For Chris Aguilar Garcia, the return of Denver PrideFest’s in-person programming is bringing up a mix of emotions.
This Pride month marks the first time since the pandemic began that Colorado’s LGBTQ+ communities have been able to fully gather for large scale Pride events. Aguilar Garcia, director of operations for Queer Asterisk, a Colorado mental health organization run by by queer and transgender professionals, said that this month, they’ve already represented Queer Asterisk at Pride events in Boulder and Longmont.
Aguilar Garcia said it was exciting to be back in an affirming space, particularly after these last few months, when there’s been a wave of news of discriminatory acts against LGBTQ+ communities.
“Overall, I think people are just so excited to be able to have this type of celebration for the first time in a couple of years,” they said. “I know for me, having a sense of fear about the actual safety of the community over the last several months, it felt really great to be in a place that was celebrating who we are.”
Still, Aguilar Garcia recalled one moment at a Pride event this month in Boulder when, in the midst of the celebration, they noticed a group of 5 to 10 police officers standing near the Queer Asterisk booth. Their presence simultaneously reminded Aguilar Garcia of the need for security to keep people safe at Pride and that police presence doesn’t make everyone in the community feel safe.
“It just feels like this moment that we’re in, whether for our community, or just the country at large, that it just feels like there’s almost an inability to have any kind of pure joy. Everything is layered with reminders of all the things that could happen,” Aguilar Garcia said. “Both being excited and happy to be together, but in being together, recognizing, oh, this could also be dangerous, and there needs to be protection. And we don’t know what protection looks like. It looks like a lot of different things for different people.”
Denver’s annual PrideFest returns to Civic Center Park this weekend, fully in person for the first time since 2019.
While dozens of organization across Colorado host Pride celebrations during the month of June, Denver’s is the largest in the state and U.S. This year, the Center on Colfax, which organizes the event, expects to see more than 500,000 attendees over the weekend.
“It’ll just be wonderful to be able to be together at a Pride celebration for the first time in two years,” said Rex Fuller, The Center’s CEO. “Other Pride events that have happened across the country have seen real big increases in participation because everyone’s been cooped up for a couple of years.”
Still, Fuller said some people have called in The Center expressing concerns over safety at this year’s event.
Pride 2022 is arriving in the midst of a nationwide surge in demonstrations and threats against LGBQTQ+ communities. Data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows documented anti-LGBTQ+ acts rose fourfold in the U.S., from 15 in 2020 to 61 in 2021. By the start of June 2022, ACLED had already documented 33 events in 2022.
Some advocates say these acts have been fueled by heightened anti-LGBTQ+ discourse in the media, as well as a rise in anti LQBTQ+ legislation across the country. According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than 250 bills aimed at stripping away LGBTQ+ rights were introduced in 2021, including 24 that have since been enacted.
“It just seems like trans folks and drag performers in particular, I think, are being dehumanized in a way that’s really frightening,” Aguilar Garcia said.
At a Pride celebration in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, earlier this month, local police arrested 31 men affiliated with the white nationalist group Patriot Front. The group had shown up in riot gear with plans to disrupt the event, but were arrested before any harmful activity occurred, the Coeur d’Alene Police Department told CPR. The majority of those arrested came from out of state, including three Coloradans.
Kurt E. Barnes, a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department, said in a statement that they are “unaware of any threats for the Pride festivities that are planned for this weekend,” but that there will be law enforcement on hand during the festivities.
“DPD is working with event organizers on safety for attendees and encourages event-goers that if they hear or see something, to say something,” Barnes said. “Additionally, please reach out to the event organizers for information on their safety plan.”
The news of the arrests in Idaho has heightened anxiety over safety at Pride celebrations in other parts of the country, and some organizers have ramped up security measures in response.
“This could happen anywhere,” Aguilar Garcia said. “It’s just very scary to think about a public gathering in light of the things that happen in this country every day.”
Some say that, on top of this surge in threats against the LGBTQ+ community, the return to large scale public events, as well as a rise in mass shootings across the country, have contributed to a somewhat tense atmosphere heading into Pride.
“I think that we all have to admit that there’s a lot of tension in the air,” Fuller said. “The shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde certainly hit a national nerve and have caused a lot of attention. There’s a lot of political division in the country.”
Fuller said The Center has put together an in-depth, layered safety plan for this year’s PrideFest.
“We spent months on a safety plan – which is about 50 pages long – about what to do and all sorts of different contingencies,” Fuller said. “Everything from if there was a weapon in the park, to a weather event, or things like that. All the volunteers have received training on those items.
“We have one of the most dedicated groups of volunteers,” Fuller continued. “Some of them have bee doing it for two decades. And they are so committed to making this a safe and fun event for people that I’m not really that worried.”
One component of the plan is working with a number of public safety agencies to track and assess potential threats, including the Hate Free Colorado coalition and an FBI program called Colorado Courage, both of which work to combat hate crimes in Colorado.
“I’m also happy to say that no one is aware of any active threats at PrideFest at this time,” Fuller said.
Another dimension of the safety plan is simply making sure attendees follow basic festival rules. Fuller said the festival area will be gated and that bags will be checked at the entry. Guests may not bring in any weapons or alcohol. The Center is working with private security companies, which will station security officers at the gates and near the performance stages. Tthere will be ambulances, first aid stations and first responders on hand, as well as a volunteer safety team dedicated to making sure everything’s running smoothly.
Fuller said that as part of the process to obtain permits for the event, PrideFest was required to work with DPD, who’ll be on duty during the weekend’s events.
“They’re there, and they’re monitoring the event and are prepared to act in case of an emergency, as is Denver Fire Department,” Fuller said.
Last year, police were not invited to participate in PrideFest’s virtual parade. But this year, police as security is expected, and even required.
“There’s a difference between police participating in the parade as either marchers or driving a vehicle in the parade at entry, versus the requirement of a street closure permit to manage 100,000 people up and down the street,” Fuller said. “You can’t do that unless you’re working with police. So there will always be police presence at Pride for that reason.”
Police declined to share with us how heavy the police presence will be.
Some community members said knowing that police will be there is contributing to their unease going into Pride.
“The police have been known for a long time to harass the gay community,” said Denver resident and drag performer Charles Fleming, who also goes by the name Diamond Starr. “It makes it one of those situations where the ones you should trust to take care of us, we can’t trust them either.”
Fleming said they’ve been harassed by the police. And they mentioned one incident last year, where the NYPD on duty at New York City’s Pride events pepper sprayed several Pride participants.
“It’s incidents like that that just don’t make the community feel safe,” Fleming said.
Pride itself is littered with a history of police violence. The first Pride parades took place on the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, which were a series of protests for LGBTQ+ rights following a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City.
“Pride should be a time of celebration and remembrance, yes,” Fleming said. “It’s a party. But we still need to remember where it came from, which is the Stonewall riots. That sometimes gets forgotten in the message.”
Last year, in response to protests against police harassment and violence following the murder of George Floyd, a number of Pride celebrations across the country opted to ban police from marching in Pride. Denver’s own PrideFest banned police from participating in the virtual parade.
“The Black Lives Matter protests really held us to account over that. So we did not invite police to participate,” Fuller said.
Still, Fuller said, there were some LGBTQ+ officers who were upset about the decision. This year, as PrideFest was set to return to a live, fully in-person event, The Center was confronted with questions about how much to involve police.
“The question really was, especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests and the history of Pride really starting as a protest against police, was it appropriate for police departments to kind of get the LGBT stamp of approval by driving a car down the parade route, when there were really questions about police violence against community members, specifically community members of color?” Fuller said. “And we really wrestled with that question.”
Fuller said The Center held a number of conversations with both law enforcement and community members over the last year before landing on a decision that Fuller acknowledges will not please everyone: Police will be present and on duty, as required by law. The Center would not invite police agencies or police departments to participate in the parade. However, The Center developed a new contingent called “Pride on Duty Colorado,” a group of LGBTQ+ police officers and other first responders who will be allowed to march together in the parade, though not in uniform.
“That was the compromise we came to. It has not necessarily satisfied everybody. And it has satisfied some people,” Fuller said. “I will say that our community is not united at all on this issue. There are some who feel very, very strongly that police should not be part of the parade or in any way at all. And there are those who feel equally as strongly that by not including police, that you’re discriminating against LGBT officers.”
Fleming says they understand the requirement for police to be on duty. But they take issue with The Center inviting police to participate in the parade.
“Sometimes when you compromise, you should compromise to err on the side of caution, rather than err on trying to play politics,” Fleming said. “No one’s gonna be happy about the situation no matter what. But it feels like they’re more about playing politics than about safety right now.”
Denverite has reached out to DPD for comment about the debates over police involvement in Pride, and whether DPD has any community-specific training programs for how to respond during Pride. We will update this story if they respond.
Fleming has lived in Denver since 2006. Over the years, they’ve only missed one Denver PrideFest, and have even performed onstage at past events. But this year, they said, they won’t be attending Denver’s Pride events because of safety concerns.
“It’s sort of a catch 22. It’s like, you don’t feel safe because of all the white supremacy people out there. But you don’t feel safe because of the cops either. There’s no way to feel 100% safe anymore, it seems like, at that big of a Pride,” Fleming said. “There is no one right or wrong answer because, unfortunately, we do need the police for safety. But at the same time, we don’t feel safe by the police.”
They said the decision was a particularly sad one, because this year, PrideFest is debuting a sober space, something Fleming had wanted to see at Pride for a long time.
“It’s sad that I can’t even feel safe to go support a sober space without feeling these safety issues,” they said. “Not everything about Pride is bad this year, but I would say it’s bad when you can’t support the good things when you feel scared.”
Fleming feels that as Denver PrideFest has grown, it has also come to feel less safe.
“As Pride has grown throughout the years, it’s felt not as close-knit,” Fleming said. “Not like people watching each other’s backs, but more like one of the situations where you had to watch your own.”
They said that goes for the big threats, like acts of violence, but also some of the smaller-scale safety concerns people might neglect while worrying about bigger threats, like watching their drinks.
This year, Fleming has instead been attending a number of smaller Pride events in other Colorado towns. They spent last weekend at a Pride event in Avon, which Fleming said saw hundreds of attendees.
“I’ve noticed that a lot more smaller Prides are popping up,” Fleming said. “I’m wondering if that has something to do with the fact that not as many people are wanting to go to the big Pride.”
Fleming said a number of their friends also plan to skip Denver PrideFest this year, though it seems as though there’s a bit of an age split- their younger friends in their 20s seem more inclined to attend than those who are 30 or older. Fleming attributes that to older community members having lived through more instances of harassment and violence.
“My age group remembers what it was like. We’ve seen it, we’ve lived it,” Fleming said. “I remember people dying. I’m the Matthew Shepard generation.”
Despite feeling tense going into the weekend, some community members say the prevailing tone is one of resilience and celebration.
“Within those mixed emotions, I think what is overwhelming – and I think that does speak to the spirit of the community — is we have to show up and do these things for ourselves,” Aguilar Garcia said. “I think that sense of being together and celebrating who we are, I think it’s kind of the bigger takeaway from what the moment is.”
CPR Justice Reporter Lacretia Wimbley contributed reporting to this story.