For the past 22 years, Linda Warren has called herself “Queer Santa.”
Warren became Queer Santa on Christmas Eve 1998. She was preparing for her own holiday party when she got a panicked call from a friend who was volunteering at the local LGBTQ community center, The Center on Colfax. The annual youth holiday festivities had gone awry when a gift donor backed out at the last minute. Help was needed.
Although Warren wasn’t volunteering with the organization at the time, she immediately bought Target gift cards for the young people at the center. On each card, she wrote, “Love, Santa.”
Warren’s inner Santa Claus was ignited, she said, and the tradition was born.
“I told the people at the center that I will make sure these children who wouldn’t get a present at home get one every year from me,” said Warren, a grandmother and three-time cancer survivor.
She has kept that promise.
For Warren, the decision to become a source of support for LGBTQ youths stemmed from her own experience with rejection. Her parents disowned her when, as a divorced adult, she came out as gay.
“My father said, ‘I want you to leave the woman you’re with and act like a decent human being,’ ” Warren recalled. “I told him I’m not leaving her, and that I am a decent human being and I always will be. I never saw him again after that.”
She grew estranged from her mother, too, who refused to accept Warren’s sexuality.
“This is what made me want to help these children,” Warren said.
Warren, who worked in insurance for several years and later started her own flooring business, initially used her own money to buy gifts for the young people who felt rejected.
She would purchase and wrap individual presents, then deliver them to The Center on Colfax’s youth program, Rainbow Alley.
But as time wore on, more LGBTQ youths registered to join, so Warren began an annual fundraiser. She usually raises about $35,000 a year, which goes toward buying personalized holiday gifts for hundreds of Denver LGBTQ young people between the ages of 13 and 21.
Each year, Rainbow Alley throws a “Holigay” party for youths, and Warren attends in her Queer Santa suit, primed to hand out presents to each attendee. All Denver youths are welcome, regardless of sexuality, gender, race or religion.
In recent years, hundreds sign up in advance to attend the party, where they are served a traditional holiday meal and given gifts from Queer Santa. Upon registering for the event, each participant fills out a wish list with a present they hope to receive.
“Some of the kids would put ‘happiness’ and ‘love’ on their list,” Warren said. “That broke my heart.”
“I want the children to get a gift they really want, not need,” she continued. “If they need anything, I tell them to call me and I will make sure they get whatever they need.”
“We really want them to feel special and cared for, which many of the youth do not necessarily experience day-to-day,” said Rex Fuller, CEO of The Center on Colfax, adding that even those who feel accepted at home might feel rejected socially or at school.
In her more than two decades of being Queer Santa, Warren said, “acceptance has gone up, but there are still people who do not accept us. I want to make it better for those children.”
Experts in gender and sexuality confirm that there is a low sense of acceptance felt by LGBTQ youths, who are significantly overrepresented in homeless populations and are nearly five times as likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexual youths.
“Institutional acceptance gives us the impression that we’ve also achieved cultural acceptance, when that’s not necessarily the case,” said Karen Tongson, a professor at the University of Southern California and the chair of the department of gender and sexuality studies. “The issue of acceptance remains a big problem for youth.”
“Any kind of indication that we care about others is especially precious and valuable in this time,” she continued. “And the fact that [Warren] has been doing this for many years and serving a community who tends to be cast out and rejected by some of their family members, provides a sense that there is somebody who is thinking about them.”
Catherine Lugg, a professor at Rutgers University whose research has centered on LGBT issues and queer theory, agreed.
“LGBT youth, particularly trans youth, are at the highest risk of being homeless because of family rejection. This woman is saving lives,” she said.
At the annual Holigay event, Warren sets up a Queer Santa station where youths are invited to sit on her lap in true Santa style — or next to her, if they prefer — to chat and receive their gift.
“I have had children that are probably six feet tall and they just come running when it’s their turn and jump on my lap,” Warren said.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and Holigay plans were halted. But Warren felt especially compelled to reprise her Queer Santa role this year. After 22 years of the tradition, she wasn’t going to let anything — not even a global pandemic — stop her, she said.
“I really felt like it was more important than ever to do it this year,” Warren said, adding that many of the youths have told her that they’ve been forced out of their homes or are living with their parents in unsafe and uncomfortable circumstances.
The center hosted a socially distant parking lot Holigay party, in which LGBTQ youths could pop by to say hello to a masked Queer Santa and receive a gift from her.
Because of the pandemic, Rainbow Alley opted to give all participants the same gift, which included a Visa gift card, a grocery store gift card, as well as pride socks, a pride flag and other rainbow-themed trinkets.
On Dec. 5, Warren wore the usual Queer Santa outfit — with an added Santa-patterned mask and a face shield to complete the look — and headed to the center’s parking lot for the Holigay party.
About 75 youths stopped by throughout the day to say hello to Queer Santa and pick up their present.
“Because of the pandemic, participation was somewhat muted, just because it’s been difficult through virtual means to connect with youth,” said Fuller. “Later in the evening, they shared a Zoom meeting to have their celebration.”
Although she missed her traditional celebration, “I think it went off really nicely,” said Warren. “The children all seemed to have a good time.”
Warren intends to continue being Queer Santa until she is no longer physically able to. In the spirit of keeping the tradition alive, she has already lined up her successor.
Wendy Pobirk, 53, is known as Queer Santa’s elf. The duo met at an event seven years ago put on by The Center at Colfax, and Pobirk approached Warren to ask how she could get involved. The annual fundraising initiative has been a team effort ever since.
“Wendy is the greatest elf there is,” said Warren.
“Linda has the biggest heart for children I’ve ever seen,” Pobirk said. “When she got that call more than 20 years ago, it lit a fire and it never went out.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Linda Warren first became Queer Santa on Christmas Eve 1998.
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