July 27, 2023

Denver's Center on Colfax Boosts the Preservation of Colorado's LGBTQ+ History

Denver’s Center on Colfax has served the city’s LGBTQ+ communities for nearly 50 years, offering services such as job training, organizing events like Denver PrideFest, and documenting and preserving history. As a community center that takes pride in hosting in-person events and workshops, the decision to close its doors to the public in March 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult. But after some initial hiccups, the Center quickly adapted to becoming a virtual organization, explained Rex Fuller, the nonprofit’s CEO.

The Center’s Colorado LGBTQ History Project was a major initiative that the organization was determined to keep going in those early days. It received a boost in 2021 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Telling the Full History Preservation Fund, which was made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan.

The brightly-colored exterior of a building.

photo by: Steve Crecelius

The Center on Colfax serves Denver's LGBTQ+ community, providing programs for people of all ages.

Now the Center is open to the public again and, as of July 2023, the organization has largely achieved the primary grant-related goals for the history project. These include transferring oral histories to a more accessible hosting site, hiring a curator to create an in-person exhibit, and organizing and digitizing the Center’s extensive library collection. All of those efforts have further ensconced the state’s LGBTQ+ historical narratives, which haven’t always been readily available.

“In the midst of the urgent and timely need to reckon with complex histories and legacies, the Center on Colfax’s Colorado LGBTQ+ History Project is an exemplary effort that is actively involving the public to recognize and record inspiring stories of Colorado’s LGBTQ+ communities,” said National Trust Senior Field Director Seri Worden.

A Legacy of Supporting Denver’s LGBTQ+ Community

The Center on Colfax was founded in 1976, the result of a group of Denver activists responding to the harassment of gay men at bars by police in the city. Their protests resulted in some significant changes to police tactics, but the group didn’t disband after its success, Fuller said.

A historic, black-and-white photo of a large crowd gathered for a city council meeting

photo by: The Center on Colfax, Jerry Gerash Archives

The overflow audience of the Denver City Council Chambers, where LGBTQ+ activists gathered to protest the harassment of gay men by the city's police force.

Instead, it founded a community center, which became the Center on Colfax. Fuller, who has been at the Center for about a decade, said the organization’s mission is to engage, empower, and advance Colorado’s LGBTQ+ community. It serves multiple generations, with programs for everyone from youth to those over 50.

The Colorado LGBTQ History Project, meanwhile, comes from the mind of David Duffield, a teacher and historian who also serves as the Center’s history program coordinator. Before he was involved with the Center, Duffield watched an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to kill the state’s civil unions bill in 2013 at the Colorado State Capitol. The experience motivated him.

“I got angry, so I wanted to do something on queer history in Colorado, which hadn’t been done before,” Duffield said.

He wrote a lengthy pilot study on what other cities around the United States had done to document, preserve, and teach their local LGBTQ+ history. Duffield brought his idea to the Center, and he’s been working with the organization ever since.

Collecting Oral Histories to Preserve the Past

Duffield says there are four core areas within the history project—oral history, document archiving, education, and networking. It’s a robust effort, which he leads with the help of volunteers.

There are around 100 oral histories associated with the project. His favorites include those of Scotti Carlyle, a drag performer who moved to Denver in the 1950s; John Kelly, a veteran who founded the American Veterans for Equal Rights in the city; and Corky Blankenship, whom Duffield described as a “wonderful, bright, sprightly man, and the life of the party, so to speak, in Denver.”

A man speaks at a city council meeting Terry Mangan

photo by: The Center on Colfax, Jerry Gerash Archives

Terry Mangan, a founder of the Gay Liberation Front in Denver and the Gay Coalition of Denver, speaks at the 1976 city council hearing.

The issue had always been that their stories were difficult to find. Fuller explains that the Center kept a hard drive with the recordings, but they cycled through various digital hosting sites, such as SoundCloud, over the years.

“[The oral histories] were always at risk of being lost to some degree, and it was a challenge for us to make them available,” Fuller said. “Plus, history researchers aren’t necessarily searching SoundCloud for oral histories.”

So, utilizing some of the $25,000 from the Telling the Full History grant, the Center worked with the Colorado Virtual Library to upload the files to a permanent, searchable system that is available through the Center’s website. The recordings are also periodically uploaded to other library databases across the country.

“Some researcher at a university in New York or Oregon or someplace like that might be trying to learn about the LGBTQ+ history of Colorado,” Fuller said. “And now they’re able to find those resources and use them in a much more meaningful way. That’s very exciting for us.”

The grant similarly allowed for the Center to begin creating a digital catalogue—again with the aid of the Colorado Virtual Library—of the historic contents found in its own Terry Mangan Memorial Library. These include bound sets of The Mattachine Review and The Ladder, two examples of early LGBTQ+ publications focused on advancing civil rights.

Finally, the Center used some grant funds to put on an in-person exhibit titled Women’s Activism: Profiles in Dissent, which ran through the end of June 2023. While it has hosted exhibits before, this marked the first time the organization was able to hire an external curator.

Passing Knowledge Forward: The Future of the LGBTQ History Project

Even with the completion of the grant’s objectives, Duffield is still marching forward with the larger Colorado LGBTQ History Project, and he has numerous goals for the future.

Scanned text of a city council meeting agenda.

photo by: The Center on Colfax, Jerry Gerash Archives

A booklet written to the Denver City Council informing them of what the LGBTQ+ activists would like to address during the 1976 hearing.

“We’re moving towards a more intersectional approach,” he said. “Specifically working with African American, Chicano, and other intersectional groups.”

Duffield and Fuller both believe the history project is crucial. Fuller notes how younger people are often surprised by the hardships older LGBTQ+ people in Colorado faced in previous decades.

“It seems like LGBTQ+ civil rights, in the popular media, can be regarded as novel,” Fuller said. “[But] the young activists who were standing up at the Denver City Council for rights not to be harassed, they’ve either passed or they’re older people now. It really is important to just have that sense of history.”

It wasn’t all that long ago that the stories and figures preserved by the Colorado LGBTQ History Project simply weren’t available, Duffield added. The project, he said, is creating heritage and legacy.

“Think about what would happen if we didn’t have the Center or the history project,” he said. “We can, for the first time in our collective history, name the ancestors who were LGBTQ+ in the state’s history, we can for the first time teach those stories … But most importantly today, I think that when we look at what was, and we look at what may be, the difference in that is the ability for people to share their stories, and the ability for people to be heard, and the ability for people to pass on that knowledge to those who come after us. Because when we do so, we liberate them from the ignorance and the kinds of systems of oppression we’ve all grown up with.”

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Tim O'Donnell is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He spends most of his time reading about modern European history and hoping the Baltimore Orioles will turn their fortunes around. A Maryland native, he now lives in Brooklyn.

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