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social sciences

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In 1858 after rumors of gold strikes spread to the east coast, hundreds of prospectors made their way to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. A settlement quickly grew up where the Cherry Creek flows into the South Platte River, and two years later the city of Denver was formally named.

Early Years

In its early years, Denver was regarded as a rough town, lacking any semblance of morality or culture. The majority of its population was male and transient, in town for short periods of time between excursions into the mountains. Catering to such men, Denver's main business was providing them with drink and entertainment.

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Saloons were everywhere in the city. As Thomas J. Noel notes, in 1860 there were 35 saloons--but no churches, schools, hospitals, libraries, or banks--for a population of almost 4800. Although not explicitly homosexual, the early Denver was certainly a environment, one that reflected loose morals and same-sex bondings, with few women living in the city. Or as Lavinia Porter, an early settler, wrote to a friend back home, "[T]here are but few ladies here," indirectly alluding to the red light district that had quickly developed in the early 1860s.

According to Noel, Denver may also have had a gay saloon in its early days. In a survey of gay bars that operated in Denver prior to Stonewall, he identifies Moses Home as a possible gay establishment in the late nineteenth century. A report from a local newspaper describes a customer leaving the saloon and committing "crimes against nature" with a young man after threatening to beat him with a stick. Even though these two men met at Moses Home, it is unclear if the rest of its customers were predominantly gay or not.

Although gay life at this time remains largely invisible to our eyes, a handful of urban myths exist from the late nineteenth century that suggest that gay and lesbian people were not entirely unheard of in Denver's early history.

In her online gay Denver history project, Lisa Diguardi relates two stories from the late nineteenth century about early gay and lesbian couples. In 1889, the Denver Times reportedly told the story of two women--postmistress Miss Clara Dietrich and Miss Ora Chatfield--who exchanged passionate love letters and ultimately eloped after friends and family tried to keep them from pursuing their relationship. Ten years later, Denverites read about W.H. Billings, who left his wife to live with his lover, Charles Edwards, a saloon entertainer.

Early Twentieth Century

In Gay American History, historian Jonathan Ned Katz presents a letter from a homosexual professor living in Denver to German sexologist and early homosexual emancipation leader, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld included it in his major work, Homosexuality in Men and Women (1914), and the letter documents a fairly well established gay network in Denver in the early part of the twentieth century and at the university where the professor taught.

Attempting to show how pervasive homosexuality was in Denver, the professor writes of a number of homosexual acquaintances, listing them according to occupation. Interestingly, many of them worked in professions stereotypically associated with homosexuality. There were "five musicians, three teachers, three art dealers, one minister, one judge, two actors, one florist, and one women's tailor." He also describes parties thrown by a "young artist of exquisite taste and a noble turn of mind" that many gay Denverites attended, some in .

From his vantage point as a university professor, he refers to a number of gay students whom he taught over the years. He stresses that many of them went on to successful careers in journalism, the theater, and teaching.

In spite of the presence of an emerging gay community, one that the writer characterizes as supportive, he also points out the difficulties these gay men faced. His letter also conveys the need for extreme discretion at times and a wariness of revealing too much too quickly about one's sexuality.

The professor describes in great detail a friendship he cultivated with a twenty-six-year-old student. Basing his assessment of the young man's homosexuality on signs of his effeminacy, the professor refrains from disclosing his own status for fear of offending his student: "To date, I haven't dared to tell him about myself, because he's an extremely sensitive person." This account makes clear that even when gay men identified each other, coming out to each other was not easy.

Even more disturbing, the professor tells the story of an engineering student whom the police arrested for "carrying on with the boys in the YMCA building." The young man felt such shame at his arrest and public exposure that he shot himself.

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