- Bethany Alvarez
- Jane Ard-Smith
When Senate Bill 283 was introduced in Colorado on April 3, 2017, Citizens Project Chair Jane Ard-Smith was incensed. The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, gave companies broad permission to refuse service if the results of that service shared or conveyed a message that a business owner disagreed with. It was a new strategic take on the recently defeated House Bill 1013, a "religious freedom" bill designed to permit businesses to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community without penalty.
The new Senate bill propelled Ard-Smith (disclosure — she's a co-chair of the political action group Together for Colorado Springs, along with Indy founder John Weiss) to take immediate action.
"Essentially, it would have legalized discrimination for any reason," Ard-Smith explains. "And that just pissed me off to no end. It's been 25 years since Amendment 2 [which prohibited homosexual or bisexual people from claiming minority or protected status] and yet again, here is something coming to our legislature to legalize discrimination. Has nothing changed?"
Ard-Smith and Citizens Project — a nonprofit organization that works to promote equality, diversity and the separation of church and state — began working with their allies in the state, making phone calls to the legislature, sending emails and activating all their networks to encourage a down vote on the bill.
The result? A bipartisan defeat in the Republican-controlled Senate.
She considers it a victory, particularly because three Republicans voted alongside Democrats against the bill, but says there is still much to be done to create a culture of inclusion.
"We're going to have to remain vigilant," says Ard-Smith. "What I would like to see happen in my lifetime, is that equality and inclusion are the things you have to be in favor of in order to get elected."
She believes that part of achieving that goal lies in furthering the mission of Citizens Project. Ard-Smith joined in 2013 and became chairperson in 2017.
"The organization was really created because of Amendment 2," she says. "When that passed in 1992, Citizens Project rose up to offer an alternative voice in our community. We'll celebrate our 25th anniversary this year."
In addition to her work with that nonprofit, Ard-Smith also serves as chair of the Pikes Peak Group of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization with a nationwide diversity and inclusion program, as well as sitting on the Pikes Peak Equality Coalition as a representative of the Sierra Club.
Although it might seem odd that an environmental organization would devote some of its focus to issues of inclusion, Ard-Smith points out that the two missions are not mutually exclusive.
"Environmental impact doesn't know gender, color or orientation," she says. "But what we see nationwide is that communities that are impacted the most by environmental issues are typically the communities that are targeted the most. There's a natural affiliation, and if we want a fair and just planet, these issues cannot be ignored."
Next on the horizon, Ard-Smith sees a need to support the efforts of organizations such as One Colorado (an LGBTQ advocacy organization) and to focus on health care, which often creates challenges for members of the LGBTQ community, particularly those who are transgender.
"It's about looking at the person as a whole, not just their sexual orientation or sexual identity," says Ard-Smith. "It's really about the idea of treating all people the way that I want to be treated."
- Bethany Alvarez
- Tre Wentling, Pearl Leonard-Rock, Liliana Delman and Paul Buckley
The Butler Center at Colorado College truly is the backbone of CC's intercultural community. Opened in 2014, it honors Ellis Ulysses Butler Jr., an alumnus whose $150,000 donation was used to help start a student success center, providing a space to expand diversity, inclusion, equality and intercultural exchanges.
Shortly after launching, the center expanded its programming to include LGBTQ life and AIDS education, with help from another donor, Craig G. Campbell, an LGBTQ advocate and CC alum. The Butler Center continues to be maintained and polished by a strong alumni force using generous donations to keep guest-led workshops, lectures and other inclusive events on campus.
The center is open to students and faculty alike, mentoring and guiding them through struggles with race, religion, LGBTQ and social-justice issues. Its Breaking Bread events are among the most popular offerings.
"We invite students and faculty to essentially break bread together and talk about LGBTQ issues they think are worth addressing in an open-table type discussion," says Tre Wentling, a gender and identity specialist at the Butler Center.
In that setting, staff and faculty can start discussions about LGBTQ life, in turn creating a campus that's more informed on LGBTQ, race and social issues playing out around them. And that extends off campus with graduates, some of whom have stayed in the area as advocates, such as co-Inclusion winners for Keep Colorado Springs Queer, Nico Wilkinson and Han Sayles (see below).
"[We] support all students in their development and get a clear sense of where they are all at," says Wentling. He and his colleagues, Pearl Leonard-Rock, Liliana Delman, Michelle Ann Stallings and Assistant Vice President and Director of the Butler Center Paul M. Buckley, do so by coordinating one-on-one mentoring sessions and dialogue circles in addition to the regular programming.
The center's Spectrum training sessions are another all-inclusive way of encouraging students and staff to take steps toward creating a community of learning and acceptance. "The Spectrum training is a good starting place for the unique specificities about the LGBTQ movement, giving multiple opportunities for people in the room. This adds a sense of belonging," Wentling says.
The training takes a hands-on, humanistic approach to enlightenment, such as focusing on appropriate ways to address someone whose gender identity differs from that on their birth certificate. Spectrum training, according to Wentling, applies history and theories to "pronouns, practice and usage."
Though the Butler Center continues impacting the lives of students and staff, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially on the LGBTQ front. "Enhancing policies is never really a one-size-fits-all approach for the LGBTQ community," Wentling says. "Experiences can vary depending on sexuality, gender, race and religion."
What's needed is a well-informed campus community that can, according to Wentling, approach LGBTQ issues from more than one perspective. "It's the people that make the change happen," he says, "not the policy."
Coronado High School
- Bethany Alvarez
- Gabrielle Stenholm, Diana Del Valle, Ann Schulzki, Connie Sun and Josh Sun
Coronado High School, on Colorado Springs' Westside, hosts a plethora of clubs and after-school programs students can take advantage of — everything from a climbing club, bands and sports to an international awareness club, yearbook, the Gay Straight Trans Alliance (GSTA) and more opportunities to allow kids to flourish. But the opportunity isn't only for students.
Ann Schulzki, a longtime Coronado educator, has learned more than she could've imagined in her six years as coach of the school's Future Problem Solvers International (FPS) students. FPS is a program designed to make students think outside the box — using teamwork to identify problems within their own community and explore ways to resolve them. These are no small issues either: Students create Community Problem Solving (CmPS) projects that compete against those of other FPS groups in Colorado, across the country and around the world.
"I thought creating gender-free restrooms at our school would be a good place to start," Schulzki says. It's a timely endeavor given the push behind so-called "bathroom bills" around the nation, and with bullying incidents and youth suicides on the rise.
"We wanted to stop bullying and harassment and make non-binary students feel more welcome," Schulzki says. And with that, students Jackie Dunn, Gabrielle Stenholm, Josh Sun and Connie Sun, Diana Delvelle and Avery Young worked to reassign one of the school's faculty bathrooms, and presented the project to FPS.
Working from the administrative to the student level, Schulzki's team built close connections with the school's Gay Straight Trans Alliance and D-11 administration to navigate the myriad of obstacles.
"Students don't see things in black or white, conservative or liberal," she says, "they really care more about what's right or wrong." It's a testament to the students, who are growing up in a world of daily media barrages, political and religious bias and "fake news."
Though currently Schulzki's work as a mentor and student advisor takes place on the other side of the classroom door, she leaves an indelible mark on her students, teaching them perseverance. "We had some pushbacks through it all," she says, "but in the end found acceptance."
Downtown's Palmer High School installed a gender-neutral restroom in 2016, momentum Schulzki and the team hope to build upon with Coronado's facility, set to be renovated this summer.
Schulzki's team didn't end up winning their FPS competition, but that doesn't take anything away from the hard work they've already completed. "We want everybody to be fulfilled and get the right respect," Schulzki says.
These students will continue to hold assemblies and lunch meetings and overcome obstacles together, driven by a relentless motivation to see every student in their community have the ability to flourish.
Keep Colorado Springs Queer
- Bethany Alvarez
- Han Sayles
Neither Nico Wilkinson nor Han Sayles — Colorado College graduates and founders of the Keep Colorado Springs Queer Collective, a community of artists, writers and musicians — ever saw Colorado Springs as a permanent home.
"I just bought into this reputation of what this city was," says Wilkinson, a 23-year-old spoken-word poet. Their feeling was seemingly justified with the shuttering of the Pride Center in 2015, followed by the November 2016 closure of Mountain Fold Books, a local hub for the queer community, where Sayles worked.
- Bethany Alvarez
- Nico Wilkinson
"We were kind of dismayed there wasn't an active LGBTQ community for people our age," says Sayles, a 24-year-old visual artist and printmaker. "Since we don't have a pride center in town, it's infrequent to find queer spaces where alcohol isn't the focus or center."
To fill the void, Wilkinson and Sayles launched the Queer Open Mic, which would later become the collective's flagship event. The open mic began before Mountain Fold closed, but the performances were left without a home and began traveling to various pop-up locations around the city. Even with constantly changing venues, Sayles says the open mic never stopped growing.
"After Mountain Fold closed I wasn't really sure if I was gonna stay in the city," Sayles says. "But [the open mic] really made me trust the people I met here and the connections I made." The open mic provides more than entertainment; it has built a like-minded community and platform for many artists who didn't have a venue for their work.
"Our emphasis was creating a space that wasn't there before," says Wilkinson, who was ready to leave town after they graduated. "When we started doing this I started to see 'oh wait, we have a very rich, vibrant city full of talented people,'" a revelation that led them to rethink their departure.
Wilkinson and Sayles want the Springs to be a destination for more well-known and touring queer artists to come and perform. Meanwhile, both are involved in a number of projects aimed at providing a voice for the queer community. Sayles, along with Peyton Kay Davis, a contributor to the Independent's Queer & There column, created Peach Press, a small printing company focused on publishing marginalized and historically unheard voices.
And Wilkinson, another Queer & There contributor, worked with fellow poet, CC professor and KRCC personality Idris Goodwin, and Sayles to create Inauguration, a captivating book of poetry addressing the current American political climate.
"I committed to this place, and I am committed to making this space, in whatever way I can, something people are proud to live in," Wilkinson says.
- Bethany Alvarez
- Arley-Rose Torsone and Morgan Calderini
Since opening a downtown studio and retail front here in Colorado Springs last year, the award-winning printing company Ladyfingers Letterpress has carved its own niche in the local arts and LGBTQ communities.
The artful contrast between old-fashioned printmaking techniques and modern, inclusive humor has earned their greeting cards recognition on a local and national level, but Ladyfingers does much more than print cards. It has, in fact, become a community in itself.
Co-founders Morgan Calderini and Arley-Rose Torsone have been blown away by the warm reception they've received in Colorado Springs. "It is so inspiring and supportive," Torsone says. "It feels like a family. Like you can do anything because everyone's got your back and everyone's supporting everyone's projects."
This sense of support is at the core of what they hope to accomplish with Ladyfingers Letterpress. "I feel like our work is so social," Torsone says, "We make printed work, which is the act of visualizing an idea and distributing it." And while they of course distribute their own ideas, reflecting their own identities, values and sense of humor, they also provide an avenue for others to express themselves.
In November of last year, they opened the Proof Gallery within their retail space, a place for artists to exhibit and sell their work. Currently, it houses First Taste, the first official show by queer printmaking duo Peach Press. Next month, they'll host a zine show, which will accept submissions from anyone in the community.
Calderini, who grew up in the Springs, says she hopes they're providing the kind of space she wished she'd had when she was young. "We have young people coming in all the time without their parents who I think are just kind of checking out our political message or trying to see what we're making. And they know it's a safe space ... They have access to a voice that I don't think as a high school kid I could have even imagined existed."
Their studio, as well as representing the culmination of their hard work, has become a place for wayward LGBTQ youth and art lovers alike to congregate, to learn, and to open their minds. "I also hope that we can inspire other people to follow their dreams and feel like they have the ability to speak their own voice," Torsone says, "... you can be your authentic self and be successful."
- Bethany Alvarez
- Nancy-Jo Morris
Nancy-Jo Morris began her career as an activist shortly after coming out as transgender in 2006. "When I came out and announced my transition to my family, my co-workers, and to my church, every one of them moved against me," she says.
Among other personal tragedies, Morris lost her job after 22 years of working as a civil engineer. "I wasn't going to take it lying down. They told me I had no legal standing for a discrimination claim, so I set about trying to do what I could to gain legal standing."
Morris began meeting with legislators like Jennifer Veiga, the state senator who drafted the legislation protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual people from discrimination. She was determined to ensure that protections offered to the LGB community also included transgender people.
Colorado Senate Bill 200, the Colorado Public Accommodations law for which Morris advocated, was passed in 2008. It prevented discrimination in public accommodations, including public bathrooms and locker rooms, on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Morris' work and advocacy also ensured that any anti-discrimination laws would retroactively include gender identity as a protected class.
In addition to her legislative advocacy, Morris was very active in protesting Focus on the Family's conversion therapy practices, of which she is a survivor. Conversion therapy attempts to change an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity. Treatments can include aversion therapy and electroshock therapy.
Morris also led the Peak Area Gender Expressions group in Colorado Springs, a monthly support group for transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the Pikes Peak region, in addition to working with the Colorado Springs Police Department to incorporate gender identity and trans issues into their diversity curriculum for new cadets.
Reflecting on her years of activism, Morris notes: "Everybody that came to this river had to build their own raft to get across. My legacy is that I helped build a bridge so they could get across. Young people don't have to lose their careers; they don't have to be legally discriminated against anymore."
- Bethany Alvarez
- Richard Skorman and Patricia Seator
Since Richard Skorman founded Poor Richard's in 1975 during his senior year at Colorado College, the once small bookstore has morphed into a downtown complex with a legacy as one of the first landmarks of the local LGBTQ movement.
Although Poor Richard's was not designed with that intention in mind, Skorman, who won a seat in City Council this year and currently serves as City Council President, was aware of the lack of accepting spaces for LGBTQ individuals. When Amendment 2 was passed in 1992, earning Colorado the "Hate State" moniker, Poor Richard's became a safe haven for the Springs' LGBTQ community. Skorman was a vocal opponent of Amendment 2, as well as the hateful rhetoric against minority communities in the city. The business' position resulted in death threats to Skorman and his employees, boycotts and destruction of property.
While the Supreme Court declared Amendment 2 unconstitutional in 1996 and Colorado's Legislature went on to add protections for the LGBTQ community, little has changed for Skorman and Patricia Seator, his wife and business partner. Their restaurant, café (Rico's), toy store (Little Richard's), and bookstore remain an inclusive and welcoming downtown landmark. "We have always been known as a place where people can feel comfortable," says Skorman, who has opened the complex to marriage ceremonies, a party celebrating marriage equality, and community-oriented groups.
Three months ago, by customer request, Poor Richard's relabeled their bathrooms as gender neutral. That action follows the many stances Poor Richard's has taken to provide both security and comfort for customers and employees, from taking extensive action against sexual harassment in the workplace to removing customers using vulgar language. Inclusivity is also a focal point in Poor Richard's hiring process, which ensures prospective employees are comfortable and willing to work with people regardless of their race, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identification, sexual orientation or other identifying factor.
With products catering to groups from the LGBTQ and Christian communities, Poor Richard's really is a space for everyone. Not only has it persisted as a "safe haven" for marginalized groups, it is also a catalyst for community dialogue for all who enter. "If we had a philosophy, we would want to be a place where people come together and it feels normal," says Skorman.
- Bethany Alvarez
- Jack Ritchie
'There are many ways to be a guy," says Jack Ritchie, a local transgender activist with pins reading "Ask me about my gay agenda," and "Proud to be transgender," fastened to his shirt. For two years, as Ritchie traveled his own transition path, he served as a supporter and advocate for many trans individuals in the Colorado Springs area.
Ritchie is an active participant with Peak Area Gender Expressions (PAGE), facilitates discussion groups at Building Real Identities Discovering Gender Expression (BRIDGE) and volunteeres with Inside/Out Youth Services — groups that educate and build positive awareness of LGBTQ issues. Currently a culinary arts student, he is pursuing his professional goals while remaining a strong advocate for the transgender community.
His dedication drives his work as a volunteer and facilitator, and he urges others to get involved with and support the transgender community. "We need to step up our visibility," says Ritchie, speaking specifically to the transmasculine population in Colorado Springs.
To be visible is to be open about one's transgender status, being proud and open about your true identity as opposed to, as Ritchie puts it, going stealth and "passing off as the gender they want to be identified with." And although he believes society has strict ideas of what a man and woman should be, he says it won't always be so black and white. "Gender roles are on the verge of dying," he says.
Part of that process includes more activism and education about the trans community, a lot more according to Ritchie. "Not just for ourselves, but for our allies," he says, "It's better to ask questions and be informed than just assume."
Ritchie believes this practice generates greater understanding and support from allies, but more importantly, encourages people considering or beginning the transition process to have the confidence to be themselves, knowing they are not alone. "If I hadn't seen other trans men, I would not have been able to do what I was able to do," says Ritchie. The need to be such a resource himself is a driving force behind his activism with people beginning their own transitions.
Ritchie's ultimate goal is to see transgender people around him thriving and being true to who they are. "Whether you're cis or trans, focus on yourself," Ritchie says, "don't care what other people are thinking."
Editor's note: This profile has been updated to clarify Ritchie's thoughts on society's perceived gender roles, and his current roles with local LGBTQ organizations.
Nori June Rost
- Bethany Alvarez
- Nori June Rost
Nori June Rost came out as a lesbian in 1978, at the age of 16, just one year before enlisting in the Air Force. A few years later, following the AIDS-related death of one of her closest friends, she set out on a progressive activist path that's led to her current role as minister of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in downtown Colorado Springs.
"My first activism with the GLBT community began in 1981 with the advent of AIDS," says the Topeka, Kansas, native. "I participated in die-ins at the state capitol in Sacramento, where we would walk toward the capitol building and then fall to the ground, and they'd draw chalk outlines around our bodies to show how many people were dying."
In January 1994, while Colorado's Amendment 2 — which prohibited homosexual or bisexual people from claiming minority or protected status — was making its way through the Supreme Court, Rost relocated from California to Colorado Springs. Here, as minister at Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, she rapidly became a key player in the local progressive community.
"In June of 1994," she recalls, "Dr. Mel White and I fasted outside Focus on the Family for seven days, to draw attention to their anti-gay rhetoric and the lies that they were putting out by quote-unquote experts. So we fasted outside for seven days, while Jim Dobson was conveniently out of town ... allegedly. And since then, when they've done their 'Love Won Out' conferences — which are their ex-gay conferences — we would do 'Love Came Out' conferences at the same time, to talk about how it's okay, you know, that being gay is fine."
Over the course of the more than two decades she's lived in Colorado Springs, Rost believes the queer community has made considerable progress, while becoming more inclusive itself.
"All of these different tiny queer organizations were working in silos," she says, an apt metaphor here in the land of NORAD. "I think that probably really hurt the cause, but I think we're working better together now. And it's important for me, as a queer activist, to also be a queer ally, so I've done a lot of work with the NAACP, with workers' rights, with women's rights and with immigrant rights. So what I think I've seen, particularly in the wake of Nov. 8, is a coming together of progressive groups, who may have different primary causes, but are beginning to really work together."
And while Rost acknowledges the possibility that Trump's ascendance has been a wake-up call for some, she doesn't see the good outweighing the bad anytime soon.
"I don't know that anything can outweigh that bad," she says. "But we'll see. In the long run, if we choose, we can let this be an opportunity to draw us closer together as allies in the progressive movement, to strengthen our resolve, and to continue to speak loudly and proudly for progressive issues."
- Bethany Alvarez
- Lisa Schoenstein
Lisa Schoenstein has spent the last two years investing in the lives of LGBTQ kids all over Colorado. Recently retiring from her role as program manager for Inside/Out Youth Services, she continues to volunteer for the nonprofit.
"I wanted to still do this work, I just needed to do it differently," she says.
Inside/Out has a history of supporting queer youth as they navigate the challenges of growing up in a world that can be unkind and dangerous for them. "This is one of the few places they can come and truly be who they are," Schoenstein says, "not just be accepted or tolerated, but celebrated and encouraged."
Inside/Out addresses real concerns young people have in the face of high suicide rates, a dangerous dating scene and unsupportive parents. And the organization teaches real-world skills such as cooking and budget management.
"Our focus has really been on resiliency," Schoenstein says, noting it's a life lesson that can also be a tool for survival in challenging circumstances. "A lot of the things we put on young people are amplified for our queer youth.
"I want them to know they can live full, beautiful, robust, successful lives," she says. "I don't think they're hearing that [from] a whole lot of places — almost nowhere."
She and Inside/Out's team hope to change that through their work. As Schoenstein leaves her previous post, two new employees are set to continue and build upon her work, in newly created roles that expand Inside/Out's programming.
It's a change Schoenstein's excited about.
"It's not like the good stuff stopped happening when I resigned, it accelerated the influx of good stuff," she says.
And that's not all of the good news coming down the pipe: In a new building, Inside/Out recently started a discussion group specific to trans youth, with plans to add a support group for parents of trans youth as well. And a new host-home program will provide more support and safe spaces for youth who are on the street or in precarious living situations, as trusted adults will open their homes and invest in participants as they work to get jobs and housing.
"Twenty percent of our youth are on the street, as a direct result of their LGBTQ status," Schoenstein says. "It's about helping those kids get off the street and into homes that aren't foster homes per se, but are safe spaces where they can go to finally get on their feet and get out of that cycle."
Schoenstein wants to see Inside/Out continue to expand to make the Springs an inclusive and safe community. "I have the privilege to help connect a bunch of remarkable people," Schoenstein says, "and together we're doing remarkable things."