The Gay Nineties

Frank Whitworth went down to the local gay bar. It was the usual Hide & Seek drinking crowd, and Whitworth knew everyone. A couple of men, still in suits and ties from their work day, teased the bartender boisterously. One guy, his name stitched on the patch of his blue mechanic's jacket, smoked and nursed a beer in the corner. On the TV over the cash register, the election returns looked good. Everyone was ready to celebrate.

Except for Whitworth. He hadn't worked on this campaign, but he'd been politically active in the past, and he knew how to read the numbers. The early returns were out of Denver, and the margin wasn't big enough to overcome El Paso County, whose votes had yet to be counted. As the results began to change, the mood went dark. The men in the bar began to argue about what had gone wrong.

"Well," Whitworth finally asked, "who here voted?" Out of a dozen men, only two had gone to the polls. Only four were even registered.

It was Tuesday, November 3, 1992. Bill Clinton slid easily into office, overwhelmingly supported by a bloc of gay voters who were more mobilized than ever before; he'd courted them with a pledge to repeal the ban on gays in the military. But the promise of the country's first gay-friendly president -- soon enough, that would be just another lie -- became a footnote to the nauseating news: Colorado for Family Values, a small organization of hardcore Christians in Whitworth's own town, had succeeded in passing Amendment 2, which banned all of Colorado's local governments from passing laws to protect gay people from discrimination.

In the weeks after the election, as gays and their supporters tried to figure out how to respond to the disaster, Whitworth's anger at the results turned to more rational thought -- toward strategizing. He was between jobs, so he volunteered to sit in the office of a new organization called Ground Zero -- so named because Colorado Springs was obviously now dead center in a cultural war (especially since Oregon voters had rejected a similar, though more extremely worded, referendum). Gay people across the nation -- already physically, emotionally and financially exhausted by AIDS -- felt as if they were under siege. Whitworth became Ground Zero's executive director.

Five months later, in April 1993, he was parading down Pennsylvania Avenue at the National March on Washington for gay rights. Colorado had a place of honor, leading off the states, and Whitworth was right up front.

The National Park Service estimated a crowd of only 300,000, but marchers knew there were many, many more gays and gay supporters in D.C. that day. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the route. The AIDS organizations went first; then, when the crowd saw Colorado's "Ground Zero" banners, Whitworth heard a roar all the way down the street. Gay people from across the country screamed encouragement to their counterparts living in Colorado Springs. "We came to the Mall and they announced us, and then the roar was 500,000 people all at once," Whitworth remembers.

The threat of Colorado for Family Values had helped rally hundreds of thousands of gays to Washington. Whatever political and social gains they'd made throughout the red-ribbon Eighties were in serious danger after the passage of Amendment 2.

Over the next few years, gays would spend millions of dollars and hours forming political organizations, monitoring threats, electing sympathetic candidates, publishing books, newspapers and magazines, begging for acceptance from churches, fighting to be included on prime-time TV shows, educating whoever would listen, trying to win allies and making whatever private gestures might help them recover from the trauma of being told by voters -- their neighbors -- that they didn't deserve equal protection under the law. Then in 1996, ruling in Romer vs. Evans, the Supreme Court overturned Amendment 2.

"I often say at fundraisers and different events, 'Can we have a big round of applause and thanks to Colorado for Family Values!'" says Sue Anderson, who recently left the state after directing the gay-rights organization Equality Colorado for six years. "The silver lining to the whole Amendment 2 cloud is that there's a queer organizational infrastructure in this state." Anderson remembers the days of Amendment 2 as "an amazing time -- having gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues in the news for 94 days nonstop. We don't get that kind of coverage, or hadn't until that time. The American public didn't want to talk about those things -- that was brought on by Amendment 2. It changed history in many ways."

Colorado for Family Values may have changed history, but by this past August, it couldn't get a dozen protesters out for Colorado Springs' annual gay pride parade.

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C.J. Janovy