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‘First first man’ of Colorado and other historic wins: How anti-LGBT ‘Hate State’ Colorado elected its first openly gay governor

The midterm election results pouring in on Tuesday night
included a number of significant demographic milestones.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., will be the first openly gay man to
serve as a state’s governor — and he enthusiastically
introduced his long-term partner Marlon Reis as the
“first first man” of Colorado at his victory event on
Tuesday.

Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland will be the first Native
American women to serve in Congress. Capitol Hill will have its
first Muslim congresswomen with Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

Polis, an entrepreneur and former five-term member of Congress
from Boulder, beat Republican Walker Stapleton by six points in
Colorado’s gubernatorial contest. But Polis’s splash into the
history books is all the more significant considering the ugly
track record of the state he has been elected to run.

Since the early 1990s, Colorado has played a key role in the
battle for LGBT rights. The state was dubbed the “hate state”
due to a controversial 1992 law that sparked international
backlash and boycotts. But the same legislation teed up a
landmark 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision that helped lay the
groundwork for marriage equality.

“It’s a historic win – not just for the LGBT community but for
the state of Colorado,” Annise Parker, president and CEO of the
Victory Fund, a nonprofit supporting LGBT politicians, told the
Denver Post on Tuesday. “The fact that the state of Colorado,
in 25 years, has gone from being dubbed the ‘Hate State’ to a
place that can elect someone who is not just openly gay, but
publicly gay, that’s historic.”

Polis has been open about his sexuality since first arriving in
Congress in 2008. Born in Colorado but raised in California,
Polis’s mother and father founded a greeting card company that
later sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, according to
the Denver Post. One of the wealthiest members of the house,
with a reported estimated wealth of $387 million, Polis earned
a reputation in Washington as a tech-savvy public education
advocate.

Polis has two children with his longtime partner, and he has
never downplayed his orientation on the campaign trail – a sign
of the shifting public perception in a state that’s tossed off
its Old West past in favor of a progressive identity.

“Colorado is a state that values diversity,” he explained to
the Denver Post before the midterm election. “We’re willing to
elect people that are going to do a good job for our state
regardless of their background. . . . I think it’s exciting to
show how far the LGBT community has come that it doesn’t stand
in the way of being elected to the highest office in the
state.”

Colorado’s ignominious “hate state” nickname starts with an
fiery Colorado Springs car salesmen named Will Perkins.
Reacting to a number of city ordinances banning discrimination
on the basis of sexual orientation, Perkins and a group of
evangelical Christians formed Colorado for Family Values in
1991.

“Too many people have bought into the idea that homosexuality,
as they call it, is genetic, that there isn’t anything they can
do about it,” Perkins once told a group of followers, according
to Denver’s Westword. “I’m here to tell you that there are only
two flavors of mankind: male and female. There is no such thing
as a homosexual.”

To combat the legal protections, Perkins and his group launched
a ballot initiative called Amendment 2. The referendum claimed
anti-discrimination laws granted “special rights” to gays and
lesbians, and therefore banned such legal protections.

“They were talking about not wanting to give gay people special
rights, but they were doing it by basically taking away
rights,” University of Denver professor Kris McDaniel Miccio
recalled to Westword in 2017. “Everybody held their breath
wondering if this was going to catch fire in other states, as
well as Colorado.”

On Nov. 3, 1992, Colorado passed Amendment 2 by 53 percent. An
immediate outcry followed from civil rights groups and
activists. Celebrities like Barbra Streisand spoke out against
the amendment, according to Westword. In Colorado, business
owners outraged over the law called for a boycott of their own
state.

“We have called for a global boycott,” one Denver business
woman told the Christian Science Monitor in 1992. “Don’t come
here for recreation. Don’t come here for business. The governor
and the people need to realize that basic civil rights are
fundamental. Creating change through a boycott is only one
means of demonstrating the power of the people.”

According to the Monitor, a month after Amendment 2 was passed,
the number of canceled conventions in Denver alone due to the
boycott totaled more than $6 million.

Eventually a lawsuit was filed against the amendment on behalf
of a gay man named Richard G. Evans who worked for the Denver
mayor. As the case – Romer v. Evans – crawled up the federal
court system to the U.S. Supreme Court, observers from around
the country tuned in because similar proposals were on deck in
other states.

“It was a political issue, in that Amendment 2 was being
cloned, so all eyes were on the results of the Supreme Court,”
Mary Celeste, an attorney who worked on the case, explained to
KUNC radio in 2016. “[I]f we lost there, then these initiatives
would come forward across the country.”

In May 1996, the Supreme Court ruled Colorado’s law was
unconstitutional by a 6 to 3 majority. Writing for the
majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy touched on certain themes
that would turn up decades later in his famous Obergefell v.
Hodges opinion, the case legalizing same-sex marriage.

Regarding Amendment 2, Kennedy wrote that the law “is at once
too narrow and too broad. It identifies persons by a single
trait and then denies them protection across the board. The
resulting disqualification of a class of persons from the right
to seek specific protection from the law is unprecedented in
our jurisprudence.”

Despite the eventual implosion of the 1992 amendment, Colorado
has also played a more recent part in the struggle for
equality.

In 2012, a Lakewood, Colorado, cake shop owner refused to serve
a gay couple on religious grounds. The resulting Supreme Court
decision – Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights
Commission – sided with the business, curtailing the reach of
nondiscrimination statutes.

Many legal observes watching the 2017 case picked up echoes of
the state’s earlier gay rights court battle.

“What I find really fascinating about Amendment 2,” McDaniel
Miccio told Westword, “is that we’re reliving it again in
2017.”

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