Historical essay
Change over Time: A Colorado Love Story

Change over Time: A Colorado Love Story

In 1992, 53% of Colorado voters answered yes to this question on the ballot: “Shall there be an amendment to Article II of the Colorado Constitution to prohibit the state of Colorado and any of its political subdivisions from adopting or enforcing any law or policy which provides that homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, conduct, or relationships constitutes or entitles a person to claim any minority or protected status, quota preferences, or discrimination?” By voting yes, a majority of Coloradans announced that they did not want gay, lesbian, or bisexual people to receive protection against discrimination from local or state ordinances.1

Amendment 2, as it was called, passed in part because a religious-right organization called Colorado for Family Values (of course) played to AIDS panic and homophobia. The very first lines of their pamphlet, entitled What’s Wrong with Special ‘Gay Rights’? You be the Judge!, were “Militant gays want government to give their lifestyle special class status.” The pamphlet lingered on statistics about promiscuity and non-monogamy among gay men. The author wanted the readers to know that while the AIDS epidemic had slowed, it was no longer simply confined to the gay community and that the blame lay squarely with gay men.

After running through the “facts” of gay wealth and pedophilia, the writer then concluded, “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.”2

Across the state and the country, LGBTQ activists and their allies mobilized in opposition to Colorado’s Amendment 2 and the “special rights” language that Colorado for Family Values and other religious-right organizations used. By 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the amendment unconstitutional, setting a shaky precedent for making discrimination against the LGBTQ community illegal. This Supreme Court decision mattered tremendously, but, as we see every day, the political language of homophobia still has traction.

Logo of Colorado for Family Values. (Wikimedia Commons)

The fight over Amendment 2 in Colorado and the victory in the Supreme Court, however, meant that this language had less traction than it had before. A decade after the Supreme Court decision, on March 17, 2006, Janet Rowland, a candidate for Lieutenant Governor and the sitting Mesa County commissioner, appeared on a Rocky Mountain PBS show called Colorado State of MindShe made it clear that she opposed marriage for same-sex couples, stating, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. Homosexuality is an alternative lifestyle, that doesn’t make it a marriage. Some people have group sex — should we allow two men and three women to marry? Should we allow polygamy with one man and five wives? For some people, the alternative lifestyle is bestiality — do we allow a man to marry a sheep? I mean, at some point, you have to draw a line.”

The existing activist networks that had been forged beginning in 1992 wasted no time in responding, and this time, they had more allies than before. Rowland’s comments were immediately denounced from all corners of the state, eventually even by John Marshall, the campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez, who had chosen Rowland as his running mate.3 It certainly wasn’t the only thing that sunk the Beauprez for Governor campaign, but in just a decade, activists and their allies had helped to keep that language from playing well on the campaign trail.

Over the next decade, the question of LGBTQ rights came up repeatedly in Colorado. In 2012, Colorado was in the national spotlight again when Jack Phillips of the Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The case worked its way through the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and then the court system. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, that the Commission had not adhered to religious neutrality. For Phillips, this means he will continue to refuse to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples based on his religious belief that marriage is only between one man and one woman.

A smiling man in sunglasses and a straw hat wearing a colorful striped shirt.
Jeff Basinger at Grand Junction’s 2015 Pride Parade. (Sarah Swedberg/Nursing Clio)

While the Masterpiece decision, though narrow, was still disappointing, today as I write this, the day after the 2018 election, all of this history, all of the heartache and discrimination is much on my mind, because today what was unthinkable in 1992 or even in 2006 has come true: Colorado voters elected Jared Polis, an openly-gay man, to be Governor of our state.

It’s not that the homophobes didn’t try the same tactics that had worked in 1992 and then failed in 2006. They did. Karen Kataline, a Loveland, Colorado Fox News radio personality, described Polis as being part of “kinda sorta the gay mafia if you will, that think they should impose their will on all of us.” Later in her show she insisted that she had no problem with gay people in general, but did have a problem “when they politicize their, ah, sexual preference … in order to impose their agendas on us.”4 Others tried similar tactics and, certainly, for some voters, Polis’s sexuality was enough for them to cast their votes for Walker Stapleton, one of the third-party candidates, or to not vote at all.

You don’t have to look beyond the comments sections on any news article from this election cycle to see just this. In the comments section for a September 30, 2018 Denver Post article about Polis, the un-aptly named Kind2You shows us how well the “special rights” argument still plays in some sectors. Kind2You wrote, “I don’t care about someone’s sexual orientation. It’s none of my business or concern. My problem is when they make a big thing out of it. I have two gay neighbors who have a good sense of humor and they’re nice guys when I see them on the street. They don’t wear tutus, hang rainbow flags on their house, and they don’t make a big deal out of it. Now, switch to the sicko Pride Parade, the gay protesters, and others who think that the gays deserve special rights. I disagree.” Kind2You recycled the same argument I have heard every single year of my life since I started to come out in the mid-1980s.

These words still hurt and anger. Today, though, I live in the certainty that despite all the hate that still comes at us on the airwaves, in the comments sections, from the White House campaign rallies, from the parents in Mesa County and elsewhere who still kick their LGBTQ kids out of their homes, from the bullies in the schools and elsewhere, gay and lesbian candidates can win. In Colorado, Jared Polis won a majority of the popular vote, making him the first openly-gay man to serve as Governor in any state in our union. In the end, maybe love really does trump hate.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Jeff Basinger, long-time activist in Grand Junction, Colorado, who died, too soon, earlier this year.


  1. I have written about this for Nursing Clio before. I also produced oral history radio shows about Amendment 2 called “Clio’s Stories,” archived at KWSI-LP. Return to text.
  2. Colorado for Family Values, “What’s Wrong with Special ‘Gay Rights’? You be the Judge!” 1992, Colorado Mesa University Special Collections. Return to text.
  3. John Marshall kind of apologized: “We all say things we don’t mean sometimes. That’s what happened.” But his reaction when ProgressNow Action Network asked Beauprez to choose another running mate was that ProgressNow were, “bed-wetting, pampered liberals,” and “No one cares what they say about anything.” Return to text.
  4. A link to the audio for this show can be found on the Colorado Times Recorder. The transcription is mine. Return to text.

Sarah Swedberg is a Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University and a lifelong activist.

1 thought on “Change over Time: A Colorado Love Story

    • Author gravatar

      Causes one to pause and reflect on “values”. We value freedom or so we say. We preach tolerance yet continue to impose will on others. Isn’t this about command, control, and economics. Reminded me of the treatment and rights, or lack thereof, of married women. The battle continues.

Comments are closed.