It’s possible that Denver has become the 21st-century equivalent of San Francisco in the Sixties: a utopian vison where the default setting is a blissed-out optimism about the future.
Nearly 400,000 people attended this year’s Denver PrideFest, the city’s annual two-day celebration of Pride that transforms Denver’s Civic Center Park into a kaleidoscopic mash-up of Woodstock and Burning Man. For as far as the eye could see and the telephoto could capture, Denver’s vast Golden Triangle of culture was a sea of happy people surfing the chilled groove and cheering for entertainers who included Jennifer Holliday, Peppermint, and Chad Michaels.
“I remember my first PrideFest and just being so overwhelmed by the spectrum of humanity and the rainbow of our community,” says deejay Alyson Calagna of Remix Your World who moved to Colorado six years ago. “From baby dykes to bears, the entire gamut of humanity and everyone so colorful and expressive and unique. It’s everything.”
One of the fastest-growing cities in the States, Denver is in the midst of another construction boom. According to the Denver Post, the city’s latest population surge, which commenced in the 1990s, has been driven by millennials who comprise more than half of new residents.
“I wanted to see the sky, but I still wanted a city with a metropolitan feel,” says Calagna. “I’m originally from Louisiana and when I moved out here, it felt like home again. People are so friendly. You talk to strangers, the people in line at the grocery store. To have all that in a progressive city, I have just embraced this community more than any other place. It’s such a conscious city. A forward-thinking, conscious city.”
Colorado’s legalization of marijuana in 2014 has resulted in cannabis tourism, with Denver hosting a smorgasbord of recreational and medical cannabis dispensaries. To step into this world of edibles, topicals, extracts, concentrates, and proprietary strains is to recognize how quickly the blissed-out future has expanded.
Soon after I landed in Denver, I heard from several friends back East, millennials who texted “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to Denver? I love Denver”—which reminded me of the wanderlust inspired by San Francisco in the Seventies.
More than a thousand newcomers arrive in Denver each month, which has helped make Colorado the second-fastest growing state in the US. “We’re really glad you’re here, but just don’t stay too long,” joked the concierge at the Art Hotel.
Regarding Denver’s welcoming spirit, Jayne Buck, Vice President of Tourism at Visit Denver, says, “It doesn’t matter if you’re a grandma or a twenty-something, the city is open to difference and new perspectives. What I hear most often from people who come here is, ‘I feel at home.’ In either 24 or 48 hours, they tell me, ‘I feel at home here.’ I think it starts from the Gold Rush, that sense of seeking an adventure, embarking on a new chapter, and then finding yourself in the process. You take on a new skill. It’s a place where people are encouraged and allowed to be themselves.”
Though Denver is the nation’s 19th most populous city, its annual PrideFest is the third largest Pride festival in the nation—which says a lot about Denver’s LGBT community. According to Rex Fuller, Vice President of the GLBT Community Center of Colorado, “Denver has a real live-and-let-live attitude; LGBT folks feel comfortable here. We held our first Pride event 42 years ago.”
“We appreciate the individuality of people,” says Buck. “We really embrace that—and the LGBT community is something that inspires all of us because of what they have had to overcome. I think it makes you want to be more accepting.”
PrideFest is the largest annual fundraiser for the Center, which has served the LGBT community since it opened in 1976. One hundred percent of PrideFest’s proceeds support the programs and services of the Center, a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower, engage, enrich, and advance the LGBT community of Colorado.
As Fuller attests, “Denver is the largest metropolitan area in this part of the country, so we serve as a hub for rural areas of Colorado and neighboring states—we have the same draw for isolated LGBT folks that other urban cores have. People come here to find acceptance and to build a community.”
Under the umbrella theme of Viva La Vida, nearly 200 organizations marched in the 42nd annual PrideFest Parade, which traversed a 1.5-mile route from Cheesman Park along Colfax Avenue to Denver’s Golden Triangle. At Civic Center Park, more than 250 vendors offered a plethora of rainbow accoutrements.
According to Buck, “The common denominator throughout Denver is that it’s open-minded and welcoming to new perspectives and the ability to integrate them. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit and the sense that you can be who you want to be and that spirit is infectious and contagious. It’s relaxed, but at the same time, it’s energized.”
Denver’s erstwhile mayor, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper addressed the Pride Rally for Equality, reminding the audience of the importance of voting and of Colorado’s ongoing commitment to equality.
“Denver’s LGBT scene is so diverse,” says Calagna. “We have One Colorado, and there’s a huge lesbian scene between Denver and Boulder, and we have all the greatest deejays—and DragNation and Tracks. You ask any of the queens from RuPaul and they’ll tell you, DragNation is the greatest show in America. The scene, the crowd, the diversity. It feels old school and yet still very modern. What can I say, Denver is the shit.”
The future is coming, in spite of the current Presidential administration’s desire to turn back time—and, more than ever, the future looks like Denver.