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Coronavirus

With coronavirus nixing gatherings, LGBTQ+ Coloradans seek new ways to foster belonging

LGBTQ+ people feel some impacts of the pandemic more sharply than the general population, but there have been silver linings to the shutdown

John Wolfe, left, and Josh Franklin sing together Sunday, November 22, 2020 at Icons, the Colorado Springs gay piano bar they own together. Wolfe and Franklin bill their new venture as the downtown area's only food and drink establishment geared toward the LGBTQIA community. (Photo by Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The LGBTQ community takes great pride in its mass gatherings. But since the coronavirus pandemic hit Colorado in March, those communal events have been hard to come by.

Bars have been almost or entirely shut down; clubs can no longer offer their trademark intimacy and electric energy. Pride festivals — including Denver Pride, the largest festival between the coasts — went virtual or were canceled, leaving thousands of Coloradans wondering what to do this year with all their rainbow-patterned apparel.

“It’s been a big loss,” Marvyn Allen, health equity and training director for One Colorado, said in a recent interview. At events like Pride, “we’re not only seeing but we’re being seen, and I think that’s so important to myself and many members of our community, because our identities are often erased or ignored.”

The LGBTQ community has been hit hard by the pandemic, beyond the loss of community. Data from the Human Rights Campaign found that roughly 5 million LGBTQ people nationwide have lost jobs or work hours — 15% work in restaurants, compared with 6% of the non-LGBTQ population. About 17% said they don’t have health insurance. These impacts are even greater for LGBTQ people of color.

Even before the pandemic, many LGBTQ people struggled with their mental health. A One Colorado survey from 2019 found that the state’s LGBTQ population experiences anxiety and depression at three times the rate of the general population. More than half of respondents said they experienced feelings of isolation and lack of companionship. Experts say the health crisis has only made this worse.

Coronavirus isn’t the first public health emergency for this community. Though anyone can get HIV or AIDS, LGBTQ people in the U.S. are still disproportionately affected by the global epidemic, first identified in 1981, compared with the country in general. 

Allen said many in the community are taking as many precautions as possible to avoid falling ill with COVID-19. One Colorado shifted to remote work in March, published a list of resources for the community and made upcoming events virtual to keep up the connection with participants. 

Online programming has been a lifeline for some LGBTQ Coloradans, especially for those who are not able to be fully “out” in their own town or even home. But others, Allen said, are tired of looking at a screen to find community.

“We do find so much community and resilience by coming together in person,” Allen said.

There have been a handful of situations during the pandemic where the community gathered in person. When George Floyd was killed by police this summer, many in the LGBTQ community masked up and joined in protests to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Allen said the intersection of the two communities harkened back to the start of Pride celebrations 50 years ago. Police raided the queer-friendly Stonewall Inn in New York in June 1969, sparking Pride demonstrations, with black LGBTQ people leading the charge, that are still considered one of the pivot points in the community’s fight for civil rights. 

“(The protests) this year felt a little bit more like the original Pride that was a riot, as opposed to a corporate Pride that we are more used to now,” Allen said.

“It’s the best we can do”

The isolation of the pandemic has felt particularly palpable on occasions like Transgender Day of Remembrance, held every year on Nov. 20 to honor those killed in hate crimes for being themselves. At least 37 people have been lost in the last year, the deadliest on record for anti-trans violence. Official numbers are likely underestimates, as police reports — and news articles — often misidentify trans people

This year organizations around Colorado collaborated to host virtual memorials. It was better than nothing, Allen said, but it’s still not the same. 

“We’re still doing those events, they’re just a little bit more accessible to a lot more people,” Allen said. “But we won’t have the passing of the tissue boxes and we won’t have the hugs and we won’t be in that space together to feel what it feels like for us all to be in that space and sharing that energy and that community.”

Still, increased accessibility has been a silver lining of the shift to digital. The Center on Colfax, which leads Denver Pridefest and offers programming year-round, has seen increased engagement from people all around the state, according to spokesperson Joe Foster. Foster attributes this not just to removing the geographic barrier of in-person events; virtual events also allow folks who may not be completely out to tune in and engage with the community in a more covert way.

One of the most active groups at The Center during the pandemic has been SAGE of the Rockies, which tailors its programming to LGBTQ+ people age 50 and older.

“It just goes to show that the stereotype with elders and technology doesn’t exist as much as we thought it did,” Foster said.

One of those SAGE members is Kenneth Felts, 90, who this summer came out as gay — through an unintentionally-public Facebook post that got national attention overnight. Felts was active at The Center as an ally to the community before coming out, as his daughter is also gay. Felts now participates in the weekly Cafecito speaker series and joins a gay men’s coffee group every Tuesday.

“We’re all there because we’re gay, so we don’t talk about the fact that we’re gay because it’s a given,” Felts said. Sometimes he asks for relationship advice — he recently started dating someone — but more often they discuss health issues and current events.

The group recently took a COVID-safe field trip to the Denver Botanic Gardens and Felts bonded with a young volunteer who pushed his wheelchair around the park. With increased restrictions rolling in to contain the virus, outings likely won’t happen again for a while. Mostly, Felts says, it’s nice to build connections with others who understand a part of him that he hid away for so long — even if it’s over Zoom. 

“It’s the best we can do with the pandemic,” Felts said. 

Finding ways to “have a gay old time” 

When Broadway shows shut down as the pandemic hit the U.S., performers Josh Franklin and John Wolfe had no idea the next chapter of their lives would involve opening a piano bar in Colorado Springs. 

Franklin grew up in Colorado Springs in the 1990s, back when voter-approved Amendment 2 barred LGBTQ+ people from a slew of civil rights and gave Colorado the “Hate State” moniker.

“I couldn’t wait to leave,” Franklin said. “It was clear that I was not welcome in my own state.”

A lot has changed in Colorado since then. The state has moved to the forefront in supporting LGBTQ people, and elected Gov. Jared Polis, the nation’s first openly gay governor, in 2018.

Wolfe had visited Colorado Springs with Franklin on previous trips, but when the two returned to wait out the pandemic, they found themselves surprised by the city’s evolution into a vibrant, welcoming place for LGBTQ+ folks. The couple made friends with gay-friendly business owners, and even found themselves living in a local “gayborhood,” as Wolfe put it. 

A handful of local joints, like Club Q and Shuga’s, offer queer-friendly atmospheres, but the couple was looking for something a little different.

“We wanted a place to go and nobody else was doing it, so we thought well, why not?” Franklin said.

They tapped Franklin’s retirement savings and started a GoFundMe campaign — “artists are not rolling in it,” Wolfe quipped — and Icons was born. The velvety piano bar pays tribute to many of history’s most iconic LGBTQ+ people and their allies, as well as those who haven’t gotten as much spotlight as they deserve, with works of art by local creators. A diverse staff helps echo the mentality that the place is open for everyone. 

To highlight the performance skills of Wolfe and Franklin, as well as many of their staffers, the couple and others frequently dash over to the mic and piano, burst into song “and just have a gay old time,” as Franklin put it.

John Wolfe, left, and Josh Franklin sing together Sunday, November 22, 2020 at Icons, the Colorado Springs gay piano bar they own together. Wolfe and Franklin bill their new venture as the downtown area’s only food and drink establishment geared toward the LGBTQIA community. (Photo by Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We wanted it to be a little educational for the people in this town,” Wolfe said. “We found out pretty quickly that there was a pretty backwards view of what people thought of a gay bar.” 

For the most part, the community in the Springs has responded with overwhelming enthusiasm. The couple said the city and other bars, including Club Q, have been encouraging and supportive since the start. Within a week of being open, Icons already had regulars. Due to capacity limits, reservations were highly recommended, and the bar frequently had to turn walk-up patrons away — before it was forced to close to indoor patronage due to El Paso County’s Level Red status.

There have been critics, of course. The rainbow Pride flag waving outside the bar was stolen in the first week. (Wolfe and Franklin raised the flag higher the next day, until “God took it down with the wind,” according to Wolfe. Now it’s draped across the front window from the inside.) 

The couple said the comments on news articles featuring the bar have occasionally included some “archaic” views, including that military members — a significant portion of the town’s population, given multiple bases in the area — would not be welcome at the bar. 

Franklin scoffed at that idea; knowing its potential customer base, the bar has a military discount. “There are gays in the military, they are welcome at Icons and they have already come in.”

Wolfe and Franklin acknowledge that opening a bar during a pandemic is not the most financially safe endeavor, but they note that they were already unemployed. The couple is now pivoting toward to-go food and cocktails and Icons has live-streamed a handful of virtual performances for the community to watch.

They’re hopeful the bar can hold out until the area sees lower case counts, nicer weather or widespread vaccination, whichever comes first. Mostly, they’re just eager to facilitate community in any way they can — among queer and straight people alike — during an isolated, divisive time.

“It’s not just OK that you’re gay, it’s so much fun,” Franklin said. “We’re very proud of it, we’re very loving and joyful, and we dare you to not have a good time at our bar.”

Rising Sun