exact same playbook of what was happening back in the ’80s for people living with AIDS — demonizing gay men and creating laws to prevent people” from living authentically.

This is why Pride is necessary. “I think there are a whole lot of people who don't personally identify as LGBTQ but see that sort of hate and say, ‘I need to come out and make a stand on how I feel about this,’” Nash says. “Support the community. Show up at Pride, because the numbers matter.

“You know, it’s weird to say this, but thank heaven for the far-right conservatives,” he adds, “because all they’ve done is make us more resilient and more powerful.”
click to enlarge A rendering for an art installation
A rendering of Lonnie Hanzon's E Pluribus Unum installation.
Lonnie Hanzon

Small Steps

As he looks over the colorful, splashy renderings for E Pluribus Unum, Hanzon picks up a copy of the Mary Oliver poem and reads it. "I haven’t seen anybody not cry” when reading the poem, he says. “Because we all have that vulnerability. We all have that ‘otherness.’ And as long as that ‘otherness’ exists, we need to unify.

“To think that the first Pride in Denver was called a Gay-In, with probably twenty people, and we’re expecting half a million people this year — it’s wonderful,” he concludes. “The haters are always going to hate. But may we be marching toward a diverse, inclusive, equitable world. Little by little.”

Denver PrideFest happens 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday, June 22, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, June 23, Civic Center Park. Learn more at denverpride.org.
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