As Republican-led legislatures across the country marshal unprecedented attacks against the rights and livelihoods of transgender people, Colorado Democrats have ensured their state one of the safest places for the LGBTQ community.
But this wasn’t always the case – in fact, not too long ago, it was quite the opposite. Once upon a time, Colorado was known as the ‘Hate State,’ and the ghosts of that past still haunt the state’s politics to this day.
Colorado’s legacy as the ‘Hate State’ was began with Amendment 2, a 1992 ballot initiative with the sole intent of enshrining discrimination on the basis of sexuality within the state constitution. The text of the proposal prohibited both state and local authorities from adopting laws or policies that would grant gay, lesbian, or bisexual people “any minority or protected status, quota preferences, or discrimination.”
The initiative would go on to pass statewide, winning 53.4% of the vote. But even at its time, it was hotly contested, and triggered a nationwide boycott of Colorado.
Ultimately, Amendment 2 was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans, where the justices struck it down as unconstitutional in a 6-3 decision. Still, the message was clear: there were many in Colorado who did not welcome gay people in the state.
But it is equally important to understand what Amendment 2 was reacting to. Conservative Christian activists pushed the initiative in response to a wave of antidiscrimination policies across Colorado. In the prior years, Gov. Roy Romer had issued two relevant executive orders: one in 1989 banning discrimination based on a person’s HIV status (HIV primarily affected gay men), and another in 1990 instructing state agencies not to discriminate in hiring based on sexual orientation.
In 1987 and 1991 respectively, Boulder and Denver voters approved ordinances banning discrimination on the basis of homosexuality. Voters in Aspen had passed a similar ordinance over a decade prior in the 1970s. In 1988, another antidiscrimination ordinance in the more conservative locale of Fort Collins was defeated by a vote of 57% to 43% – which was still closer than many expected at the time.
To many, it seemed that acceptance for gay people was gaining steam in Colorado. Amendment 2 was a fundamentalist backlash, pushed largely to stop the community from gaining a further foothold.
Focus on the Forerunners
To understand how Amendment 2 passed, one must look at the powers behind it. The campaign to make antidiscrimination policies illegal was drafted and largely promoted by a group called Colorado for Family Values. Its leadership had ties to multiple influential forces in Colorado’s conservative political sphere.
The group was based in Colorado Springs, which had quickly become an epicenter of the American religious right after Focus on the Family moved there from California two years prior.
In fact, the group was spearheaded by Will Perkins, a local car dealer and evangelical activist who had close ties to Focus on the Family. Following Perkins’ passing in 2019, his son told the Gazette that Perkins had been “heavily involved” in Focus on the Family’s transfer to Colorado Springs. He had been influential enough in his community that Focus on the Family president Jim Daly put out a statement mourning his death.
While Perkins may have been the group’s executive director, Colorado for Family Values was officially independent from Focus on the Family, as was its other leadership. Standing alongside Perkins was Kevin Tebedo, son of then-state Sen. Mary Anne Tebedo (R-Colorado Springs). Tebedo was an outspoken critic of Romer’s executive order mandating nondiscrimination in state agencies, the Pueblo Chieftain reported in 1991. Tony Marco joined Tebedo as co-chair.
Colorado for Family Values also received donations from multiple influential sources, including a $10,000 contribution from conservative oil and gas billionaire Phil Anschutz.
Fighting Against “Special Rights”
“Gays and lesbians have the rights of every citizen (but) they want a special right,” said Tebedo in 1991.
The core of Colorado for Family Values’ messaging was simple and even catchy: “No Special Rights.” The group cast antidiscrimination policies as granting queer people “special rights” that straight people did not have.
In a 2008 letter to the editor published by the Gazette, Perkins defended this messaging, claiming that allowing protections on the basis of sexuality would “destroy the whole concept of minority status” to the detriment of women and people of color.
At other times, both Tebedo and Perkins had also shown personal disdain for homosexuality outside of the “special rights” framework. At a religious right conference five years after Amendment 2’s passage, Perkins compared gay people to thieves and adulterers; Tebedo, at one point, accused a prominent local gay activist of being “sick and perverted.”
“There is no such thing as a homosexual,” Perkins said at the 1997 conference. “I have a list here of 28 ways that people get sexual satisfaction. Well, if it isn’t heterosexual, then it’s an aberration.”
The rhetoric against “special rights” has been correctly explained as misleading on multiple occasions. Delivering the majority opinion in Evans, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the following:
“We find nothing special in the protections Amendment 2 withholds. These are protections taken for granted by most people either because they already have them or do not need them; these are protections against exclusion from an almost limitless number of transactions and endeavors that constitute ordinary civic life in a free society.”
All the same, the argument has been dredged up again in subsequent years. Conservative Colorado podcast host Derrick Wilburn reiterated the claim at a religious event last year. And in December, conservative Aurora councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky argued, following the deadly Club Q shooting, that shootings not targeted at marginalized groups should receive the same hate crime designation because “all lives matter.”
Additionally, an ongoing lawsuit against Poudre School District is partially predicated on the claim that the district has policies that support transgender students, but not their cisgender peers. According to a copy of the lawsuit, plaintiffs Jonathan and Erin Lee on multiple occasions requested a “gender support plan” for their 7-year-old cisgender son “M.L.,” which would require Poudre School District employees to “refer to M.L. by his biological gender and birth name.” Poudre School District reportedly denied these requests.
“Had M.L been a biological girl requesting the use of male pronouns and name PSD would have granted the gender support plan,” the briefing reads.
The lawsuit, which is led by the Trump-linked America First Policy Institute, primarily contends that children were lured into school Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) meetings under false pretenses. It received wide coverage in national conservative media last month.
While the special rights argument was the main pillar of Colorado for Family Values’ campaign, it was not the extent of the organization’s messaging. In 1992, one piece of literature from the group, which was archived by History Colorado, was titled, “What Causes Homosexual Desire and Can It Be Changed?” The idea that so-called abnormal sexual orientation can be forcibly beaten back into a heterosexual shape is a cornerstone of conversion therapy, a practice which has since been banned in Colorado and other states. However, conversion therapy is still promoted by anti-LGBTQ conservatives to this day, including religious leaders such as Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila.
Other literature, dated after Amendment 2’s passage, smears homosexuality by linking it to “child molestation,” an “attack on churches,” and “violence.” These ideas will be all too familiar to those watching the current right-wing furor against LGBTQ rights.
Across the country, many prominent conservatives have accused LGBTQ people of being “groomers” who prey on children. Others claim that policies which support the LGBTQ community are an attack on “religious liberty” – effectively, the idea that people should be entitled to discriminate if their religion tells them doing so is necessary.
In the past few months, there have been similar rhetorical attempts to tie LGBTQ activism to violent extremism. In Montana, following statehouse Republicans’ silencing of Democratic state Rep. Zooey Zephyr, who is Montana’s first openly trans legislator, seven people were arrested by capitol police for protesting the decision.
The Montana legislature’s far-right Freedom Caucus dubbed the peaceful protest as an “insurrection” in a glib nod to the Jan. 6, 2021 attempt to overturn the presidential election. Zephyr was accused of “encouraging [the] insurrection” and subsequently expelled for the remainder of the session.
Where Did They Go?
Ultimately, Colorado for Family Values was not destined to hold the limelight forever. Though their activity continued through the 1990s, they would eventually face internal strife. Tebedo fueled multiple controversies for the group: in 1995, he stood in support of Colin Cook, an ex-gay Arvada-based conversion therapy counselor who was accused of engaging in sexual conduct with his male clients.
Westword reported that Tebedo “[accused] the press and gay activists of a grand conspiracy to sabotage Cook’s vitally needed counseling services.”
According to multiple sources, at the time Tebedo had also become increasingly involved with the far-right anti-government Patriot Movement, considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be an ideological precursor to modern militia groups such as the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, and Colorado-based FEC United (which is not officially a militia but does have a militia affiliate).
Following these events, Tebedo resigned from Colorado for Family Values in 1995.
Perkins, for his part, also made at least one nod towards fringe ideologies. In 1997, Westword reported that he gave a speech on his group’s mission during the 5th annual “Steeling the Mind of America” conference. Topics from other speakers reportedly included “Biblical UFOs and the Coming Deception,” “Dark Secrets of the United Nations” and “50 Scientific Reasons Evolution Is Wrong!”
During his speech, Perkins called for the impeachment of the six U.S. Supreme Court justices who overturned Amendment 2 in Romer v. Evans. Later on, Perkins faked his own arrest on stage in what his aide called a “dramatization” to call attention to “the militant homosexual movement.”
Over the tail end of the 90s, Colorado for Family Values’ influence waned. The group was officially dissolved in 2002.
While Colorado for Family Values may be gone, Perkins went on to help form multiple other Springs-area religious groups which are still active to this day. He was an original board member for Young Life, an evangelical youth ministry that runs youth groups worldwide.
Since its formation, Young Life has made attempts towards reform on LGBTQ issues, and now allows LGBTQ people to take leadership roles. However, the Denver Post reported that the group requires LGBTQ leadership candidates to be “celibate,” and that documents from the group still call homosexuality an “example of the distortion that results from humanity’s rejection of God.”
Focus on the Family is still influential in right-wing politics in Colorado and nationally. It’s one of many groups continuing to push back on LGBTQ rights, frequently accusing the community of targeting children.