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social sciences

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World War II

World War II and the buildup to it played an important role in the emergence of local gay and lesbian communities and cultures throughout the United States, including Denver. Historian John D'Emilio notes that just before the war, gay bars appeared for the first time in Denver.

Bringing hundreds of thousands of young men and women together in same-sex environments and disrupting their traditional lives, World War II arguably made it easier for gay men and lesbians to identify and meet each other.

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Historian Allan Bérubé notes how small groups of gay airmen from nearby Lowry Air Force Base transformed bars such as Mary's Tavern on Broadway into gay establishments. Rather than let the owners and police intimidate them into silence, these men maintained a visible gay presence and persisted in claiming the bar as their own cultural space.

Not only did gay men begin to band together and in small ways demand to be served as openly gay customers, but they also created their own establishments, as well. Denver's first exclusively gay bar, The Pit, opened in 1939.

The Mattachine Society in Denver

After World War II, Denver's gay community continued to grow, and by the late 1950s it sustained its own chapter of the Mattachine Society, the early organization that Harry Hay and a small group of activists had started earlier in the decade in Los Angeles.

Over Labor Day weekend in 1959, the Mattachine Society held its yearly national convention in Denver, which was the first and only time that Mattachine held its annual meeting outside of California or New York. D'Emilio argues that this conference marked a major turning point in the national reach and visibility of Mattachine organizing. The conference also greatly affected the local Denver homophile movement.

Based on the ideas of Denver-based organizers, the conference included a new approach to dealing with publicity about Mattachine's activities. The new strategy evinced great courage, but it backfired on Denver activists, leading to the demise of the Denver chapter of the Mattachine Society.

One of the local Mattachine leaders, "Carl Harding"--a pseudonym for Elver Barker--suggested that Mattachine hold a public press conference, in which the officers would allow themselves to be photographed and interviewed with their own names.

D'Emilio writes that this new approach to working with the press paid off. Both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News covered the conference, treating the movement in a rational and fair manner. The publicity increased membership, but it also brought the unfavorable attention of the police.

A few weeks after the conference, the police raided the homes of a number of the officers, which led to one of them being imprisoned. Others lost their jobs, and many more simply panicked and stopped attending Mattachine meetings and functions. For some time, homosexual activism and networking stagnated in Denver.

The Stonewall Generation

After the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969, however, Denver, like many U.S. cities, saw a surge of gay and lesbian activism and community growth, especially with regard to the lesbian community.

In the 1970s, the lesbian community flourished in the form of publications, community centers, and bookstores. In 1973, a newspaper collective began publishing Big Mama Rag, a lesbian-feminist news journal that described itself as "socialist orientated." Published once a month, it featured news on the local and national level, as well as writing about women's health and culture.

Denver lesbians also formed their own center in the 1970s, which along with feminist bookstores such as the Woman to Woman Feminist Center and the Woman's Voice provided lesbians with space for various consciousness raising and support groups, art exhibits by lesbian artists, and lending libraries.

In the mid-1970s, the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Denver emerged as Denver's primary gay neighborhood. At the same time, Cheesman Park began to serve as a gathering place for gay men. In 1974, the first gay pride rally, or "gay-in" as it was called, was held there. To this day, it remains both a popular cruising park for many gay men and the start of the local gay pride parade.

Other community-based organizations were also founded in the 1970s. In 1971 the first Metropolitan Community Church was organized in Denver, but internal divisions made it short-lived. Two years later a more permanent MCC was established, and it continues to provide services to Denver's gay and lesbian community.

In the early 1980s a small group of people grew concerned about reports from around the country about the developing health crisis confronting gay men. They met to organize a local response in Denver, and out of this meeting developed the Colorado AIDS Project, which was officially incorporated in 1983.

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