Colorado Springs has a reputation for being intolerant of gays, but what is life really like for queer students who enter the city?
Before arriving at CC four years ago, Jack Williamson thought that being a gay student in Colorado Springs would mean coming up against intolerance on a regular basis.
“My parents were terrified,” Williamson, now a senior, said. “They were convinced I was gonna’ get killed by some crazy veteran.”
What he found turned out to be far from the case.
“I’ve mostly had overwhelmingly positive experiences in town,” he said. “I’ve been called ‘faggot’ once or twice, but that’s nothing new, unfortunately. But I’ve also found myself finding some very friendly gentlemen at Cowboys, so the
Springs is full of surprises.”
Williamson’s experience is shared by many other lesbian and gay students at Colorado College, according to LGBT leaders and community members. While the city has a reputation for being a hateful place, many find a flourishing gay community here.
“I think it really depends on a number of things — geographic location and, of course, what business you may be in and the people you subject yourself to,” said Charles Irwin, executive director of Colorado Springs Pride. “From a purely general population, I don’t think that we deserve to have the reputation of the ultra-right-wing-conservative-whatever.”
Roughly five to six percent of the El Paso County population identifies as being either lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, Irwin said. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, U.S. states have an average LGBT population between three and five percent.
The population in Colorado Springs is increasing.
“Our community is very large; it’s very active, it’s very vibrant,” Irwin said. “It’s definitely growing. I don’t know if our numbers are growing, but people are being more out open and living their lives as a normal human being does.”
The city currently has two bars specifically designated as being for gay patrons and a growing number of other establishments are welcoming — and encouraging — more and more members of the gay community to visit their storefronts.
This summer, the county filed its 100th civil union application, and local businesses have claimed to have seen an uptick in business from same-sex couples looking to get married.
But what is the experience for gay students from CC when they enter the community?
Hannah Tilden, a sophomore, and Anna Naden, a junior, have been happily dating for almost 11 months now. The two met first at an Equal meeting and then started dating following Ice Age, a Playhard Productions event last winter.
Tilden, a Seattle native, was told some unsettling rumors about her new home before starting at CC last academic year.
“I had heard a lot about the ‘CC bubble’ when I was a prospy and applying,” she said. “People always said Colorado Springs is really conservative and focused on the military community, and when I came here, I guess I was surprised in that everyone isn’t so similarly conservative as I thought. There are a lot of moderate people and then a lot that are very [far right].”
Naden was told the opposite.
“Before coming to CC some people — maybe they were confused thinking we are in Boulder or something — told me the Springs is a great town and it’s a lot like Madison, [my hometown],” she said. “It’s not like Madison at all. I guess I was a little surprised.”
They both found that what they expected the city to be like was completely misguided.
Tilden and Naden say they can’t walk down Tejon Street downtown holding hands without eliciting catcalls and yells from people in cars passing by, but they also say that generally the city is a fairly tolerant place.
“It’s not about the community in general that is going to say something, but that one radical person is general might say something,” Tilden said.
Roger Smith, Director of the Office of International and Minority Students at CC, says he periodically hears of homophobia and intolerance in the greater community.
“The incidents that I hear most about are feelings of marginalization experienced by same sex couples as they are out and about the greater Colorado Springs community,” he said.
Roughly 10 percent of students at CC identify as being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, according to a 2010 study conducted by OMIS. The college is currently working to find a new LGBTQ Student Specialist in the immediate future to fill the spot vacated by Beth Kancillia who held the position until this summer.
THE CITY’S VIEW
“I think that CC students are very eager to condemn Colorado Springs, which
is actually much more diverse than the towns (not cities!) in which most
liberal arts college students find themselves,” said Phoebe Lostroh, an associate professor of biology and co-director of the feminist and gender studies department at CC. “Yes, there is a large anti-gay lobby in Colorado Springs, associated primarily with a certain population of self-identified evangelical Christians. Not with all Christians, or with all evangelical Christians.”
This lobby is organized through forums such as “Focus on the Family” and seeks to promote an anti-gay agenda on local, national, and international stages, Lostroh said.
“However, many other places are deeply homophobic as well,” she said. “Not many liberal arts colleges can be found in the few progressive urban bastions where gay
people can walk down the street holding hands with our partners.”
While the presence of groups like Focus on the Family might turn some LGBT people away from the Springs, there are a number of organization fighting for gay rights, including Colorado Springs Pride and Citizen’s Project.
“So, is this a top destination for queer people? Not at all,” Lostroh said. “We lose queer faculty and staff all the time because of the harassment our families face in Colorado
Springs. But I do not know if that harassment is really different from that found in the more rural communities surrounding many more liberal arts colleges. So while we are a long ways off compared with Seattle or Vancouver or Amherst, Mass., we are doing pretty well compared with the majority of communities that have small liberal arts college employers.”
Gay leaders in the community agree that a great deal of progress has occurred in terms of the city’s tolerance, though there is much room for improvement. Community leaders cite how last year Colorado voters legalized same-sex civil unions, marking a major step towards equality and more widespread tolerance.
Generally speaking, Irwin said, things are getting better because the LGBT community is being seen on a regular basis.
“Being out and open really does help,” he said.
“As federal and state laws, along with constitutional provisions, change over time to ensure more equitable enforcement of rights for all citizens, including LGBTQIA + citizens, we continue to slowly move towards a society and community that’s more mindful of what it means to have equitable treatment for our citizens within our systemic policies,” he said. “Again, we have a long way to go.”