LGBTQ historian David Duffield wins Denver Library’s Eleanor Gehres Award

“It’s about the legacy of the work and making sure that no queer kid ever has to grow up with the same kind of ignorance I’ve had to grow up with.”
4 min. read
David Duffield is the 2023 winner of the Eleanor Gehres Award.
Courtesy of David Duffield

If you ask David Duffield for a historical fact on the LGBTQ community in Colorado, he can rattle off a few in less than a minute.

The first gay bar in Denver was the Pit tavern in 1939. It was part of a few gay bars that opened up around that time due to scrutiny against the community.

The trans community has called Denver home since "before colonization." Trans women organized in the 1950s and 60s. And those same women founded the Gender Identity Center in 1980. The organization provided support for anyone who had a different gender identity or expression.

Duffield has been listening and collecting the history of the LGBTQ community in Colorado for more than 10 years.

Duffield's most told facts involve the death of Irene De Soto, a sex worker and trans woman of color who was killed by a police officer in 1978. He helped put together a walking tour surrounding her death called The Last Night and First Rally for Irene De Soto.

His historical efforts were acknowledged Tuesday when the Denver Public Library awarded him the Eleanor Gehres Award.

"I was moved by the lack of historical work done in the area and I wanted to do something about it," Duffield said. "The recognition is something else. The other historians who won this are basically like the Colorado historians, and to be accepted into that community is both humbling and overwhelming."

Rachel Vagts and David Duffield pose with the Eleanor Gehres Award.
Courtesy of David Duffield and Phil Nash

The Gehres Award honors people and organizations who have made significant contributions to the library in terms of material, such as written histories or photos.

DPL said Duffield is the first person to win this award who has had a focus on the LGBTQ community.

Duffield is a social studies teacher with Denver Public Schools. He said he was inspired to collect LGBTQ history when he realized that the archives were sparse. He approached The Center on Colfax, a nonprofit dedicated to providing programs and services for the LGBTQ community, to see if they would partner with him on a history project and they agreed.

In 2013, the Colorado LGBTQ History Project was founded. The Project has four components, the collection of oral history, which lives on the Project's website as well as DPL's system; educational planning, where DPS teachers can access lesson plans on LGBTQ history; networking, which involves working with other organizations on more LGBTQ projects; and document archiving.

The archives collected by Duffield and the project include news clippings, personal papers and other physical objects. The Project receives the inventory and submits them to institutions, such as DPL, to see whether they want to keep the material. In most cases, these groups do.

Duffield, through the Project, has donated 28 collections to DPL's Western History Collection.

DPL said the collections "established an extensive resource to tell the story of the LGBTQ community in Denver," according to a news release. The body of work has information on the HIV and AIDS epidemic, support organizations, social clubs, and the personal papers of men, women, and the transgender community.

Duffield said he's humbled to be the recipient of the Gehres Award. He said he acknowledges that the award isn't just going to him but to everyone who has been involved with the preservation of LGBTQ history in the state. He added that the History Project is ongoing and he hopes it continues even after his involvement ends.

"We have to remember that the passage of our stories is the liberation of another's voice. When we share our stories, we create legacy and heritage," Duffield said. "There's a continuity between telling our stories and equality...It's not about me as the historian. It's about the legacy of the work and making sure that no queer kid ever has to grow up with the same kind of ignorance I've had to grow up with."

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