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‘A Beacon of Hope:’ Colorado Sees Historic LGBTQ Representation Amid National Attacks

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by Lindsey Toomer, Colorado Newsline
June 14, 2023

Members of the Colorado Democratic LGBTQ Caucus have made their presence known across the Colorado Legislature, spearheading the passage of some of the most progressive legislation in support of the LGBTQ community in the country.

Colorado consistently ranks as one of the safest states for LGBTQ people, showing a drastic transition from once being dubbed the “hate state.” But Colorado also still finds its name in headlines with new anti-LGBTQ efforts, including attempts at book censorship, proposals to limit transgender womens’ participation in sports and court cases involving businesses that don’t want to serve the LGBTQ community.

This rhetoric makes representation all the more important, members of Colorado’s LGBTQ caucus say, with fear still present for many people across the country. Members of the caucus held the majority leader role in both legislative chambers last year and were well represented on the powerful Joint Budget Committee. In this year’s session, the caucus grew to 13 members, making it the largest LGBTQ legislative caucus in the country by percentage, with additional members taking on leadership roles, too. 

“It’s kind of a beacon of hope for people right now to see that,” Rep. Brianna Titone said about Colorado’s LGBTQ representation. “I think right now people need to see it more than they even want to, because there’s just a lot of angst and nervousness around the country.”

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Titone, an Arvada Democrat, is the first trans woman to serve in the Colorado Legislature. She served as the House’s majority caucus co-chair this session. She’s been the chair of the LGBTQ caucus since March 2021 and said she’s proud of how diverse Colorado’s caucus has grown to be.

“We check off a lot of different boxes for diversity, and with that diversity has come a lot of people that are in positions of power,” Titone said. “People who live here in Colorado can really start to see themselves in these positions where they’ve never been able to before, and it’s not just restricted to cis white gay men, or cis white lesbian women.”

With the greater diversity in the caucus, Titone said, members have been able to tackle issues they might not have prioritized without a growing group. For example, she said Rep. David Ortiz, a Littleton Democrat, brought a new perspective as a military veteran, leading to the passage of the Restoration of Honor Act. This legislation expanded state benefits to military veterans who were discharged from service due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

I can’t imagine at this point in my life not getting in the way of attacks on other members of this community. Even if I don’t feel that I’m particularly under attack myself, lots of people are, certainly some of my family members and loved ones who are trans, especially if they’re underage — God, they’re really coming for them.

– Rep. Stephanie Vigil

Democratic Rep. Stephanie Vigil is the first LGBTQ person to represent Colorado Springs in the Legislature, winning their seat just a few weeks before the deadly shooting at Club Q. Identifying as gender fluid and bisexual, she said she’s grateful to benefit from the hard work of LGBTQ people before her. 

“I can’t imagine at this point in my life not getting in the way of attacks on other members of this community,” Vigil said. “Even if I don’t feel that I’m particularly under attack myself, lots of people are, certainly some of my family members and loved ones who are trans, especially if they’re underage — God, they’re really coming for them.”

Vigil said it’s essential for members of the queer community to “lead with our joy, because that’s what they want to squash more than anything,” but also to be informed on the regular attacks that still threaten the community, particularly transgender people. 

State Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, speaks about community revitalization grants during a news conference Oct. 7, 2021, at Wonderbound dance company in Denver. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Rep. Leslie Herod’s election marked the first time Colorado elected an LGBTQ Black woman to the Legislature. To her, serving in the House gives her the power to directly stand up to and block “really disastrous attacks” on her community, and she said it’s important for LGBTQ people to see this. 

“It’s important that maybe legislators who are considering some of these harmful pieces of legislation get to know us and understand that we are people like anyone else and kind of humanize the conversation for people who would really much rather demonize it,” Herod, a Denver Democrat, said. “I’ve seen that work successfully in the past. It’s getting harder now as people become more entrenched in their beliefs, but we are leaning toward progress.”

It just goes to show you that there are many more people listening than you know, there are many more people watching than you know, and if you’re just yourself in all ways, people begin to see that maybe they’re wrong.

– Rep. Leslie Herod

Herod said she befriended a former Republican colleague after they worked together on a variety of issues, despite disagreeing on many policies. She said that on one of the last days of the session, she found a note from him in her binder where he apologized for having brought forward anti-LGBTQ legislation and said he wouldn’t do it again. 

“Seeing that and knowing that I changed him, even unintentionally, made a huge impact on me and my work,” Herod said. “It just goes to show you that there are many more people listening than you know, there are many more people watching than you know, and if you’re just yourself in all ways, people begin to see that maybe they’re wrong.” 

Daneya Esgar, former majority leader of the Colorado House and current Pueblo County commissioner, became the first LGBTQ person to run for any public office in Pueblo, and alongside Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno worked to grow the LGBTQ caucus back to a greater presence when they were both in the House.

“We just talked about how there’s so much power in bringing like-minded folks together and working together as a caucus that we wanted to really push to make sure we had as much representation as possible,” Esgar said. “I think back from the days of seeing four people standing in front of a group talking to us on lobby day to what it is now, I’m just super proud.”

‘War against you and your community’

With efforts to limit LGBTQ rights continuing even in Colorado, Titone said she’s accepted that she just won’t be able to reach some of her Republican colleagues. 

“I know that because every time I turn around, they’re always talking about me, but they’ve never had a conversation with me,” Titone said. “A lot of people who are open to talk about different topics, I always make some time to do that, and you try to educate them and offer those conversations and I’ve had those conversations with some of my colleagues. Sometimes it’s about being really open and vulnerable in some of those conversations, and then, it does make a difference when you have those one-on-one talks with people.”

As a representative from Colorado Springs, Vigil said the far-right rhetoric targeting LGBTQ people is “genocidal.” 

“A couple of my district neighbors are very vocal about what they think about folks like me and my LGBTQ colleagues,” Vigil said. “The last day of session, I was pretty blunt about it that we need to take this seriously. They want some of us dead. They do. They’ve been clear about it. They’re certainly indifferent to safety when they spread lies about us that cause stochastic terrorism.”

Vigil added that disagreeing with someone who “wants you to not be free or have your basic dignity and humanity” isn’t a disagreement over policy. 

“We’re not doing that to them. They’re doing that to us,” they said. “So, I think when someone sort of declares war against you and your community, it’s a really foolish move to not treat them like a foe, to not regard them as that, because they’re not going to stop… You can’t be friends with somebody who wishes you harm.” 

Colorado Republicans including Reps. Richard Holtorf of Akron and Scott Bottoms of Colorado Springs have repeatedly spewed transphobic arguments in front of the Legislature. 

Still work to be done

Colorado has gotten ahead of the game in recent years as the caucus grew, Titone said, accomplishing many of the goals other states are still working toward. 

The caucus is also in the early stages of launching a nonprofit fund, which Titone said members want to use as a way to reach the community and engage young people with government and politics. She said the caucus wants to use the fund as a way to get LGBTQ people working in the Captiol and potentially provide scholarships.

“We have term limits, so we can’t keep doing this work — we need to make sure that someone else is going to take over and do the work after us, and we need some bright LGBT youth to learn the ropes and take over for us,” Titone said. 

This year, Senate Bill 23-188 added protections for people looking to access reproductive health care as well as gender-affirming care in Colorado. Titone said this is an example of the additional work she thinks will come from the Legislature, responding to the negative actions toward the LGBTQ community.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs Senate Bill 23-296, which creates a required reporting process for discrimination and harassment in schools and requires schools to adopt policies protecting kids who experience discrimination, into law. State Rep. Leslie Herod, in orange, stands behind Polis. (Photo from Leslie Herod)

“That wasn’t something we necessarily wanted to have to do, but we had to do it to protect the providers and the patients looking for this kind of care,” she said about the shield law. 

Herod helped pass Senate Bill 23-296, which creates a required reporting process for discrimination and harassment in schools and requires schools to adopt policies protecting kids who experience discrimination. At the bill signing, she brought along a student who just graduated high school, but didn’t walk at graduation because they didn’t feel their school was supportive of their gender identity. 

“We know that that still happens, and it happens sometimes from teachers and administrators,” Herod said. “It also happens from, you know, peer to peer, and there needs to be more protections and so we must continue to lead on that.”

Vigil said that in the next legislative session, they want to prioritize greater protections for victims of mass casualty events, especially when it comes to hate crimes. 

“What would justice look like for them and what do we want to do moving forward to keep people safer? Because obviously, thoughts and prayers don’t cut it,” Vigil said. “The guns are a huge factor, but there’s also more to it than that, so I’m working with those folks a lot to see what they prioritize more than anything, because I think survivors should lead the way.”

Then-House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, is pictured on the House floor March 11, 2022. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

While members of the community use Pride Month as a time to celebrate, members of the caucus acknowledge that there is still work to be done. Herod emphasized that “Pride is a protest, Pride is a movement,” and said everyone within and in support of the community needs to find a way to voice their support in a way meaningful to them.

Esgar agreed, saying “it’s absolutely time to celebrate who we are and be proud, but it’s also time to realize that every single day we’re gonna have to continue to push and fight for our livelihoods and our families… We have to be paying attention every single day, especially when it comes to attacks on our transgender brothers and sisters and make sure we’re standing up together as a community.”

Titone said continued education around LGBTQ history is critical, as many people don’t know the extent of what the community has gone through until they hear it from someone they know who is LGBTQ. She said working with allies is important to make sure they understand the role they can play in advocating and protecting LGBTQ rights, because “it’s not something that the community alone can do.”

“The things that are happening right now in this country are the same things with a different flavor that happened before Stonewall,” Titone said, referring to a 1969 police attack on LGBTQ people that was a turning point for the community. “And if we don’t learn from the history of what’s happened in the past, we’re always doomed to repeat that, and we’re repeating it because the history is not really known.” 

The right to self determination, that’s a basic human right, and I think it’s been a core Colorado value from the beginning. We’re not really embracing our identity as a state if we don’t lean into that and protect that right.

– Rep. Stephanie Vigil

While Vigil said they weren’t necessarily upfront about their queer identity during their campaign, she said Club Q changed that. Advocating LGBTQ rights comes down to the “founding values” of the United States, Vigil said: the freedom for people “to live their own life and pursue their own happiness.” 

“The right to self determination, that’s a basic human right, and I think it’s been a core Colorado value from the beginning,” Vigil said. “We’re not really embracing our identity as a state if we don’t lean into that and protect that right. I really see it as a fluke in recent history, that this fundamentalist, conservative Christian movement has encroached on people’s freedoms. That’s sort of a blip in our overall history — that’s not who Colorado is.” 

Vigil said that while the small government approach to protecting freedom tends to be preferred, she said sometimes “you have to set some pretty hard rules to prevent private entities from abusing people and limiting their freedom,” and they want to see more of that come up regularly in conversations. 

With Colorado continuously serving as a forerunner for change, Vigil said, its historic representation this year is a good sign despite what they called an ongoing “culture war.” 

“All of the rest of the political noise around these issues, it’s a culture war, and they tend to wage culture wars when they’re already losing the conversation — that’s what tends to happen,” Vigil said. “So it makes me feel like we’re doing the right thing, and we can’t afford to start backing down now on our right to exist and thrive and be full fledged citizens.”

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Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.