A dazzling crowd of gay and straight allies, including both of Colorado’s U.S. senators and an array of elected officials from throughout the state, turned out on a crystal-clear evening Saturday at the Denver Botanic Gardens to celebrate progress and honor individuals who have advanced the cause of gay civil rights.
Following a sumptuous reception in the late-summer splendor of the Gardens, One Colorado handed out four “Ally Awards” to straight friends of the GLBT community. It was the inaugural round of awards and the signature annual fundraising event for the relatively new political advocacy organization, only formed at the beginning of last year but already making a splash on key state-level legislation and organizing for equality.
Awards went to former state Rep. and former First Lady of Denver Wilma Webb, founding organizer of the Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays advocacy group Jean Hodges, past regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s regional office Bruce DeBoskey and the president of the Westside community development agency NEWSED, Veronica Barela.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet handed the award to Webb, who spoke movingly about her late gay son’s struggles to foster community and live openly during years when the state wasn’t as welcoming as it is now. Webb was honored for pioneering civil rights work stretching back decades, from leading the fight to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday to introducing a hate crimes bill that included protection based on sexual orientation in the Legislature.
Her bill didn’t pass — Colorado didn’t adopt a comprehensive hate crimes law until 2005 — but Webb made sure to point out that it was her husband, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who first introduced similar hate crimes legislation far ahead of its time, when he was a state representative in the late 1970s.
The next award was presented by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall to longtime activist Hodges, who founded the Boulder branch of PFLAG and currently serves as vice president of the national organization. She also founded the Boulder Valley Safe Schools Coalition.
Before presenting the award, Udall spoke at length about his efforts at the end of last year leading toward the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which bans gay soldiers from serving openly in the military. During contentious committee testimony, Udall said he felt the tide turn when members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked gay soldiers who had been thrown out of the military what they would do if the policy were repealed.
“The repeal was in doubt up until the last minute,” Udall said. “Their country had rejected them, but they said they would re-enlist, reapply for their officer commissions.” That display of unabashed patriotism was enough to sway the final votes, he said.
An award also went to Bruce DeBoskey of the DeBoskey Group, who made sure to include protection for the LGBT community during his years as director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Mountain States Region. Organizers praised his more than three-decade fight against bigotry in numerous areas, including immigration reform, and hate crimes legislation.
The final award went to Barela, whose work leading the NEWSED Community Development Corporation has always included attention to the LGBT community, from involving and recognizing gay community leaders to serving clients.
“These four individuals embody what it means to be an ally to the LGBT community,” said One Colorado Education Fund executive director Brad Clark. “Because of their tireless work and the work of allies like them, LGBT Coloradans have been given a fair chance to earn a living, serve our country, and feel safe in our schools and our communities.”
After the awards ceremony, Udall told local freelancer Sunnivie Brydum that he supports full marriage equality for gay couples, as opposed to stopping at civil unions or a state-by-state approach. In the Senate, Udall is a co-sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would end prohibitions in place since the Clinton administration on federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
An estimated 375 supporters showed up for the gala, including Lt. Governor Joe Garcia, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, former Colorado Springs Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, Senate President Brandon Shaffer, state Sens. Jean White and Lucia Guzman, and state Reps. Mark Ferrandino and Sue Schafer.