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Colorado's 1st LGBTQ curator is uncovering the state's hidden queer history

"People were fighting for these rights long before Stonewall," Aaron Marcus of History Colorado said of the state's early gay activists.
Image: Aaron Marcus
Aaron MarcusNBC News; Katie Bush, History Colorado

[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit]

When Aaron Marcus' great uncle, Clay, would tell him about living as a young gay man in Denver in the 1940s, Marcus was struck by the acceptance that his late relative said characterized his experiences.

"He used to tell me amazing stories about being 18 to 20 in Denver. ... His life was pretty amazing," said Marcus, 50, who is also gay. "For me, I wanted to learn more about that. ... In doing my research, stories like that are what I would like to see."

In his new role as the first curator of LGBTQ history at History Colorado — a state-run organization dedicated to documenting Colorado history through its nine museums and external programming — Marcus gets to do just that.

Since he started the two-year position in October, he has collected more than 360 artifacts and other objects, as well as more than 24 hours of oral histories from LGBTQ Coloradans. His efforts — which are being funded by the Gill Foundation, a Denver-based LGBTQ fundraising organization — will culminate in a six-month exhibition scheduled to open next year at History Colorado's main museum in Denver. A traveling version of the exhibit can be displayed throughout the state, Marcus said. And if the main exhibit proves popular enough, he said, it could become permanent.

Marcus hopes to expand Coloradans' understandings of LGBTQ people's long-standing presence and activism in the state by filling a gap in its historical archive.

"Nobody was really studying this history or collecting the history," he said. "I felt like it was important that somebody collect these stories."

Proof of early activism is found in the earliest artifact Marcus has collected so far: a 1971 poster advertising meetings of Denver Gay Liberation, one of the state's first LGBTQ-focused groups. Other objects show struggles that persisted in the decades after Stonewall, including one of the original 1994 legal briefs, filed with the Supreme Court, that sought to overturn Amendment 2, a landmark addition to the state's constitution that removed protections based on sexual orientation. From the amendment's 1992 passage until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1996, Colorado was known as the "Hate State."

"One of the unfortunate consequences of that is that gay-bashing increased," he said of Amendment 2. "Colorado for a long time was living that down — people boycotted the state."

Marcus came out as gay to his family and friends just before the 1992 vote so that they knew their votes "would have a direct impact on my life," he said. In 1995, a year before the amendment was overturned, he was fired from a job once his co-workers found out he was living with a man who had AIDS, he said.

Since the mid-'90s, Colorado has turned its "Hate State" reputation around. In 2008, the Legislature passed statewide LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws (about 20 states still do not have them), and the following year, voters elected Pat Steadman — an openly gay man — as a state senator; Steadman went on to help legalize civil unions in Colorado before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S. in 2015.

In 2016, voters elected Leslie Herrod as the state's first queer Black representative; Marcus recently conducted an oral history project with her for the future exhibit. In 2018, voters elected the country's first openly gay governor, Jared Polis, as well as the state's first openly transgender representative, Brianna Titone, who also participated in a History Colorado oral history project this year.

Marcus studied history as an undergraduate at Metropolitan State University of Denver and took graduate courses in public history at the University of Colorado Denver before he joined History Colorado as a researcher in 2008. For him, hearing LGBTQ Coloradans' stories is a dream job.

"That's probably the best part of this job so far, just all the different people I get to talk to," he said.

Pride Month also feels like a privilege for Marcus, particularly given the discrimination, including police harassment, that plagued Denver's earliest Pride events in the 1970s. That history — along with that of the iconic 1969 Stonewall uprising — is unknown to some of Colorado's LGBTQ youths, making the work of organizations like History Colorado all the more crucial, Marcus said.

"For me, Pride commemorates a very important time in our community, but it also shows us that you aren't alone," Marcus said. "A lot of people I talk to, especially the younger generations ... they don't realize what Pride means. Pride is a commemoration of an event that took place in 1969, whereas now it's so much more corporate, and it's about fun and partying."

The next generation of LGBTQ Coloradans will be on Marcus' mind during Pride Month — in part because he'll turn 51 on June 26.

"Every year when Pride comes, it's like, 'Oh, great, I'm another year older,'" he said with a laugh.

But Marcus is focused on looking forward, not backward, as he hopes to empower his successors to build on his legacy.

"I hope I'm building a foundation so that the next person who takes this job can carry on with what I've started and really go further with it," he said.

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