In October 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was pistol-whipped, tied to a fence and left for dead in an act of violence that stunned Americans and reshaped their country’s approach to hate crimes.
Shepard was murdered outside of Laramie, Wyoming, some 30 miles (nearly 50 kilometers) from Colorado – a state that, 20 years on, is poised to elect the country’s first openly gay male governor, Jared Polis.
Polls out less than a week before the election show the 43-year-old Polis, who is currently the congressman for ultra-liberal Boulder near Denver, with a five- to eight-point lead over Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton. A survey by a Democratic consortium, including Colorado-based Keating Research, found Polis leading 50 percent to 42 percent, while the right-leaning Magellan Strategies has Polis up by five points.
The Denver Post notes, however, that in both polls Polis – who will also become Colorado's first Jewish governor – has double-digit leads among women, unaffiliated voters and people in their 40s or younger.
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The surveys reflect the demographic changes Colorado has undergone in the last 20 years, as the state’s strong economy has pulled in young people and minorities from places like California and Texas.
A 2017 study found that the rural parts of Colorado, which hold significant political power, have undergone a fundamental transformation. In the 1980s, minorities were nowhere to be seen. But today the Latino population in rural communities is almost as large as the white population, which is in steady decline.
Colorado has long been a mecca of Christian conservative politics, with powerful organizations like Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family leading the way in pushing socially conservative policies. The 100 mile I-25 corridor between Boulder and Colorado Springs is a microcosm of American politics, with college-town Boulder offsetting the largely Christian conservative Colorado Springs further south. That city is also a military town, including the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Denver, the state’s capital and most populous city, sits between the two, while its suburbs populate much of the space in between. In the political battle between Colorado Springs and Boulder, the military town has long won out, with millions of dollars from Christian groups and conservative causes funding ballot initiatives and statewide policy campaigns. But with Polis, that tide may have forever turned.
‘The hate state’
LGBT rights have been a central issue in Colorado politics for decades. In June, a major Supreme Court case originating in Colorado – the “wedding cake case” – was ruled on in favor of the Trump administration. Meanwhile, for decades, anti-LGBT ballot initiatives have won in Colorado; the state has often been a testing ground for conservative groups considering how to approach these issues on the national stage.
On November 3, 1992, Colorado voters approved Initiative 2 – a move to amend the state’s constitution to prohibit government agencies from allowing “homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships” to “claim any minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discrimination.” In short, the state made it illegal for the LGBT community to seek protections as a minority, for which critics dubbed Colorado “the hate state.”
In 1994, the Colorado Supreme Court found the amendment unconstitutional and two years later, in a landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling, saying the amendment violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
Same-sex marriage has been legally recognized in Colorado since October 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of lower court decisions overturning a ban. Colorado’s state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which was enacted in 2006 with 56 percent of voters in favor, was struck down in a state court in July 2014; the move was upheld by a U.S. district court a month later.
The federal ban on gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Eight years later, then-Colorado Senator Wayne Allard introduced legislation to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage. Allard’s bill said: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.”
Allard’s initiative never made it out of the Senate, but many of his critics see it as his legacy given his lack of other legislative initiatives in his almost 20-year career in Congress.
In March 2017, the Democratic majority in the Colorado House of Representatives passed, for the third time, a ban on gay “conversion therapy” for minors. But that move was later blocked by the Republican-majority Colorado Senate.
LGBT rights in Colorado were again in the headlines when the state was at the center of the religious-liberties debate concerning the wedding-cake case. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who, citing his religious objections, refused to bake a cake to celebrate the marriage of a same-sex couple.
This is another reason why, when on October 26 Matthew Shepard’s ashes were interned in the National Cathedral in Washington, that gesture had a resounding impact across the country.
“A church welcoming him to rest there in the cathedral forever is a huge statement. And I’m proud to be associated with it,” said Bishop Gene Robinson to National Public Radio. Robinson is the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and a family friend of the Shepards.
"And it's important that the hate crimes bill that was finally passed is named both for Matthew Shepard and for James Byrd, the African-American who was dragged behind a truck until he died, because it links all the marginalized groups who experienced violence against them," Robinson said.
“These three fellows who beat Matthew Shepard to death, they felt OK about that,” Robinson added. “They felt justified about that. And for Matthew to come home to the Episcopal Church of which he was a part and for the LGBT community far and wide to see that” is so important.
A victory by Polis, particularly in a state with a history like Colorado, is seen as carrying a similar message. Polis is part of a wave of LGBT candidates running in state-wide races as Democrats, which include: a transgender gubernatorial candidate in Vermont, an incumbent lesbian U.S. Senator in Wisconsin and an openly bisexual, atheist running for the U.S. Senate from Arizona.
Homophobia still lingers
Polis’ run for governor hasn’t been an easy one. He has been attacked for his wealth – both Stapleton and Polis are millionaires who have self-funded their campaigns. Polis has also been accused of changing his name to cover up an assault allegation and has been hit with homophobic slurs.
Police are investigating homophobic bumper stickers attacking Polis that appeared in Eagle, Colorado, and in at least one other nearby community in recent weeks. The stickers, which misspelled Polis’ first name, show a set of lips and read, “Don’t Vote for Jerod Polis or He’ll Love Your Ass.”
Also, an attack ad has been running in the state saying: “Fact-checkers found the court granted a temporary restraining order against him and that he changed his name 11 months later from Schutz to Polis. That’s the truth – he can’t be our Governor.”
The assault allegation in question refers to a June 1999 altercation in which Polis allegedly pushed a female colleague.
Fox’s local station, the “fact-checkers” that the ad mentions, declared the claim in the ad “misleading,” saying, “We did say 'It is true Polis changed his name 11 months after the event from Jared Schutz to Jared Polis.’” The station, added that “to suggest it was because of this incident is an attempt to connect dots that do not factually exist. Polis has repeatedly said he changed his name to honor his mother’s maiden name.”
Despite the challenges, Polis, who is married and a father of two, is still on track for victory. For many LGBT Americans, a Polis win in Colorado would be a ray of light in what many view as dark days for minority groups fearing that their rights are under assault.