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Justice with Jessica: 50th anniversary of the 'Gay Revolt' at Denver City Council meeting

On October 23, 1973, more than 300 people packed into a Denver City Council meeting to protest the unfair treatment of gays and lesbians by police.
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Posted at 9:42 AM, Oct 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-24 11:42:44-04

DENVER — It's been 50 years since the "Gay Revolt" at a Denver City Council meeting — a major turning point in Denver politics, and the catalyst for movements that followed.

On October 23, 1973, more than 300 people packed into a Denver City Council meeting to protest the unfair treatment of gays and lesbians by police.

Sodomy had recently been decriminalized, but gay people in Denver were being arrested for things such as holding hands or kissing.

"We were subjected to arrests at bars for dancing too close," said attorney Gerald "Jerry" Gerash.

Homophobia was pervasive at the time the unlawful arrests were taking place.

"We were considered perverts," Gerash recalled. "This is early 70s, not 2023."

Much of the targeting occurred around the Colorado State Capitol, where gay people were known to spend their time. The area was known as "Sodomy Circle" among some groups.

One particular sting that took place in the area was known as the "Johnny Cash Special."

A person in a bus would approach someone they believed was gay. The presumed gay person would be invited inside of the bus, under the guise of being taken to a concert. Once inside he bus, the questioning began.

"The way that this worked was the officer would go to a person, ask them what they'd like to do in terms of sex, and then they would arrest them for solicitation of sex," said historian David Duffield, creator of the Colorado LGBTQ History Project at the Center on Colfax.

Fed up with the harassment and mistreatment, Gerash filed a lawsuit against the city.

Gerash was a part of a group of like-minded political activists called the Gay Coalition of Denver. He and the coalition spread the word about the October 23, 1973, meeting in which the Denver City Council planned to discuss updating city codes to reflect the decriminalization of sodomy laws.

More than 300 people attended the meeting to express their concerns about the mistreatment of gay people in the city.

According to the Denver Public Library, 35 people signed up to speak. They were initially limited to 30 minutes of speaking in total.

"When the crowd applauded the first speaker, Koch warned them that he would have them all hauled away on sheriff's buses," according to the library.

Attendees continued to tell their stories.

Gerash documented the emotional public comment session in his documentary, “Gay Revolt at Denver City Council and the Beginnings of an Organized Gay Community.” The documentary displays photos from the event and features audio from the attendees.

"These laws stigmatize and penalize us for dressing according to our personal preference and for expressing our affection in public," said Marge Johnson at the time.

"Such individuals face social censure, loss of jobs, and much misery for simply being different," testified Lester Tobias, who was a clinical psychologist at Jefferson County Mental Health Center.

Gerash presented research he gathered in preparation for the lawsuit against the city, which included statistics about the high number gay people who were being targeted by police.

According to the Denver Public Library, Councilman Irving Hook demanded they be allowed to show arrest numbers.

"It was electric in that it started — the gay movement in Denver," said Gerash.

Within a month after the hearing, the city council repealed the four main anti-gay laws that the activists had sought to remove. A year after the revolt, the Gay Coalition of Denver won its lawsuit.

"This anti-cross-dressing ordinance, along with the end of the solicitation ordinance, really meant that queer spaces could open up and people could begin to live their authentic lives in a more comfortable way in public for the first time in the trust of community activism," said Duffield.

Gerash said the revolt paved the way for gay rights movements that followed.

"Legally, it became a tradition," he said. "Gay and lesbian leaders and civil rights people to use the law to protect themselves... it was so thrilling to be part of basically a revolution."

You can watch Garesh's documentary here or at the Denver Public Library.