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Colorado Springs: Gay Life Thrives in Religious Right’s Capital

by Conswella Bennett

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 30, 2012

Despite Colorado Springs' reputation for being Bible thumping, Religious Right central, there seems to be more rainbow flags waving outside homes around the city. Same-sex couples have been migrating to the city known for its mountains and other natural beauty, according to census data released last year, same-sex couples living together grew more than 60 percent in the last 10 years.

"I felt, how bad can it be?" said Inside/Out Youth Services Executive Director Shawna Kemppainen, of deciding to move to Colorado Springs. "It's easier to move mountains when you live next to them," she said of the opportunity to make changes.

Kemppainen and her partner, Lisa Green, have called the city home for 12 years. Originally from upper Michigan, they were attracted to the area because of the beautiful outdoors, where they enjoy hiking the various trails.

"Cross dressing is when you wear clothes on a morning hike that you can also wear into the office," said Kemppainen of a well-worn joke among her friends in this city, known for its snowcapped peaks and picturesque vistas.

Before moving to Colorado Springs, Kemppainen lived in Phoenix, Arizona, but admitted that it was such a big city, she never really settled into the LGBT community. She found her niche in Colorado, and became involved in the LGBT community on issues such as hunger and homeless youth.

Kemppainen had heard about the local Welcome Center for Focus on the Family, the organization known for battling against gay rights, sex education and women's rights with an enormous annual budget of $130 million. But it didn't discourage her from making the move to the conservative state, where some members of her family also lived.

EDGE contacted Focus on the Family Publicist Carrie Kintz, but she sent an email stating the organization had no comment for the story.

Another Colorado Springs-based organization, The Family Research Institute, made the U.S. hate group list compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center two years ago, according to The Colorado Gazette. The Family Research Institute now is listed alongside various Klu Klux Klan organizations and the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.

The Institute was founded in 1987 by Paul Cameron, and claims to produce "cutting-edge research" on "family policy" issues. Cameron has been described as a house psychologist of the anti-gay movement.

But most folks, like Kemppainen, have chosen not to focus on the proliferation of these anti-gay groups, but to instead turn their attention to the beauty around them. The surrounding mountains offer mountain biking, fishing, hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, running, road biking and swimming, almost anywhere in the city.

The city remains conservative, with Mayor Steve Bach refusing to sign a proclamation to support the city's Pride Fest. But Kemppainen is among those who is helping to change the climate in her city.

"We are trying to get people to vote on their values," but, conservatives have more money to fund and support their issues," said Kemppainen. "But we're a good example of a city in the balance."

While same-sex couples are calling Colorado Springs home and some are even raising children here, they will also have to wait before they can get civil unions. In May, the Same Sex Civil Unions Bill was defeated. But views on this are also changing.

An article on Bloomberg revealed that about 77 percent of Colorado voters under 30 think gay marriage should be legal, according to poll results released by Jim Williams' North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, a Democratic research firm. The survey also found that 62 percent of the state's voters approved the same-sex civil union measure, with 83 percent of Democrats in favor and 75 percent of independents supporting the bill.

Kemppainen said that she has noticed a surge of more same-sex couples, but she is not sure if it's because more are moving into the city or if it's because of her connections in the LGBT community that she knows more people. She admitted that she has also heard of people moving away because of the stance of local government on LGBT issues.

Perhaps one reason for the changing climate is the presence of the Gill Foundation, founded 20 years ago to help fund the battle for equality. A 1992 Colorado ballot initiative denying lesbians and gay men equal protection in the state provoked outrage among fair-minded citizens across Colorado and the nation. According to the Gill Foundation website, Colorado's native son Tim Gill, a gay software developer turned billionaire, was moved to action by the attack on his and other Coloradans' equal rights.

Amendment 2 passed by a narrow margin and was ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The attempt by some Coloradans to deny equal rights to others based on their sexual orientation had a profound effect on Gill. In 1993, he pledged $1 million to raise awareness in Colorado about the effects of discrimination. A year later, he established the Gill Foundation to secure equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression.

Today, the Gill Foundation is one of the nation's largest funders of LGBT equal rights work. The Foundation's mission is to create an America in which all people are treated equally and respectfully. About 80 percent of their work and funding is dedicated to LGBT nonprofits -- both national and state organizations -- that work every day to bring about equality.

Despite Incidents, Colorado Springs Is Moving Toward Tolerance

Although Colorado Springs is still a conservative bastion of the Religious Right, the climate is beginning to improve for the LGBT community, especially as regards keeping students safe.

Kemppainen said she had never really experienced any discrimination because of her sexuality, saying, "I have been very fortunate that because of my appearance I can blend in, although I can be on the dykey side."

According to Kemppainen, the most frightening thing that has happened occurred not long after she relocated to Colorado Springs. While walking on an isolated street, a group of high school age boys in a car drove by and yelled "faggot." But like most cities, there are sides of town that are more open and tolerant of diversity.

"The downtown west side of the city has a different feel to it," said Kemppainen of the progressive area where folks have a place to hang out comfortably. On the east side where a military base is located, she said, newer homes have been built.

And while the local government has not been quick to make changes to positively affect the LGBT community, the school system is stepping up to the plate to keep all students safe. Colorado Springs School District 11 Board of Directors voted June 13 to include gender expression, gender identity and transgender status, as well as sexual orientation, in anti-discrimination and harassment policies pertaining to students and staff.

The policy change brings D11 -- the largest in the Pikes Peak Region with around 30,000 students in 60 schools -- into alignment with anti-bullying law HB1254 passed over a year ago, according to a blog on the Inside/Out website.

A 2011 graduate of Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, 18-year-old Brittany Harden, experience improved when she moved with her family from Texas to Colorado Springs at the age of 13.

Harden said she realized that she was gay when she was around 11 or 12, while living in Texas. She began dating a female friend. The two were together for four or five years.

"It was really scary," Harden recalled. After having their first kiss they were almost expelled from school because of their display of affection.

While in Texas, teachers looked down on LGBT students, said Harden, who believed that being out negatively affected her grades. Some students also were not supportive of other LGBT students.

Harden said her family had been very accepting of her sexuality, but when they relocated to Colorado Springs and she began high school, she was very apprehensive as to what the school climate would be. She got her answer soon, at a party.

"A friend asked me if I was bisexual, gay or what? I said I identified as bi and she said OK and went on with the conversation," Harden recalled. "It didn't matter." That same acceptance carried over at Palmer High School.

"It wasn't an issue," she said of the school, which had a supportive Gay/Straight Alliance. During her sophomore year, Harden stepped up and took over the organization, serving as president. It was there that she got involved with Inside/Out and their various youth programs.

And unlike her school in Texas, her Colorado Springs teachers were very supportive. During the school's Day of Silence programs, Harden said teachers would help and support the program. During Ally Week, she got support for a petition from students and faculty to promise not to bully or call names, and to help those who were being bullied. Harden said that only one faculty member refused to sign.

For Harden, who now identifies as pansexual, she too has had great experiences living in the conservative city. She will begin taking classes at Pikes Peak Community College this fall, but plans to continue her work with LGBT issues.

Both Kemppainen and Harden are happy to call Colorado Springs home. The Colorado Springs Pride Organization website welcomes all to their thriving LGBT community, and promises advancements, despite the conservative atmosphere.

"We are making progress on a city-wide nondiscrimination ordinance which includes sexual orientation and gender identity, and we're continually working to educate the community-at-large through press and other activities," reads their website. "In the meantime, we encourage everyone to get connected with community so that you can enjoy the many wonderful LGBT people who call the Springs 'home.'"