The Closet: LGBTQ+ folx in the Grand Valley, 1881-1976

The Ute people have called this region home since time beyond memory. Like most native cultures, the Utes held space for the gender fluid members of the tribe. The Ute word “Tuwasawits” means something like ‘wears other sex’s clothes.’ The Spanish, who first claimed and explored this region and long traded with the Utes, documented and called these indigenous LGBTQ+ people Berdache. A more common modern short-hand for these indigenous folks has become ‘two-spirited,’ though that term carries different connotations in indigenous communities.

In September of 1881, The Ute people were forced at gunpoint to relocate to Utah. On the heels of this forgotten ‘trail of tears,’ were legions of white settlers eager to stake town-sites and homesteads upon the recently vacated lands. These settlers were largely male. This largely male environment had men taking on more traditionally female roles, especially in remote worksites (i.e mining, timber, railroad, and construction camps). Stag (all male) dances were common, and almost certainly homosexual relationships occurred. Well into the 1900’s, there were far more men than women in the Grand Valley.

“Cowboy Stag Dance.” Circa 1910, Location Unknown.

In the book, “Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past,” Peter Boag, documents many people who were able to re-invent themselves on the frontier, either by openly loving whomever they pleased and/or living as the opposite gender. Boag also documents a push at the beginning of the 20th century, to criminalize gender non-conformists, and erase them from the mythos of the west.

Local repression came on June 30th, 1899, when the city of Grand Junction passed a sweeping package of local ‘morality’ laws: from vagrancy to brothels, and from pornography to animal cruelty. Included in these ‘moral’ codes was: “No person shall appear in any public place in this city in a state of nudity or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” (Ordinance 83. Art. 6 Sec. 3) It does not appear, however, that this law was ever enforced.

When Colorado became a territory in 1861, it adopted British “common-law” which included prohibitions against sodomy, which could carry the death-penalty (though it doesn’t appear it ever did in Colorado). In 1922, the Colorado Supreme Court found that oral sex was not covered by the definition of sodomy, though the court opined that oral sex was “more vile and filthy than sodomy.” To close those ‘loopholes,’ Colorado enacted a “Crimes against Nature” law in 1939. The law re-codified and made clear that anal and oral sex were illegal for both homo and heterosexuals. It passed unanimously. In 1953, Colorado enacted a ‘psychopathic offenders’ law, which lumped homosexual behavior and acts in with rape and child molestation and provided for indefinite institutionalization in the state hospital.

Because of this local and state suppression and criminalization, the Grand Valley’s early LGBTQ+ communities remain largely hidden. Sadly, what little we know about the early LGBTQ+ people is derived almost solely from the criminal docket.

Two black men convicted of Sodomy, break rocks in Canon City while forced to wear dresses and straw hats. Circa 1900-1910. Courtesy of the Denver Public Library Western History Collection.

In 1925, George Rand was prosecuted for Sodomy, and sent to the state psychiatric hospital.

In 1947, an unnamed person was prosecuted for “Crimes Against Nature.”

In 1952, an unnamed person was charged with Sodomy.

In 1954, Lorenzo Harvey, was prosecuted for “Crimes Against Nature.”

How little is known speaks to how suppressed and marginalized these folx were and ultimately made invisible. There were, however, some folks from the Grand Valley’s distant past, who did not conform to the western myth of rugged masculine men and dainty fragile women. People like George Falconer and Bessie Blevins.

In 1903, George Falconer opened his bookstore “Ye Old Bookman” above the Fair Store in downtown Grand Junction. Falconer was what they called back then a ‘confirmed bachelor.’ It could also be said that he was a man married to the revolution. He came to Grand Junction a socialist, he left an Industrial Worker of the World or I.W.W or Wobblie (an anarcho-syndicalist industrial union), and later he would be a vocal communist writing for communist publications. He even toured Soviet Russia in the 1930s, and lectured on the success of the Soviets, upon his return to the USA. He never married. The Sentinel described Falconer as a “remarkable judge and collector of art goods, pictures, books, and other things beautiful.” In another article the Sentinel admired his ‘metropolitan’ bookstore’s decor as “the perfect arrangement,” noting the “attractiveness of the place.” Falconer was often the guest speaker at the Women’s Club, at one lunch-in the Sentinel reported: “under the magic touches of Mr. Falconer’s word painting, the simple word “Art’ assumed a newer and broader meaning to his listeners, which made a lasting impression on their minds.” At a literary event hosted by Falconer, the Sentinel gushed about the “punch of the most exquisite nature,” and appetizers “dainty in their preparation and delicious in their nature.” Though Falconer left Grand Junction in 1910, he had left his mark as a co-founder of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce. Twenty-one years after he left the area, a columnist for the Daily Sentinel, “recall[ed]…his gentle philosophy of protest, his thoughtful, somewhat bookish mannerism and his altogether lovable earnestness.” Falconer’s sexual preferences are likely to never be known. Yet it is noteworthy, that he was able to rise to a prominent position in turn of the century Grand Junction, while existing in a gray zone of bachelorhood, revolutionary politics, and artistic/literary pursuits.

George N. Falconer, Unkown Date

In February of 1906, Bessie Blevins rambled into Grand Junction, and proceeded to create quite a scene. She goes on to occupy a big chunk of the blotter 1906-1908. Known around the west as “Silver Tip Bess” she had a reputation as a rough riding cowhand, a dirty bar-fighter, and hard drinker. She was rumored to have been in league with outlaws and involved a large ‘stick-up.’ Both largely male pursuits then and now. While we will never know how Bessie identified or who she loved, she did exemplify countless women who moved west and wrote their own narratives. Bess was a woman who refused the binary choice of being a married church-going women or a working girl in a red-light district, but instead blazed her own path in the world. A 1908 Daily Sentinel article details her methods of travel: “She rides from town to town in box-cars and on the bumpers like an ordinary hobo and succeeds in making her presence known in a new town shortly after her arrival; consequently, she is kept continually on the move and is just as much of an expert in beating her way from one place to another as any male tramp.”

Tracy Beach’s book “My Life as a Whore: the biography of Madam Laura Evens 1871-1953” documents lesbian relationships and sex acts taking place in the brothels of Salida, Colorado: as performance acts, with customers, and as deep personal relationships between women working in the brothels. Relationships similar to these almost certainly played out in Grand Junction’s robust red-light district known as the “Barbary Coast.” Named after the infamous red-light district in San Francisco.

The LGBTQ+ community could not stay hidden forever, and events nationally and in Denver would slowly bring visibility to the local community. In 1969, eight NYC police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, the resulting three-day riot, sparked the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. A few years later, in 1971, Colorado decriminalized homosexuality, but it would take a few more years before the Grand Valley would begin to come out of the closet.

The early and mid-1970s saw an explosion of ‘gay and lesbian’ organizations winning victories in Denver and around the nation, but things were quiet in Grand Junction. But there was a scene here centered around house parties and cruising. ‘Freddie Freak’ was a well-known openly gay man in the mid 1970s, who organized many of the house parties in this still underground sub-culture. Another cornerstone of this scene was the ‘Hill House,’ which held regular LGBTQ+ parties during the 1970s and into the 1980s.

But in 1976/77 things were going to change and then Mesa State College was going to lead the way.

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