Phil Nash has seen LGBTQ life in Denver change and grow for nearly 50 years

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11min 40sec
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Phil Nash in the Center on Colfax’s headquarters in Denver, the organization that Nash helped found a half century ago. May 4, 2024.

In 1976, when Phil Nash arrived in Denver with his then-boyfriend, now-husband, the pair were unaware they were about to witness and participate in a profound transformation of the city's LGBTQ community.

Nash, author of "LGBTQ Denver," shared his experiences recently at “A Half-Century of Pride Stories” a CPR News event marking the 50th anniversary of Pride in Denver.

The first Pride in 1974 was a gathering of 50 people in Cheesman Park — just two years before Nash became a Denverite. He had a firsthand view of how Denver evolved through the years from a place of concealment to a vibrant hub of LGBTQ life.

Upon arrival in Denver, Nash and his partner made a life-altering choice.

"We made a decision at that time that in our mid-20s that we had a choice between living as out gay men or living sort of semi one foot in one world and one foot in the other world," Nash said.

This choice to live openly would shape their lives and contribute to the changing landscape of LGBTQ Denver. Nash quickly became involved in the burgeoning gay community, drawn to a coalition called Unity. 

"What I found here was just within weeks of our arrival in Denver, a new newspaper called Out Front was born by Phil Price," he said. "And in that paper there was an announcement about an organization named Unity, which was a coalition of different businesses and organizations that ... they had a vision to create a gay community center here in Denver."

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Phil Nash (left) speaks with Colorado Public Radio's Eden Lane during Colorado Matters' "A Half Century of Pride Stories" event at the Center on Colfax in Denver. May 4, 2024.

This vision became a reality, and Nash found himself at the helm of the Gay Community Center of Colorado, now known as the Center on Colfax. The evolution of the center's name reflects the broader changes in the community.

"One of the things that came up a lot when I was doing the research on this book is how much language has evolved and how much more inclusive our community has had to become in our language," he said. "So inclusive that they had to cut off all the different identities and just say, we're the Center on Colfax, and everybody knows what that means."

For those considering attending their first Pride event in Denver, Nash has encouraging advice. 

"I would say don't come alone. Find somebody to come with you, even if it's a straight friend," he said. "But I would say that you are going to have an experience unlike any other that you could ever have in Gillette, Wyoming, or Kearney, Nebraska, or any of those outlying places."

Nash's journey, from a newcomer in 1976 to a community leader and historian, mirrors the transformation of LGBTQ Denver. His story, and the stories of countless others, have helped shape a city that has become a beacon of acceptance and celebration for the LGBTQ community.

Interview Highlights

On the 1970s being a pivotal for Denver's LGBTQ community: 

"This community was just beginning to come out and it was coming out in so many different ways that it's really hard to go back and describe. ... It was like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis just as it is like for an individual coming out. Our community began to come out and become increasingly assertive about pride, pride in ourselves, pride in our community, and learning how to take care of ourselves."

On Denver's first Pride parade in 1976:

"I think the kickoff time was supposed to be 2 o'clock. I had a job in a country club in the dining room, and I had my $5 Goodwill suit on. So I thought I'd be the only person in the parade with a suit and tie. But when I got to Cheesman Park, the parade had already taken off."

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Phil Nash (left) speaks with Colorado Public Radio's Eden Lane during Colorado Matters' "A Half Century of Pride Stories" event at the Center on Colfax in Denver. May 4, 2024.

On Denver's unique position as a welcoming frontier city contrasted with its small-town mentality: 

"Denver has always been a welcoming place for people ever since it started. People came here because there was new opportunity and new realms to explore and ways of not being shackled by the kind of morality and social strictures that were true back east in the more puritanical societies that were developed. But people who lived in Denver still had to be kind of closeted because it really was just a very large small town."

On the community center's critical role during the AIDS crisis:

"Thanks to the community center, which was the place where the Colorado AIDS Project got its start ... Thank heavens we had that community-building experience for several years before the AIDS crisis hit because we did have a lot of connections and a lot of ability to develop a lot of leaders who came forward."

On the growth of Pride events in Denver being driven by both protest and celebration:

"One of the things that has propelled the growth of pride over the years is people who are p-d off because something bad has happened. The other thing that has propelled the growth of pride is celebrating when those kinds of things are overcome, such as Amendment 2."

On Denver Pride being a testament to the diversity and resilience of the LGBTQ community:

"I go to Pride every year because there is no place you can see so many different people, so much diversity in age, class, race, gender expression, and so forth. We're not just as diverse as the rest of the community. We are far more diverse because we're inventive and we're creative about who we are."