By Peter Marcus, Colorado Politics
Colorado Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s office staff knows that when Jesse Wright phones, his call should be put right through.
“I have tried real hard to limit that so that I don’t interrupt whatever is going on for her,” said Coffman’s friend, Wright, a gay man who has been battling HIV for nearly 25 years.
Sometimes confused for the powerful attorney general’s brother, Wright has been under the part-time care of Coffman for 15 years — something that few would expect of a busy elected official who has been labeled a conservative for pushing court battles that have included blocking implementation of federal carbon-pollution standards, federal fracking regulations and clean water rules.
With Coffman seriously considering a run for governor — something that requires surviving a divisive primary — it seems surprising that she would so publicly advocate for gay rights. But that is just what Coffman has been doing, inspired by friends such as Wright and others.
“Certainly there are fewer voices of Republicans in the political debate when it comes to equality and gay rights, and I find it somewhat perplexing because Republicans are about personal responsibility and individual rights,” Coffman told Colorado Politics in a recent interview.
She received cheers and applause for an emotional speech following the 2016 attack at Orlando’s Pulse gay nightclub, where 49 people were massacred in the worse mass shooting in U.S. history. She abandoned prepared remarks to speak directly to Colorado’s gay community.
“You are here for each other, and we are all here for you,” Coffman said at the time.
Recently she stood on the steps of the Colorado Capitol surrounded by Democrats and told the crowd that she could be the only Republican attorney general in the country taking part in an LGBT pride event.
“I’m going to be challenging all of my colleagues to do this, because there’s no reason why we all shouldn’t be out here,” Coffman said at the rally at the state Capitol after marching in the annual PrideFest Parade.
History of LGBT advocacy
Years before Coffman would meet Wright, she began her LGBT advocacy work in Atlanta, where she was an aspiring attorney. It was the late-1980s, and AIDS was an epidemic that stirred broad fear and anxiety. Not much was understood about the communicable disease as the death toll — particularly in cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York — skyrocketed.
Atlanta, with its large gay population, was impacted more than many other communities. During law school at Georgia State University, Coffman lived downtown in the heart of “Hotlanta.”
In 1989, a young Coffman volunteered for a nonprofit called Open Hand, which is similar to Project Angel Heart in Denver, both of which deliver nutritious meals to people with chronic illnesses. At the time, AIDS was front and center.
“I wanted to volunteer with that group because I felt that people who were suffering from the disease were being ostracized and it was important to me . to be part of serving that population when other people were looking and going in the other direction,” Coffman said.
In high school in Lebanon, Missouri, Coffman had friends who were gay. By the time she graduated in 1979, one friend had committed suicide, and another had attempted suicide because they were unable to grapple with social stigmas attached to being gay. These friends couldn’t even find acceptance among their own families.
“We still have kids committing suicide for this reason, and as long as that is going on, we have a lot of work to do,” Coffman said.
She found herself inspired by the stories of her gay friends while working in Georgia for the state department of health. At the time, the department was conducting rule-making around HIV/AIDS. Some proposed collecting the names of people who tested positive for the virus.
“It reinforced for me that as a society we were discriminating against a class of people based on a disease that we didn’t understand,” Coffman recalled. “It gave me more appreciation for what people who were homosexual were facing, whether they had HIV or AIDS or not. People made an assumption that they were a leper, that they had the disease.”
Meeting Jesse — a lasting friendship
In 1999, two years after Coffman moved to Colorado, Coffman started volunteering at Project Angel Heart. About three years in, in 2002, Coffman became close with an HIV-positive man who lived by himself, as his partner had died of AIDS. That man was Jesse Wright.
Stricken by pneumonia — which was exacerbated by smoke from the massive, then-burning Hayman Fire — Wright was hospitalized. Coffman began having conversations with Wright and caring for him, which caused Project Angel Heart to ask her to make a decision. Coffman had to choose between the nonprofit and caring for Wright, as Project Angel Heart’s policy was not to get personally involved with individual clients.
She chose Wright.
Whether it’s taking him to doctor’s appointments, making sure that he properly takes his medication, delivering diabetic Popsicles (which Wright hates but tolerates), or simply offering him comfort, Coffman has never abandoned her friend, keeping in contact with him at least every other day.
“We are a big part of each other’s life and support,” Coffman said. “That’s had a lot to do with how I’ve looked at gay rights issues since then, because of Jesse, the people I’ve met through him and the experiences I’ve seen so up close and personal.”
Wright agrees completely: “I wanted to tell everybody she was my sister,” he said. “I can talk to her about anything, and I mean anything. Things that most people would feel uncomfortable about, I talk to her about them.”
And Coffman talks right back. With her recent divorce from U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, Cynthia Coffman has felt the pressure of her personal life being in the spotlight, an uncomfortable reality of being a public figure. But Wright has offered her an outlet.
“I would call it grounding for me and I’m lucky,” she said. “It just broadens my perspective, but it also reminds me that politics and public office is a small sliver of life for most people, and it should be put in perspective. I’ll be a better leader if I do that.”
Wright experienced many of the hardships that Coffman’s gay friends from high school went through. Now 57, he says he hasn’t had much family in his life since he was 17, when he left Kansas and was granted custody over himself. His father was intolerant of him being gay.
“He went through many of the things my friend who committed suicide did,” Coffman said. “They wanted to believe that when they found out that he was gay that they could change him and that he could decide not to be gay.”
In the Colorado legislature, Republicans have repeatedly opposed legislation that would have prohibited the practice of gay conversion therapy, in which counselors attempt to turn people from being gay.
“When we talk about conversion therapy, I get my hackles raised,” Coffman said. “Trying to use therapy to make someone into something they’re not is a dangerous practice.”
Coffman has become so committed to Wright that she at times gets angry if he goes to a doctor’s appointment without her. When they first met she paid off his parking tickets. Soon she would help him with his bills. When Wright moved about two years ago, Coffman purchased furniture for his apartment.
Early in their friendship, when Wright spent 45 days in the hospital for pancreatitis, Coffman stayed with him in the hospital nearly every day. Wright wasn’t aware that she was in the room, but when he began feeling better, hospital staff informed him of Coffman’s presence.
“They told her every day that I was going to die,” Wright said. “When I first met Cynthia and she was being so kind and everything, I told her, ‘Don’t get too attached because I’m probably not going to live any more than a couple of years..’ But I have bounced back every time.”
Wright was lucky enough to survive the days when HIV/AIDS was considered a death sentence. He lived long enough to benefit from drugs that have kept him alive, while many of his friends with the disease have passed away over the years.
“From then on, she was willing to go to every doctor’s appointment because I made a big boo-boo, what I thought I heard wasn’t what I heard, and she heard it the right way, so I asked her if she minded coming with me. So she started coming with me to all my doctor’s appointments.”
Wright started taking opioids for the pain associated with his illness, and while he has been responsible with his dosing, his experience inspired Coffman to focus on the opioid epidemic facing the state and the nation.
Uphill battle for a Republican
While Coffman has been somewhat comfortable putting herself out there as a Republican on the subject of gay rights, it is not always perceived as a safe place to be for a conservative.
Margaret Hoover, president of American Unity Fund, a Republican group that pushes conservatives to advance LGBT issues, said that in the years it was fighting for marriage equality, more than 230 Republican lawmakers in state legislatures across the country voted for marriage equality, while only two lost their seats for it.
Still, perception is holding back the party from fully embracing LGBT issues, with much of the religious right of the GOP using organized political networks in an attempt to block support.
“Some of the bills that would be pretty harmful to LGBT individuals are happening in red states with red legislatures and red executives, and often it’s a governor who we work with closely and who decides that that bill is not right for his state,” said Hoover, a Colorado native who lives in New York and worked in the George W. Bush administration.
“What we found is there are some legislators who are there in their heart, but they’re afraid to be there politically,” Hoover said. “Cynthia is like this shining example of somebody who has the courage of her political convictions. Her political convictions match her moral convictions.”
She added that there has been a “backlash” within the GOP since efforts to advance marriage equality succeeded.
“What we’re actually doing is fighting skirmishes that are really seeded in backlash on same-sex marriage from a politically motivated religious right,” Hoover said. “The landscape can look dim, but if you look granularly at it . if you squint, you can see real signs of hope.”
While much of the country has moved beyond opposing same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, many in the GOP have been scared to embrace progressive positions. Though the national GOP has come to largely ignore the subject, it also has not taken a strong stance.
One Colorado, a left-leaning LGBT group, believes Coffman can lead the way for other Republicans to advance gay rights issues.
“We’ve seen for years that support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Coloradans and their families is not a partisan issue,” said Daniel Ramos, executive director of One Colorado. “In the fight for LGBTQ equality, we believe Attorney General Coffman’s support for LGBTQ Coloradans and their families serves as an example to other Republicans.”
Her friend Wright jokes that he doesn’t always agree with Coffman when it comes to Republican issues, despite their close relationship.
“We’ve had our talks about it,” Wright laughed. “I mean, it took Reagan so long to talk about gay issues, and they (Republicans) find him as their savior to save all, and he did nothing for nobody .. But I’ll vote Republican if she feels real strong about it.”
Coffman said she is not bothered by any backlash she might receive for being a member of the GOP and a strong advocate for LGBT issues.
“People will only come along if they see other people out there doing what I’m doing,” she said.
“Just as with abortion, some people’s opinions about gay rights and homosexuality are based in a biblical belief and a religious philosophy .. But I feel like I’m standing up for my friends, as well as for people I don’t know and haven’t met but I know are out there, that’s what being a representative of the people means .. I think being a leader can be uncomfortable sometimes.”