This summer, I embarked on an oral history project about resistance to a 1992 anti-gay ballot initiative in Grand Junction, Colorado. I wanted to bring queer history to the airwaves (albeit the low-power airwaves). I interviewed folks who had lived in Grand Junction between 1992 and 1996 to learn about what it was like to live in this corner of the “hate state.”
Colorado had become known nationwide by queer activists as the “hate state” because in 1992, 53% of Colorado voters passed Amendment 2.1 If it had gone into place, Amendment 2 would have prevented the state or any municipalities from protecting anyone with “homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, conduct, or relationships” from discrimination.
The group behind Colorado’s Amendment 2 called themselves Colorado for Family Values (CFV). Like other religious right organizations of the late 1980s and early 1990s, CFV was responding to what they perceived as threats to Protestant Christian beliefs. In a September 1993 Denver Post article, Michael Booth and Steven Wilmsen wrote: “Many people who voted for Amendment 2 in Colorado said fighting gay rights is part of a struggle to reclaim traditional beliefs in sexual morality.” One of the women they interviewed for their piece is quoted as saying: “In a world where it is OK to have sex any time you want with anyone you want, somebody has got to draw the line.”2
For CFV, gay men and lesbians were going to destroy the monogamous heterosexual family, the backbone of civilization. Their evidence? The AIDS epidemic. AIDS was one of their most powerful weapons in mobilizing support for Amendment 2. In one of their propaganda pieces entitled, “Homosexual Behavior—Should Government Protect This?” they pulled statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and newspaper articles about AIDS to argue that gay men and lesbians were immoral. “Gays’ [sic] have been unwilling (or unable) to curb their voracious, unsafe sex practices in the face of AIDS … [T]he Washington Post (June 1990) and Time Magazine (July 1990) both report that despite the threat of AIDS, gays have not restrained themselves.”3
This piece ends with a plea: “Is this the kind of lifestyle we want to reward with special protection, and protected ethnic status? Gay activists want you to think they’re ‘just like you’—but these statistics point out how false that is. So please remember – gays deserve, and have, human rights. But there’s no way this lifestyle deserves special rights.” CFV successfully employed AIDS panic and a seemingly scientific statistical analysis to win the hearts and minds of the majority of Colorado voters.
“Lifestyle,” of course, meant promiscuity, and here were promiscuous gay men and lesbians asking to be accepted and to be protected by laws. The letters to the editor to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reflect this:
And: “I believe that what gays do in their own bedroom is their business, but when they flaunt their disgusting lifestyle before my grandchildren, it becomes my business.”5
I didn’t live in Colorado yet in 1992, but I was an adult, and an activist, and so paid attention to Amendment 2 as it made its way through the court system. In 1993, it was blocked from going into effect by an injunction. In 1994, the Colorado Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional and, in 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court did the same. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion: “[Amendment 2] is at once too narrow and too broad. It identifies persons by a single trait and then denies them protection across the board. The resulting disqualification of a class of persons from the right to seek specific protection from the law is unprecedented in our jurisprudence.”
Since that Supreme Court decision, the first one that had a direct positive effect on the lives of gay men and lesbians, the arc of the moral universe seemed to bend toward equality for LGBTQ people. There were always setbacks and frustrations. Some of the most egalitarian visions set forth by the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s were set aside in favor of assimilation, but many of us would take assimilationist goals and protection by the law as we continued to work toward liberation and greater equality. However, the arc of the moral universe now seems to bend in the other direction. One of the reasons the radio project became important to me this summer was my alarm at the rights setbacks we have already experienced since January 2017.
As I read through articles, columns, and newsletters from the 1990s and interviewed Grand Junctionites for the two shows on Amendment 2 that are in production, I was struck by the genealogy of the hatred that has been so much in evidence in the last year, throughout the campaign and the Trump presidency. The first time my brain frizzled with this connection was when I read a piece of hate mail, reprinted in a newsletter published by the Common Decency Coalition (CDC), the local group organized to oppose Amendment 2. They had paid for a series of four advertisements to be placed in the Daily Sentinel.
In response, one Grand Junction resident sent the CDC a handwritten letter that included these sentences: “Homosexuality is Death. It’s a disgrace to know there were people like you hidden in our society and more of a disgrace to see you forcing it on us now. You are forcing a slow death on our society… To hell with you and your lifestyle. I am going to be vocal against you and stand up for what made America great” (emphasis mine).6 The writer did not mention AIDS directly (although “sexual perversion” did make its way into the letter), but likely equated homosexuality with death because of the AIDS crisis.
And of course, AIDS panic remains, although strides have been made in the treatment and prevention of the disease and in the love and acceptance of those living with HIV or AIDS. In the last decades, it has become de rigueur for presidential candidates to meet with HIV advocates during the primaries. In 2016 both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders did so. Trump refused. There have to be reasons for this refusal. Perhaps it was simply an oversight, but more likely he was wooing the support of the religious right that continues to see AIDS as a punishment for immorality, and believes that homosexuality is a sin.
AIDS is rarely talked about in the Trump administration. In June, six members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) resigned. One of the members, Scott A. Schoettes wrote: “As advocates for people living with HIV, we have dedicated our lives to combating this disease and no longer feel we can do so effectively within the confines of an advisory body to a president who simply does not care.”
In the wake of these resignations, Sean Spicer (then White House Press Secretary) was asked: “What is the President’s strategy to combat HIV/AIDS?” He responded: “I know that they are working from the White House standpoint, from a policy standpoint, hand in glove with the commission and the other members throughout the government to continue to develop a strategy and provide—I think it’s a holistic approach, both in this country and helping people abroad where that’s a big issue.” However, in May, Donald Trump had announced that he would like to cut $1.1 billion from HIV-treatment programs in sub-Saharan Africa, in part to pay for his proposed border wall. This is far from a holistic approach to the continuing crisis of HIV and AIDS.
Another indication that the Trump administration’s approach to HIV and AIDS is far from holistic is the disappearance of the Office of National AIDS Policy from the White House website. It disappeared the very day Trump took office. As of this writing, that website was still missing.
When Trump accepted the Republican Party’s nomination, he stated: “I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” employing the Pulse shooting and Islamophobia to fuel acceptance for his candidacy, briefly using dead LGBTQ people for political gain. However, since he’s been in office, one blow to LGBTQ civil rights after another have come our way, most recently with his Twitter declaration that trans men and women can no longer serve in the military.
In more than one speech, Trump has used variations of the line: “We all bleed the same red blood of patriots. We all salute the same great American flag. And we are all made by the same almighty God.”7 But, although he urged people to get tested on National HIV Testing Day, Trump excludes those whose blood is infected with HIV from his equation of patriotism. It’s not the same red blood. And the God of Trump’s imagining who allegedly made us all, also condemns those of us who are LGBTQ. It is likely the same God that the University of Colorado football coach, Bill McCartney, called on in 1992, expressing his support for Amendment 2, and calling homosexuality “an abomination.”
In 1992, the people I interviewed resisted the homophobia and AIDS panic that was behind Amendment 2. In their conservative corner of the world, they helped to remake culture and community in important ways. Hearing their stories gives me courage to continue to fight against the resurgence of homophobia and AIDS panic.
- Amending the Colorado Constitution is in the hands of the voters. Return to text.
- Michael Booth and Steven Wilmsen, “High Court Asked to OK Amendment 2,” Denver Post, September 18, 1993. Return to text.
- Colorado for Family Values, Equal Rights-Not Special Rights, 1992. Colorado Mesa University Special Collections. Return to text.
- Joyce Lickers, Daily Sentinel, April 4, 1994. Return to text.
- Walter Hodge, Daily Sentinel, January 14, 1993. Return to text.
- CDC News, June/July 1993, 2, Colorado Mesa University Special Collections. Return to text.
- This version is from his May 2017 Liberty University Commencement Speech. Variations include: “… whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag,” in his January 20, 2017 inaugural address. And: “We are one people, with one destiny. We all bleed the same blood. We all salute the same flag. And we are all made by the same God” in his March 1, 2017 speech to Congress. Return to text.