LGBTQ legislators in Colorado have a message for you: Black and trans lives matter. As Republican-led statehouses across the nation seek to gin up controversy around transgender youth, state representatives Leslie Herod and Brianna Titone continue to push progressive legislative change in Colorado, from a first-in-the-nation policy that ended qualified immunity for police to becoming the 11th state in the nation to ban the gay panic defense. We asked them both what’s next for LGBTQ rights, what drives them, and what leaders inspire them today.

LGBTQ legislator Leslie Herod
Representative Leslie Herod is a member of the Colorado House of Representatives serving the 8th district. Photo courtesy of Caring For Denver

Leslie Herod

5280: We’re coming up on one year since the passing of Colorado’s historic Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity bill, which brought sweeping reforms to policing in Colorado. What are your thoughts, a year after it was signed into law?
Leslie Herod: Last year was a year of reckoning for Colorado; for Black folks, people of color, as well as white folks who are dealing with their whiteness in this country.  But people are still dying. And so a year later, I look back on that bill and think, That was great work, but there’s more work to do in the movement for Black lives. It’s not just about law enforcement accountability; it’s also about humanizing Black people, seeing our humanity, having compassion for our communities and celebrating us. This country is not quite there yet, so we have so much more to do. And so the bill has given us momentum to continue the work of dismantling so many aspects of white supremacy that this country was built on.

Where do you think Colorado is in the fight for LGBTQ rights and equality?
As the chair of the Black Caucus and a member of the LGBTQ Caucus, I do feel like our struggles are very different, but for me and others, they are intersectional. I believe the LGBTQ movement has made progress, so much so that we’re able to talk about more complex issues. So it’s not just about marriage equality or non-discrimination. It’s about asking questions on a deeper level. How does anti-bullying legislation affect the school to prison pipeline? Have we, as legislators, made the right decisions, or do we need to bring in more diverse and dynamic conversations to get there? I’m concerned that some in the LGBTQ movement feel like their work is done, and it’s not. We still have far too many homeless youth on the streets and too many LGBTQ people who are incarcerated or who are underemployed or unemployed. We don’t talk enough about stigma, around HIV or sex work. And so I think one of my roles is to really push those conversations. So when we talk about liberation, we should talk about it in the sense of liberation for Black folks, but also as true liberation for the entire LGBTQ community, and we’re not there yet.

Speaking of stigma, last year Governor Jared Polis signed into law the HIV Infection Prevention bill, expanding access to pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, which is a daily pill for HIV-negative people to prevent HIV infection. The bill removed one crucial barrier, allowing pharmacists to consult and prescribe it to those who seek it out. Why didn’t we hear much about that?
What I found interesting with the PrEP issue is that because I chose to sponsor it—as a member of both the Black and queer communities, it kind of became something that people couldn’t argue against. The question never was whether it would pass or not, but instead it was making sure the policy was nuanced. We know that lack of access to PrEP is structural, but also deeply stigma-based. And I think having a Black queer person leading the effort helped. Having a gay governor didn’t hurt, either.

Attempts to rollback trans rights are sweeping statehouses across the country. What have your conversations been like with colleagues from across the aisle?
First, I will say that’s a nonstarter in Colorado. We will not be rolling back any efforts to ensure that LGBTQ people are able to live their full and vibrant lives in the ways that they choose to. Second, I’m familiar with a white conservative Republican who proposed a bill that targeted LGBTQ youth and their access to mental health care. I remember being disappointed because I considered this colleague a friend. I never said anything to him. I figured, Hey, he believes what he believes. I continued to work with him on other issues. Later, I received a letter from him apologizing for supporting a bill that caused so much hurt. He said it was his biggest mistake in all his time as an elected official. That had a huge impact on me because it shows that we never know who we’re moving. It’s not my intent to always try to fight or move transphobic, homophobic people. I want to make sure the policies are right, and get the votes how I get them, but I’m not going to argue with you about whether or not I deserve to live or to exist, or love who I want to love. I think that also shows why we have to be at the table. It’s about who changes just by getting to know us.

Why have kids figured so prominently in recent pushback against transgender rights, including bills prohibiting trans girls and women from participating in sports?
I think it’s a tactic they found that works by making people feel like they’re not really transphobic or homophobic, they’re just doing what’s right for their children. It’s similar to the bathroom panic, but now they’re saying that your kid will lose out on sports, and I think they’re finding an opening there for conversations with folks who are protective of their children. But we’re also seeing more trans youth come out younger and it’s hard for them. Not only do we have to think beyond just fighting bad policies, we need policies in place to support these youth with mental health and protection from bullies. Since COVID-19 shifted classes online, trans youth are feeling safer in those virtual environments than they did in their schools. That should be a red flag to us all that we need to do more work.

What does it mean to you to be a queer person of faith?
My faith is what grounds me and gives me hope in the future. I’m lucky to belong to the Episcopalian Church here in Denver, where my pastor is a Black gay man. I had not experienced that before, and I’m proud to see Colorado moving in that direction. I feel like my faith helps me to check in with myself around what true equity is; what it means to treat your neighbor as yourself. I want to walk in a way that sees the good in people, lifting up those who others will leave behind. That’s what centers my work and pushes me forward to fight for queer kids or folks with disabilities. It’s where my conviction to say, Stop shooting people on the streets and make sure that the unhoused are housed, comes from. My faith offers me time, solitude, and reflection, so that I can do my job better and become a better person.

What leader or icon do you find yourself thinking about most these days?
I feel Maxine Waters has really become a queer icon. Auntie Maxine is rockin’ it out and just being like, Here’s who we are, here’s what we’re doing, and we will fight for everybody, unapologetically. I’m so in love with that! And then Kehlani, because…neck tattoos and rainbow hair. I’m just loving her journey on TikTok. It’s hilarious and so fascinating!

Favorite queer bar to frequent?
I’ve got to tell you, Denver is missing a BIPOC-centered hangout. In my younger days, I used to go to 60 South and do drag. It was a whole community and I’m hoping that we can build something like that again for the younger folks.

Read more: Leslie Herod Has a Story to Share

Brianna Titone

LGBTQ legislator Brianna Titone
Representative Brianna Titone is a member of the Colorado House of Representatives serving the 27th district. Photo courtesy of Ashleigh Vlieger

5280: We’re coming up on one year since the passing of the Gay or Transgender Panic Defense Bill. (The bill bars defendants from blaming their violent acts on their victims’ sexual or gender identities.) As one of the bill’s sponsors, what are your thoughts on the legislation one year since its passage?
Brianna Titone: It’s hard to say what kind of direct impact a bill like this is going to have, because if people aren’t able to use that defense anymore, we’re not going to see it show up. But I know for a fact that when I discuss this particular topic to LGBTQ youth, they’re really excited that here in Colorado, they feel more protected, and a bit safer. So it definitely was well received in the community, for sure. And since that bill passed, a couple other states have brought forth similar legislation. I’ve worked with Virginia House Delegate Danica Roem on her bill (which passed in April) and with Vermont state Representative Taylor Small on one that just passed on May 5. Colorado showed them how bipartisan this kind of protection can be.

What’s next for Colorado in the fight for transgender rights?
There are a lot of things, document wise, that still haven’t been fully addressed, specifically in Jude’s Law. Marriage certificates are one of them. So, say you’re married to your partner, and later you come out as being trans, a [new] marriage certificate is usually issued, but it dates the marriage as beginning on the new date that you received it. It essentially erases your marriage to that person prior to their coming out, because it doesn’t have the original data on it. Some people may think, Well, who cares? But to a lot of people, it’s a big deal. So there’s a few things like that.

In terms of health care coverage, trans people have been fighting for mandated insurance coverage for facial feminization surgery. [Insurance] argues that the procedure is purely cosmetic. But really it’s about safety for trans people who don’t want to stand out. If they have a very masculine face, they want to soften it to avoid standing out and they aren’t targeted. When they walk into a job interview, they’re going to be treated a little more fairly. If they’re on the street, they’re probably not going to get harassed by people as much. Colorado has done a pretty good job addressing health care and workplace discrimination. We’ve done almost everything. Now we’re just trying to identify where we need to fill the gaps at this point.

LGBTQ organizations in Colorado have described 2020 as a landmark year for pro-LGBT legislation. What do you make of the backlash this year, as more than 30 states have introduced more than 100 bills meant to curb transgender rights?
The whole climate of politics has become hostile. And it’s gone to these really divisive places that pit people against one another. This particular issue around trans people is an easy fight to pick because there’s not a lot of trans people in elected office and at the table. [Colorado Republicans] did try the same kinds of stuff last year here and they didn’t do it again this year. I was kind of surprised that they didn’t rerun those bills, again, being that everybody else across the country has. But these kinds of things aren’t new, they’re recycled tactics dating back to the 1950s and ’60s, when it was gay men who were the targets of discrimination and police harassment. The Stonewall uprising was a response to that. And then it was about lesbian people in your locker rooms. And when lesbian people were largely accepted, they made trans people the enemy.

Why are lawmakers so concerned with trans youth specifically?
There’s a surge of young people coming out as trans, not because it’s popular or cool. It’s because there’s people like Laverne Cox and Danica Roem and me, to a lesser degree. We’re being visible and making people feel safe to want to come out. And because people feel like they can, because they have allies who are fighting for them, and people like them, who are starting to become elected officials or doctors or teachers and everything else, those young trans people feel they don’t have to be afraid of who they are anymore. And since that movement has started, these old tropes emerge. An attack on trans youth in any place is an attack on trans youth everywhere, and I’m not going to stand for that. And it’s really so sad that these kids who just want to live their lives are being used as political pawns right now.

What does it mean to you to be a queer person of faith?
As a kid growing up in the Catholic Church, the positive messages of ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘Jesus is love’ got ingrained in me. I subscribe to that in my life. But the Catholic Church has demonstrated over the years that they don’t like LGBTQ people, they don’t like trans people; how can you possibly go along with something that’s contradictory to what the teachings are? I’ve been thinking a lot about the way Native American people have looked to the Earth and their environment as being a part of what God is. My wife is Jewish, and I participate in those religious ceremonies with her. I also appreciate the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado for making faith more inclusive in the way I think it should always be.

How does that inform your response to political arguments like religious freedom?
On Trans Day of Visibility, I brought the first trans person to lead prayer on the floor of the General Assembly. I thought that was very important because a lot of LGBTQ people, especially trans people, are finger-pointed to be godless people. And that’s not true at all. People can be trans and be leaders in the faith community. But when I brought Nicole Garcia [the first Latina transgender person to be ordained as pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America] to the chamber to lead the prayer, many Republicans just left the room. That showed a kind of hypocrisy of liking your religion but not anybody else’s. Religious freedom does not give people carte blanche to force other people to do what their religion dictates. But that’s what a lot of people in religious groups would like to think. And because they have a lot of power in governments all across the country, including the federal government, they believe that they can dictate their religious values on everybody. That’s not what religious freedom is really about in the Constitution. It’s about you being able to have your religion the way you want, and me being able to have a religion that I want. And that’s fine. But my religion and my existence as a trans person doesn’t impinge on your ability to practice your faith.

What leader or icon do you find yourself thinking about most these days?
Vice President Kamala Harris is somebody I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, especially since seeing her and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi standing behind President Joe Biden during a Joint Session of Congress. That was really inspiring, because she represents a lot of intersectional identities. And that’s an important step in opening the floodgates for even more diversity in political leadership.

Favorite queer bar to frequent?
I don’t really go out much! New Image Brewing Company in Arvada. I used to have constituent events there and invite people down for a beer. One cool place in Denver is called Diebolt Brewery. They’re launching a new beer for Pride and donating proceeds to charities. I always appreciate that they take it upon themselves to go above and beyond to be really good allies. Trans people need allies more than ever, and when folks—especially business leaders—step up, it makes a big difference.

Read More: Colorado Joins 10 Other States in Banning the Gay Panic Defense