Queer Spaces in Denver 1870-1980

David Duffield, Guest Contributor

The stories of LGBTQ places and people have proliferated in the past forty years due to the efforts of community members, community organizations, and local historians. The work of Terry Mangan and Stan Oliner in particular, as well as recent collaborations between the Colorado LGBTQ History project and History Colorado, have helped to uncover a history that was purposely hidden, and uses the built environment to inform our comprehension of Denver’s queer community, its mores, rules, and values, as well as the struggles and triumphs within the community.

Denver queer spaces were noted as early as Oscar Wilde’s 1882 visit to the Queen City of the Plains, the earliest accounts were at places like Soapy Smith’s Palace Theater, Moses Home, or Capitol Gardens on Larimer Street, which featured “female impersonators.” These were spaces of gender illusion. Yet, early “dirt and sod bars” were highly masculine spaces. Denver had seven men to every woman until the late 19th century. Such gender imbalance, with large numbers of same-sex gaming, entertainment, drinking, and sexuality, is called homosocialty. Gender illusion and homosocial culture often signified queer space.

Newspapers accounts describe men engaged in sex work while cross-dressing, a noted practice for homosexual prostitutes in America. In 1886 Edward Sandoval was arrested for “mashing the hearts of men” up and down Market Street. An 1894 letter to sexologist Magnus Hirschfield from an anonymous Denver professor mentioned queer spaces in “our small city” in the hotels and speculated on bars like Capitol Gardens doubling as brothels. Historian Terry Mangan, and later graduate student Edward Scott, narrowed down the location of Capitol Gardens to near 24th and Larimer.

The fact that Capitol Gardens was hidden and later forgotten reflects that queer communities were hidden beneath the surface and are in need of rediscovery.

Julian Eltinge, a famed female impersonator, entertained from 1905 – 1926 in Denver’s theater district near 16th and Curtis, ending his career at the Empress Theater, at 1615 Curtis St. According to George Painter in Sensibilities of Our Forefathers, a series of sodomy cases prosecuted in the 1920s in which gay men dated, met, or courted each other in the penny arcades, theaters, and speakeasies shows a long established, working class, queer culture. These were protected spaces of entertainment and privilege bound in open secrets inherent in the live and let live Western spirit.

Another thread in the queer story takes places outside these entertainment venues, in private homes and offices. Mary Sperry and Gail Laughlin came to Denver after the San Francisco fire in 1906 and were prominent suffragists. According to historian Wendy Rouse, the couple’s relationship was an open secret. One was a doctor and the other a lawyer, and they kept their offices together at the Kittredge Building, at 511 16th Street (16th & Glenarm). Sperry died of Spanish Flu in 1919, and her ashes are buried with those of Laughlin in Maine.

By WWII growing national concern over homosexuality caused many queer communities to move into private spaces creating the first “gay bars.” According to Mangan the first gay bar in Denver was the “Snake Pit”, recently discovered to have been in the basement of The Steak Bar at 17th and Glenarm Place. Oral histories conducted by Katie Gilmartin note that the Pit was a dingy, small bar with an entrance to the back of the restaurant. Lesbians, like gay men, sometimes chose to get private rooms at places like the Albany and the Brown Palace Hotels and meet people in bars like the Ship Tavern.

Jiro Onuma was a gay Issei Japanese from San Francisco who was interned at the Topaz Concentration Camp in Utah, and worked in Denver from 1946-1948. He worked at the Navarre Café, located in the historic Navarre Building across the street from the Brown Palace and the Ship Tavern, which was also within walking distance from African American clubs in Five Points, and Bohemian hang-outs in Sherman street hotels like the Colburn. His work and social connections point to places in Denver where the LGBTQ community gathered.

While many early queer spaces were located downtown, Capitol Hill became the center of the queer community by WWII. The large single flats along Grant and Sherman streets from the State Capitol south to 6th Avenue, such as the Poet’s Row section were long known as “Bachelor’s Row” in the queer community.  The large mansions of Capitol Hill were sold and turned into multi-unit apartments by the Great Depression in the 1930s, providing additional housing options and safe queer spaces. Historians George Chauncey, Estelle Freedman, and John D’Emilio note that apartments provided a sense of privacy, intimacy, and therefore community in major American cities by the 1920s. The concentration and growth of apartments reflect opportunities and constraints for queer people.

By the 1950s new gay and lesbian organizations, most notably the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, had chapters around the country.  Historian Nick Ota-Wang mapped the apartments of the Denver Area Mattachine Society (DAMS) from 1954 – 1960 for History Colorado, and as you can see here, they were located across the city.

In 1959 the DAMS held their convention at the Albany Hotel on 17th and Broadway. Many members used their real names when attending the conference, and were run out of town by the Denver Police, despite the fact that there was a growing set of gay and mixed-use bars at 17th and Broadway.

By 1960, Denver was considered a very closeted space. Drag was effectively outlawed in 1954, but a group of activist drag queens created a show called the Turn About Review in Evergreen in 1965. With the help of Dick Reese, whose family were locally well connected, the group opened a small drag club called the Gilded Cage in 1965 around the corner from the Cherry Creek Tavern on 13th and Lawrence in the Auraria neighborhood. The Cherry Creek Tavern also had drag and brunch even though drag was strictly policed outside private spaces. The 1965 Cherry Creek flood likely wiped out both spaces, though the number of gay bars was slowly growing, with 14 by 1970 as cheaper rents and leases became available in a downtown endangered by suburbanization.

The Turn About Review also provided space for gender non-conforming people, many of whom later identified as Transgender women. In a 1990 essay for the Gender Identity Center’s (GIC) fundraiser, Barbara Cook noted the special nature of the Gilded Cage as a space transgender people could be themselves, even though most dressed in the privacy of their own homes. In 1980 they established the GIC which was housed for over a decade at 3715 West 32nd Avenue. The roots of the transgender community were deeply connected to the GIC House.

By 1975 the Denver LGBTQ community was out of the closet. The Gay Coalition of Denver (GCD) formed in 1972, as a reaction to the Stonewall riots. The Stonewall Riots or Stonewall Uprising took place on June 28, 1969, when New York City Police raided the Stonewall Inn, sparking a six day riot which served as the catalyst for the gay rights movement. In 1973, the Denver Police arrested over 300 gay men for solicitation of sex, which was decriminalized in 1971, using a bus known as the Johnny Cash Special to entrap them. The GCD rallied the community in the first successful political action to overturn anti-gay laws, met with city council, and briefly got the DPD to stop arresting LGBTQ people. The GDC’s first headquarters were located at 1454 or 1460 Pennsylvania street. By 1977 the GCD helped form the Gay Community Center of Colorado (GCCC), with offices in a house owned by the First Unitarian Society of Denver (FUSD) at 1436 Lafayette Street. The Big Mama Rag (BMR) a local lesbian feminist magazine, was published in the basement of a house near 16th and York. The landscape of LGBTQ institutions in Capitol Hill from 1950 – 1980 shows a queer society segmented by intense public fear bolstered by government oppression.  Yet those same spaces sowed the seeds of liberation, negotiated peace, and grassroots activism seen in the DAMS, Gilded Cage, GCD, GCCC, GIC, and BMR.  Additionally, the privacy provided by the apartments across the neighborhood fostered this proliferation of liberation groups.

While privacy and community thread their way through Denver’s queer spaces from 1870 to 1980, so too is an enduring love passed from generation to generation. Each space shares the story of the LGBTQ history, which like the Capitol Gardens, risks being forgotten and lost to time. The preservation of queer spaces ensures the endurance and legacy of queer history and community.  Preserving queer spaces saves queer stories and lives.

Our guest contributor for this article, David Duffield is the co-founder and coordinator of the Colorado LGBTQ History Project for the Center on Colfax, formerly the LGBTQ Center of Colorado which focuses on oral histories, document archiving, education, and networking. The Center’s work includes the first exhibits, walking tours, lesson plans, over 100 oral histories, over 30 donated collections to Denver Public Library, and dozens of presentations and widespread collaboration with scholars and institutions. (for more information see lgbtqcolorado.org or contact: history@lgbtqcolorado.org)