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The Center on Colfax

The LGBTQ Movement


Jeanne White, left, mother of AIDS activist Ryan White, holds hands with Shannon Behning, the director of the Lighthouse Project, during an event to honor World AIDS Day at the Denver Art Museum on Wednesday, December 1, 2004.

World War II and the Lavender Menace

The start of the modern LGBTQ movement is usually considered to be the 1969 riot at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York City, though several similar uprisings happened in the proceeding years. Stonewall, and many of the earlier uprisings were in response to police harassment, but homosexual men and women were targeted long before that. After the end of World War II in 1945, the U.S. government was not only concerned with the “red scare” of communism, but also the "lavender scare" posed by homosexuals. Starting in 1947, the U.S. State Department began to view homosexuals as security risks due to their perceived “‘weak’ characters and their vulnerability to blackmail.”

Within a three-year period, 1,700 applicants for federal jobs were rejected “based on allegations related to homosexuality,” and “400 federal employees had resigned or been dismissed based on similar claims.”


Michael Neill holds the memorial quilt made for his former partner died from complications of AIDS, at Chessmen Park in Denver Sunday August 22, 2004 as part of the 17th annual AIDS walk. Photo taken by Maria J. Avila for the Rocky Mountain News.

The Rise of the AIDS Crisis

In the 1970s, the U.S. experienced an “explosion of sexual experimentation,” such as in 1973, when “NOW established a Sexuality and Lesbianism Taskforce.” Lesbian activists also convinced the National Women’s Conference “to support
a gay and lesbian [portion] in its National Plan of Action.” There was even an attempt to start a National Lesbian Feminist Organization in 1978, but it didn’t fully materialize. In the early 1980s, doctors such as Dr. Joe Sonnabend began to see strange symptoms in their gay patients. Sonnabend specifically found that 40% of his patients had swollen lymph nodes, possibly due to “the body’s reaction to various... venereal infections.” It was in July of 1981 when the New York Times first brought the news of a plague impacting gay men. Many of those who were diagnosed with a cancer showing up as purple marks on the body, “had [also] been treated for diseases such as herpes or hepatitis b.” As cases began to rise in 1982, it was found that the disease was not restricted to just gay men. It was found that intravenous drug users, Haitians, and hemophiliacs who regularly got plasma injections were also showing symptoms of what was then known as GRID.

As the crisis unfolded, different states and organizations attempted to deal with the emerging epidemic. In Colorado, a bill known as the “Gay Quarantine” bill, HB 1290, was proposed in 1986. Essentially, the bill proposed that state and local officials test those they “reasonably believed to have AIDS or the viral infection which causes AIDS,” and impose a 72-hour quarantine while they waited for the test results. Colorado was the first state to impose such a legislation.

Opponents worried that the bill would mainly target minority groups who are “in the highest risk categories.” They also worried that it would “undermine trust between doctor and patient, and destroy the effectiveness of sexually transmission control in the state.” Ultimately, the bill died in committee, despite passing the house after several changes to clarify the language were made, safeguards put in place, and less power given to the health department. It was actually the bill’s author, Rep. Dale Erickson, who delivered the fatal blow.

Afterwards, he was “overheard making disparaging anti-gay remarks to the effect that his bill would never grant such concessions to ‘faggots.’”


Laura Hershey, friend Laurie Gery, and others marching in the 1999 Portland LGBTQ Pride Parade.

Lesbians and AIDS

As the politics of AIDS resulted in laws and the development of more formal organizations, many grassroots organizations recruited, trained, assigned, and supervised “volunteers who [assisted] in the care of persons living with AIDS (PWAs) and in educating the public about HIV, AIDS, and PWAs.” The Colorado AIDS Project, dedicated to researching AIDS, started in 1989, with an office in Greeley. The staff ran twelve educational projects a month, visiting Colorado schools and international conferences. Many lesbians ended up taking on the role of caregivers for “AIDS patients [with] others taking over leadership roles in gay organizations.” Lesbians and straight women, mainly doctors, nurses, therapists, and health educators, joined forces to create the Women’s Aids Network in 1982.

Lesbians on occasions were subjected to “stigma by association.” This caused some blood banks in the 1980s to reject not just gay men, but lesbians as well. Even so, some lesbians and gay men organized blood drives, mainly under the auspices of religious congregations. An organization known as the San Diego Blood Sisters eventually held their first drive in 1983.