'We were here at the beginning, weren't we?" said a smiling Esther Beynon, a longtime supporter of Citizens Project. As were scores of others who gathered last week at Penrose Library to celebrate the organization's 20th anniversary. And what a long, strange trip it's been.
Colorado Springs, 1992: Focus on the Family had moved here in 1991, bringing 400 employees from California. Focus provided local anti-gay activists with urgency, sophistication, militant anger and access to national funding. In less than a year, the political climate here changed radically.
Tony Marco and Kevin Tebedo formed Colorado for Family Values soon after Focus arrived. Its mission: combat "the radical homosexual agenda." In early 1992, CFV launched a well-financed campaign to insert an anti-gay amendment into the Colorado Constitution.
Local media paid little attention. Colorado Springs had always been conservative. Besides, Focus was bringing jobs to an area emerging from a prolonged recession. If some of its ideas seemed a little loony, so what?
Colorado Springs also had always been reasonably tolerant, embracing traditional Western values. The Code of the West was simple: You do what you want on your property, I'll do what I want on my property, and we'll do fine. We'll do our best to be good neighbors, but if you want to paint your damn house lavender, that's your business.
Al Gore had yet to invent the Internet, Mark Zuckerberg had yet to finish grade school, and John Weiss had yet to publish the first issue of the Independent (that happened in 1993). Would-be liberal activists were scattered and disorganized, while the LGBT community was withdrawn and closeted.
I was a rookie City Councilor in 1991. During a casual hallway discussion with a colleague, David White, the subject of gay rights came up.
"I don't know," said White. "I really haven't thought about it that much. But you know, I've never met a homosexual."
Standing next to him, listening quietly, was a senior city official whom I knew to be gay. He said nothing — and I, respecting his decision to stay in the closet, remained silent as well. And so did most of us — until a young west-side couple, Amy Divine and Doug Triggs, decided to act.
"Amendment 2 was on the horizon, at that time without opposition," Divine wrote years later. "And we had read that the Pagan speaker on a diversity panel had been uninvited after a local radio program had received eight complaining calls. I thought, 'If we can generate some local calls in response, maybe another view can be heard...'"
On July 4, 1992, the Gazette took notice. That weekend, Amy and Doug fielded hundreds of calls, and Citizens Project was born. They couldn't stop Amendment 2, but the U.S. Supreme Court did a few years later. By 1994, CP's mailing list totaled 7,000 people. Ubiquitous blue-and-white bumper stickers urged locals to "celebrate diversity" or "create community." A now-legendary organizational meeting birthed a large corps of activists and volunteers that endures today.
CP has strenuously and effectively opposed the "radical anti-gay agenda," and also fought local initiatives sponsored by anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce, opposed efforts by school board members to open meetings with an invocation, and recently worked with El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams to reduce the use of churches as polling places.
Triggs and Divine not only promoted tolerance, but practiced it. Rather than demonizing opponents, they invited them to supper. "Dialogue Dinners" brought together religious conservatives and lefty activists in an effort to build bridges. Those dinners planted seeds of cooperation and respect. Left and right still clash (Chick-fil-A, anyone?), but the Independent and Focus are frequent partners in community-wide events.
Some elected officials may still be afraid to march in the Pride Parade, but no one else is. The gay community is loud, proud and as unremarkable as the Rotarians. And Citizens Project hasn't forgotten its original mission statement: "to uphold the traditional American values of pluralism, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state."
Twenty years have passed, and a new generation has taken the reins.
"I love and admire all of these young people," said former Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, "but you know, I look at them, and I think — that was us!"
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Amazing story of some amazing groups of people who care. Well done.