Mesa State College Opens the Closet Door, 1976-1977
In November 1976, the Mesa State Criterion broke the long silence, running a series of articles about Grand Junction’s ‘gay community.’ The articles by Jeffery Frye are the earliest known open public discussion about the local LGBTQ+ community. A man only referred to as Freddie said, “There is a size-able gay community in Grand Junction. I have been at parties where there are as many as 200 gays together. But Grand Junction is such a straight community that it keeps many people in their closet.” Freddie continued, “It is a bore being gay in Grand Junction because there really aren’t that many fags around.” He added “A gay bar would be good.” Freddie identified Hawthorn Park as the place to meet-up, or “cruise,” in the warmer months, and Lincoln Park in the colder months. Freddie added, “you can get cruised at the Timbers (a north avenue bar).”
Then in January of 1977, Morgan Ahern, a lesbian and feminist associated with the Big Mamma Rag Collective in Denver delivered a lecture at Mesa State College about ‘Love and Lesbianism.’ The Daily Sentinel reported, “The effectiveness of Ms. Ahern’s presentation was revealed during the question-and-answer session…when two persons in the audience “came out” of their own closets.” Ahern is quoted as saying: “I was shocked a little myself at the receptivity of the audience. I didn’t expect it here.”
In the weeks following Ahern’s lecture, letters poured into Sally O’Banion’s relationship advice column “Single’s” in the Daily Sentinel. Sally O’Banion replied to a letter writer in March of 1977, “The majority of my mail in the past few weeks has come from gays and lesbians, indicating a larger community than I thought at first. All are interested in having someplace to meet.” She goes on to say that a gay bar in Grand Junction would “1) make someone rich, 2) gather more city and state tax revenues, 3) it would attract gays from the entire Western Slope who would be spending tourist dollar and 4) it would make a lot of people healthier mentally…I trust the message comes across to some entrepreneur.” It would be another two years before this became reality.
Ahern’s lecture might have been the spark locally, but at the national level Anita Bryant’s anti-LGBTQ+ “Save Our Children” crusade was providing the fuel.
In October 1977, the “Gay Coalition’ was organized as a student club on the campus of then Mesa State College, making it the first LGBTQ+ organization in the Grand Valley as well as the first LGBTQ+ student college club in Western Colorado.
Almost instantly there was back-lash. 500 students signed a petition demanding that no student fees be made available to the group. Protests were held. One sign read; “Un-conceivable & Disgusting that it was ever considered by out S.B.A [Student Body Association].” Larry Ellis wrote to the Criterion “It was with great disgust that I read recently in the Daily Sentinel about the new organization of a “Fag Club.” Anti-gay graffiti suddenly appeared all over the campus.
The Gay Coalition had straight allies act as spokespersons for all public appearances, which speaks to the very real threats to those working towards gay and lesbian liberation, in the Grand Valley, at that time.
Though they tried, the reactionaries could not re-shut the closet door.