The relationship between the LGBTQ community and law enforcement has long been a tumultuous one. After all, some of the first pride events in the country began in response to the 1969 police raid on Stonewall Inn, a gay club in New York City. Now, with the Black Lives Matter movement increasing scrutiny of the police, pride organizers across the country, including in New York City, have decided to restrict law enforcement presence at festivities this year. The Center on Colfax, which organizes Denver PrideFest, followed in those footsteps and announced it would not invite police to Pride this year.
Rex Fuller, CEO of the Center on Colfax, says the decision was far from simple. Community members have asked the Center to restrict police presence for years: Along with individual social media comments and letters, there was a protest at the annual parade in 2015. Fuller also received coordinated email campaigns in 2019 and 2020, asking that the police not be allowed at PrideFest.
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“The Black Lives Matter movements from last summer caused a lot of soul searching for us,” Fuller says. “It’s not been easy. I feel for individual police officers who have worked for years to gain acceptance on the force, but it ultimately came down to looking at the origins of pride.”
Stonewall isn’t the only historical event that Fuller is talking about. In fact, the Center on Colfax was founded when a group of five people came together in 1972 to create a grassroots movement meant to expose the unjust treatment of gay men by Denver police. The group, called the Gay Coalition of Denver (GCD), found that 98 percent of those arrested in the early 1970s for “offer of lewd conduct” were gay men—arrests that were frequently made after a gay man unwittingly accepted a proposition from an undercover officer.
The GCD took this information to Denver’s City Council in October 1973. After three hours of testimony from 35 different speakers (with another 300 in attendance to offer support), four laws that unfairly impacted gay men were repealed, including the one that allowed police entrapment through solicitation. In 1974, a civil court in Denver ruled that police could not enforce laws in a discriminatory matter or arrest gay community members for hugging, kissing, or holding hands in public. The movement eventually became what is known as the Center on Colfax today.
Part of the reason the Center is able to restrict on-duty officers from attending is because most of this year’s pride programming will remain virtual, with the exception of a few hubs for smaller events. (In order for PrideFest to take place on city streets, as it has in years past, organizers would have to request official permits and invoke the help of DPD to shut down traffic.) For two days this June, in-person festivities will be held at the Center’s headquarters. The parking lot will host a festival featuring food trucks, vendors, and live music. The Center plans to hire private security.
The Denver Police Department (DPD) has been publicly supportive of the LGBTQ community. Since 2015, DPD has sponsored Safe Place, a program meant to assist victims of anti-LGBTQ crime while also reducing harassment through public awareness. Individual DPD officers have walked in past pride marches to show their support.
“The Denver Police Department considers the LGBTQ community valued partners in safety. We respect The Center’s decision to have law enforcement sit out this Pride Fest and look forward to building upon our relationships with The Center and LGBTQ community moving forward,” according to a statement from the DPD.
Despite DPD’s statement, the Center on Colfax has received plenty of backlash to this decision, especially on social media. Some say that the LGBTQ community, which has long stood for inclusivity, is not being inclusive to all.
Bill Hummel, a gay man and Aurora Police Department sergeant, wrote a letter to the Center on Colfax expressing his disappointment in the organization’s decision. The letter was also published by the Sentinel. In it, Hummel describes at first struggling to be open about his identity at work. Over time, though, he grew more confident and began getting more officers involved with pride celebrations. “Rather than fighting for inclusivity, you are excluding a group of gay, lesbian and transgendered people from participating,” Hummel writes. “How are we to be a part of the change if you won’t have us at all?”
While Fuller understands these frustrations, he disagrees.“If I have articulated arguments from Black Lives Matter and trans activists saying, ‘We don’t think the police should be present at pride,’ and I then say I’m prioritizing individual officers over Black and trans activists, what kind of message about inclusion is that sending?” Fuller says.
Nadine Bridges used to work for the Center as director of Rainbow Alley, a space for LGBTQ youth to come together and find support. Now, she’s executive director of One Colorado, the state’s leading advocacy organization for LGBTQ Coloradans. She’s seen people of color and members of the community simply refuse to attend pride events due to the presence of police officers.
“Pride is not just a party,” Bridges says. “It’s also to remember how Black and trans people have fought against the brutality of the system at Stonewall.”
Many LGBTQ leaders, including Bridges, say the Center’s decision is aimed at the law enforcement system as a whole, rather than individual police officers. In fact, individual officers who want to attend pride festivities are welcome if they are not on duty. Bridges feels for officers on the force who are part of the LGBTQ community and feel discriminated against, but stresses that the unjust treatment of the system on people of color cannot be overlooked.
Dr. tara jae (who uses lowercase letters in their name) is cofounder of Black Pride Colorado, a program launched this year meant to empower and bring together the Black LGBTQ community. The program is sponsored by Youth Seen, a local organization that provides emotional support resources to LGBTQ youth, that jae founded in 2017. After the Center announced its decision in May, Black Pride Colorado and Youth Seen released statements of support.
“This is not in a way meant to shame law enforcement at all,” jae said. “It is our hope that as we support Denver Pride, that law enforcement will take it as an opportunity to come back to the community and have a larger conversation on how they can do things differently.”
As a Black queer nonbinary person, jae said that many people of color within the LGBTQ community have felt uncomfortable with police presence at pride events in the past—according to a 2011 report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, 22 percent of transgender people who interact with police report that they’ve been harassed by officers, a percentage that shot up to 38 percent for Black transgender folks interviewed.
jae hopes that DPD will not only acknowledge the issue of its presence, but take steps to repair the damage.
According to Fuller, steps have already been made to engage in these conversations. Since the announcement, Fuller and Bridges met with representatives from Aurora Police Department to discuss how law enforcement agencies can best serve the LGBTQ community and how a lack of trust can come to be healed. They’ve also met with representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigations and say meetings with DPD are in the works.
“It’s not about the individual, it really is about the system. I’m happy to talk to anybody who’s willing to have that conversation so that we can gain understanding,” Bridges says. “We’re not trying to discriminate, we’re trying to fight for equality. You have to change systems in order to have equality.”