The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Colorado did a 180 on gay rights

The alliance between corporate America and LGBTQ rights

In January, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) greets marchers in Denver ahead of the annual parade to mark the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In November, Polis became the first openly gay person to be elected a governor in the United States. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Over the past month, attention has been lavished on the diversity of the incoming freshman class of the House of Representatives. Less noticed is another critical first: Coloradans voted into office Jared Polis, the first openly gay governor elected in U.S. history.

Twenty-five years ago, Colorado voters also made history in the battle over gay rights. But they did so for the opposite reason, approving Amendment 2, an amendment to the Colorado constitution that prohibited all gay rights laws in the state. So how did Colorado go from being, in the words of author Armistead Maupin, “the South Africa of the U.S. for gays” to electing an openly gay governor? One clue: Polis, in addition to being openly gay, is a multimillionaire. Colorado’s evolution from Amendment 2 to Polis reveals how gay rights activists found an unlikely ally in their war with the Christian right: corporate America.

In 1992, few people would have guessed Colorado would one day elect an openly gay governor. In fact, it seemed far more likely that the state would blaze the way for a national rollback of gay rights. The conservative Christians who drafted and campaigned for Amendment 2 used a powerful slogan, “No Special Rights,” which suggested gay men and lesbians sought not equal but “special” rights. This slogan, combined with an ad campaign that used lurid images from San Francisco’s gay pride parade, enabled Amendment 2 to defy pollsters and secure victory by a 53 percent to 46 percent margin in November 1992, even as Bill Clinton and Democratic Senate candidate Ben Nighthorse Campbell carried the state.

Emboldened by this victory, conservative Christians sought to take the “Colorado Model” nationwide. Amendment 2 clones sprung up in states ranging from Oregon to Michigan to Florida. At a meeting of Christian right organizations, one of the authors of the amendment promised the crowd, “There is a national movement coming out of Amendment 2.”

Amendment 2 did produce a national movement, but not of the sort the Christian right intended.

Calls to boycott Colorado, led by the Denver-based organization Boycott Colorado, began within a few days of the amendment’s passage. Soon national groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force joined the effort.

Multiple organizations canceled conventions in Colorado; a major publishing company changed its plans to relocate to Denver; and the city councils of New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta endorsed the boycott. Many of these cities supported the boycott for material reasons as well as ideological ones. When Ed Rendell, then the mayor of Philadelphia, declared that he would not attend a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors held in Colorado, he quickly added: “As a statement of denouncing bigotry and affirming civil rights, I will personally request that the conference be moved to Philadelphia, the birthplace of civil rights.” Colorado’s loss could be Philadelphia’s gain.

“Affirmative hatred is bad business,” declared one pro-boycott activist, and the numbers seemed to bear him out: The estimated impact of the boycott grew from $20 million at the end of 1992 to $120 million by the end of 1993. Surveying the damage, a Denver Post reporter concluded: “Amendment 2 may be the biggest public-relations disaster ever to hit Colorado.”

Colorado’s business community had always been lukewarm toward Amendment 2. Though the pro-amendment campaign included some small-business owners, most of the state’s larger businesses opposed the amendment as unnecessary. Denver’s Chamber of Commerce even paid for a newspaper ad in which companies with branches in Colorado, such as Apple, denounced the amendment. But in 1992, most of the state’s business community was focused on defeating a different initiative, one that they felt cut taxes too sharply. Defeating Amendment 2 was secondary.

The boycott refocused their attention. The state’s business community now turned sharply and vocally against the amendment. This was true even in the arch-conservative community of Colorado Springs, home to dozens of evangelical Christian ministries, some of the nation’s largest evangelical churches and Colorado for Family Values, the evangelical-led organization that had drafted Amendment 2.

Even there, business leaders attacked the amendment and the “extremists” who sponsored it. The city’s Chamber of Commerce touted Colorado as “a tolerant, caring place to live,” while the chamber’s president declared that “diversity is important in the community and the work force.” Dozens of executives rallied behind an effort called “Come Together Colorado” that would have repealed Amendment 2. They were less interested in advancing gay rights than in protecting their city’s reputation as a good place to do business — something they were quite open about. Colorado Springs, said one employer, “cannot afford divisiveness, misdirection or intolerance if it’s serious about recruiting investments.”

Meanwhile, as clones of Amendment 2 appeared around the nation, liberal groups used the Colorado boycott to recruit allies from the corporate world. A briefing book published by the American Civil Liberties Union suggested that organizers “make the anti-gay initiative an economic development issue as a way to seek out allies.” They could do so by emphasizing the “negative impact an anti-gay initiative can have on the state’s economy.” This was a conscious strategy on the part of activists. As one leader in the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force put it, the boycott was a way “to send [a] message to other states: Should they pass another initiative, it will be a high price to pay for discrimination.”

One anti-gay leader scoffed at this strategy: “What are they going to do? Boycott the whole country?” But it worked. “No Special Rights” initiatives were put forward in eight states in 1994: Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, Maine, Missouri, Michigan, Florida and Washington. Six failed to even make the ballot. The two that did, in Oregon and Idaho, went down to defeat. Two years later Amendment 2 itself was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans.

Convincing corporations that social conservatism was bad business was only the first step. Some Colorado executives went a step further by using their wealth to actively advance gay rights. Foremost among them was software entrepreneur Tim Gill. Gill, himself openly gay, responded to Amendment 2 by creating the Gill Foundation. The foundation — headquartered in Colorado Springs, in a direct rebuke to that city’s conservative element — disbursed millions of dollars to organizations throughout Colorado with the aim of raising the profile of gay philanthropy.

One of Gill’s allies: Jared Polis, then a wealthy entrepreneur. Polis joined Gill and two other wealthy Coloradans in what was sometimes called “the Gang of Four,” a group dedicated to shifting Colorado leftward, particularly by funding opposition to socially conservative Republicans.

In the decades since, the corporate world has only become more vocal in its opposition to local laws that target sexual nonconformity. For instance, North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which would have (among other restrictions) required transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificates, triggered a massive boycott that cost the state billions.

Boycotts and targeted philanthropy were effective because they exploited a divide in the conservative coalition, between those who prioritized social issues and those who did not. Even for most Colorado business leaders who opposed gay rights, the issue was of secondary importance to them — not worth losing money to a boycott or rejecting a donation from the Gill Foundation.

This, then, was the “Colorado Model” that emerged from Amendment 2: not a national campaign against gay rights, but a strategy to split social conservatives from their allies in the business community through a careful application of threats and incentives. That Polis, a wealthy businessman and outspoken advocate of gay rights, should be the one to realize the culmination of this model seems fitting.