Every June, Pride Month offers a chance to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. It’s also a poignant reminder of how certain history can be forgotten—something Aaron Marcus, Gill Foundation Associate Curator of LGBTQ+ History at History Colorado, is well aware of and hard at work to change.
Marcus recalls memories from Denver’s PrideFest many years ago, where he found himself offering history lessons to younger festivalgoers about how Pride commemorates the start of the modern gay rights movement, which was rooted in rebellion. “When Pride started, it was all about commemorating the Stonewall uprising, right? Which, today, a lot of people don’t realize,” he says.
As a gay man who grew up in Denver, Marcus admits he is still constantly learning new things about the LGBTQ+ community in Colorado. So when the opportunity came along to curate a new collection and exhibition at History Colorado Center exploring the history of the LGBTQ+ movement in the Centennial State, Marcus knew it was an opportunity to share knowledge that his home state desperately needed.
The resulting exhibition, Rainbows & Revolutions, which opens June 4 and will be on view through at least January 1, 2023, spotlights hundreds of artifacts from as far back as the 1950s that paint a nuanced picture of that movement here in Colorado—including artwork, photographs, clothing, court documents, newspaper clippings, and more. Funded by the Gill Foundation, the exhibit showcases a small selection of the artifacts gathered by Marcus for the Gill Foundation LGBTQ archives—a new permanent collection at History Colorado—and highlights stories integral to the Mile High City’s history, from the gay revolt on Denver City Council in 1973 to the AIDS crisis to Pride marches over the years. According to Marcus, Rainbows & Revolutions is also the largest LGBTQ+ exhibit ever put on by a state agency.
“[The exhibition] was, for me, a way to finish something I started,” Marcus says, reflecting on a prior LGBTQ-focused exhibit he worked on in 2015 that never came to fruition due to History Colorado’s financial troubles at the time. But it also felt urgent, he says, noting the recent anti-LGBTQ legislation in states like Florida and Texas, and the transphobic violence still rampant in our country. “A lot of research I’ve come across—newspaper articles, pamphlets, ephemera, you name it—if you just change the date on it from 1970-something to today’s date, it’s the same [issues],” he says.
Marcus and his team spent more than two years collecting artifacts from every corner of the state, including manuscripts from the Denver chapter of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations in the country, pieces from local pillars of the feminist movement in the 1970s like feminist newspaper Big Mama Rag, and the only remaining stain glass art from the facade of the former Woman to Woman Feminist Bookcenter on East Colfax Avenue. There are also contemporary pieces, such as a dress worn by drag queen Juiccy Misdemeanor at Black Pride Colorado. Marcus hopes the condensed timeline tells the story of how a place that once earned itself the nickname of the “hate state” for passing Amendment 2 in 1992—a measure that made it legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people, which was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1996—became considered one of the more progressive states, even electing Jared Polis as the nation’s first openly gay governor in 2018.
“There was so much I didn’t know,” Marcus says, noting the 20-plus hours of oral histories he gathered for the collection, including stories from elder Coloradans who were activists fighting for their rights. “When I started going out in the 1990s, all of this Amendment 2 stuff was happening—it had already passed—and I didn’t have quite the understanding of it. I was young, new,” he says. “Until I started this process, I had no idea, you know, about the Equal Protection Ordinance Coalition or Colorado Legal Initiatives Project or any of these things that I could have joined and helped make history. But now, I’m preserving it.”
Marcus wants the permanent collection and exhibit to serve as an educational opportunity for Coloradans of all walks of life, as well as a resource for people who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. “So many of the people that donated [to the collection] were the ones fighting for these rights. I hope I can do justice to them,” he says. “And I hope that younger people who come in and see the exhibit, if they are questioning their own identity, that this would help them [see], like, Oh, I’m not alone.”
A traveling component of Rainbows & Revolutions will be on view at History Colorado’s regional locations next year (the schedule is yet to be determined); The entire permanent collection can be accessed by the public at any time via the museum’s archive site. With more artifacts being donated to the Gill Foundation LGBTQ archives regularly (anyone interested in providing resources can contact email@example.com), Marcus hopes to continue the conversation around Colorado’s LGBTQ+ community with future exhibits, as well. Because while Pride month may come and go, Marcus acknowledges that the timeline of Rainbows & Revolutions will leave visitors with a stark reminder of the present climate, as well as the work that still remains in the fight for inclusivity and equity.
“Everybody wanted to stick in this one last good moment, if you will,” he says. “But this is where we are right now. We can’t ignore that. We have a long way to go.”
If you go: June 4 through January 1, 2023; 1200 N. Broadway; Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Entry to see Rainbows & Revolutions is included with the cost of general admission; Free for History Colorado members, $14 for adults, $12 for seniors age 65 and up, $10 for students with ID, $8 for children ages 5–15; free for children age 4 and under. Find more information online