Before 2012, firefighters with Aurora Fire Rescue treated the third weekend in June just like any other A, B or C shift.
Calls were placed, bunker gear was tossed on, and first responders raced around Aurora as they do 365 days a year. The rollicking festivities echoing through Downtown Denver for the city’s annual PrideFest, a celebration of gay rights and culture, were not exactly on the radar.
Then Kathleen Hancock came along.
A native of Pueblo, Hancock organized for the Tucson Fire Department to drive a rig in Tucson Pride while she cut her teeth as a firefighter in Arizona.
“Then I came here and noticed we didn’t have representation in Denver Pride, so I asked the chief if we could have a rig,” said Hancock, who now lives in Aurora.
Former Aurora Fire Chief Mike Garcia obliged Hancock’s request, and Aurora firefighters came out en masse.
“We ended up having a lot of outreach from people who came out in support, from chiefs down to officers down to firefighters,” said Hancock, who was a firefighter paramedic with Aurora Fire prior to serving as a recruiter for the department. “We also had people who are staff who came out to support their kids that identify as LGBTQ. We got a lot of good support that first year because no one in the past had come out and recognized our chance to participate.”
A crimson Aurora fire engine has been a staple at Denver PrideFest ever since.
And in 2017, that tradition moved a little closer to home when the first ever Aurora Pride took place at the Aurora Municipal Center.
This weekend, the legacy will continue when recruiters with Aurora Fire and the Aurora Police Department set up their respective booths at the city’s second ever pride celebration at the Aurora Reservoir.
While recruiters will be handing out materials and answering questions under tents along the local beachfront, a police and fire presence at the event is just as much a show of solidarity as it is a chance to find future public servants, according to Officer Abdul Syidi, a recruiter with Aurora police.
“The majority of it is just being out there in the community talking to people and educating people about what we do,” Syidi said. “… As recruiters, I think it’s our job to soften the image of the police uniform.”
Aurora Pride is just one of the dozens of events local cop recruiters attend in a calendar year, according to Officer Ricardo Hargrove, another recruiter with APD.
He said Aurora police attended 82 community events in 2018, including Denver PrideFest, the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, an annual Cinco de Mayo parade, the Taste of Ethiopia festival and dozens of other job fairs and college resource gatherings.
“Aurora is very diverse … and we want to find these qualified applicants within every single community we have here,” Syidi said. “We don’t want to exclude anybody by not showing up.”
And while he didn’t provide exact statistics regarding the number of applicants spawned from specific festivals like Aurora Pride, Syidi said the number of interested candidates justifies the labor involved with attending nearly 100 recruiting events a year.
“It comes and goes as far as getting applicants, but, yes, it’s worth it for us to show up,” Syidi said. “(Pride) is a big deal for us. We really like it.”
Hancock said she enjoys attending as many recruiting events as she can to convince potential applicants that they, too, can be firefighters, no matter their demographic backgrounds.
“I just personally enjoy doing it because of the kids and having them be able to look up to a female, African-American firefighter — or a female firefighter in general — and seeing that no matter what you are in life, you can be a firefighter,” she said.
Hancock, who is planning on leaving city hall to once again serve as a front-line Aurora firefighter in September, said Aurora Pride serves as an invaluable kaleidoscope of acceptance, thoughts and ideas.
“Sometimes people have a struggle with the LGBT community still not feeling accepted and a part of things,” said Hancock, who identifies as a lesbian. “We’re already in 2019 and there are still struggles, so it’s nice to go out and see a wide variety of people … because it’s not just the gay community, it’s everybody out there supporting from all walks of life.
In between the lines
Pinning down just how many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people call Aurora home is tricky. The city of Aurora and the United States Census don’t compile much data on LGBT people in Aurora, and many of the estimates available are dated.
Aurora has long been a place where people from all over the world and from all kinds of cultures are easily and happily accepted. The city’s LGBT equation moves into public honors Aug. 3 during the cit’s third, annual Aurora Pride fest, this year at the Aurora Reservoir in east Aurora.
But there have been big advancements in the study of LGBT populations, researcher Ilan Meyer said in a Gallup blog post last month.
Meyer is a researcher at the University of California Los Angeles who has conducted widely-read surveys of LGBT Americans.
A 2015 Gallup poll that looked at the 50 most-populated metro areas around the country said 4.6 percent of people in the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood area were LGBT, the same percentage as Los Angeles. San Francisco led the way at 6.2 percent and the national average was 3.6 percent.
A 2017 Gallup study found that 4.5 percent of Americans identified as LGBT. The rise was driven by more young people using the labels, Meyer said.
The Movement Advancement Project also tracks the LGBT population in Colorado. About 200,000 of the state’s 4.4 million population is LGBT, according to its estimate.
That’s about 4.6 percent. More than 30 percent of those people are raising children.
Sussing out how many Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is still complicated, Meyer said in the blog post. There are many new, popular terms for non-heterosexual identities that don’t include LGBT, such as pansexuality. Pansexuals are attracted to all human beings, they say, but don’t make distinctions between gender or sex as bisexuals do.
Most of these studies depend on people self-identifying as LGBT. Meyer said that people may not do so if they believe the terms are inaccurate or outdated.
Or, straight people might identify with niche labels such as “same gender-loving” if given the option to. It’s a term that is popular with African-Americans, according to Meyer, that essentially means the same thing as gay or lesbian.
Even so, Meyer said he is optimistic about the headway researchers have made in getting basic counts of LGBT people in the U.S.
But the counts are often divorced from people’s own notions of how many LGBT Americans there are. Last month, Gallup released another poll that found Americans believed almost one-quarter of the 330 million Americans are gay or lesbian.
That’s more than five times the Gallup estimate.
The study said more representation of LGBT Americans in public life and media — such as city Pride festivals and shows including “Orange is the New Black” — could explain the overestimation, as well as more young people coming out together and forming communities.
OneColorado: Progress made but more to achieve
Today there are 15 pride festivals across Colorado. One Colorado Executive Director Daniel Ramos said that is a testament to the fact that Colorado is a more inclusive place now than it’s ever been.
“That goes to show that LGTBQ people are living in communities all across the state and allies are all across the state too,” Ramos said, noting that places like Colorado Springs and Grand Junction, typically seen as conservative strongholds, are making proclamations recognizing Pride and holding marches alongside Denver and Boulder.
“These are the communities we want, collaborative and affirming communities,” Ramos said. “We’re seeing all across the state more and more people are realizing it’s important to honor the LGTBQ people that live in their communities.”
But events like Aurora Pride and similar celebrations in other communities are also a reminder of the work that’s still left. One Colorado, an advocacy group for the LGTBQ community, is currently on a listening tour across the state. Ramos said talking to different communities helps him and the organization better understand what they need to do to continue their fight for equality.
“Post-marriage equality, that’s when the work on equality began,” Ramos, who grew up in Sterling, Colorado, said. “Our work is so that regardless of where you are, your sexual orientation is not a reason you’re denied access to a job or healthcare or (you are) bullied and harassed.”
— KARA MASON, GRANT STRINGER and QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writers
BONUS SENTINEL COLORADO PRIDE FOR ALL 2019 CONTENT:
• FLAMING ALASKA: Aurora’s Pride for All 2019 is a day at the beach: ow.ly/I1ck30pgFY8
• PRIDE FOR ALL 2019: Cheers for Queers brings home all the spirit: https://ow.ly/XQ5j30pgG4D
• PRIDE FOR ALL 2019: Aurora’s Renaissance in full bloom: https://ow.ly/51Xx30pgG3D