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Colorado’s got a gay governor. Who cares?

Even in Colorado, once known as the 'Hate State', Jared Polis’s gayness was 'interestingly uninteresting to voters'

By Matthew Schneier/NYTNS in Boulder (Colorado)

  • Published 10.01.19, 5:12 PM
  • Updated 10.01.19, 5:31 PM
Jared Polis (right) with his partner Marlon Reis.
Jared Polis (right) with his partner Marlon Reis. The New York Times

On Tuesday, the first openly gay man elected governor in American history was sworn in, his partner at his side. It was a vision of progress captured in its unfurling: a milestone celebrated by those who saw themselves represented, even as it was also accepted by others as a matter of unremarkable course.

In November, Jared Polis beat his Republican opponent, Walker Stapleton (a second cousin to Jeb and George W. Bush), in a self-funded campaign that helped make the race the most expensive in Colorado history. Constituents voted for him by a more-than-10-point margin, in a state whose swing on gay rights in the past three decades can be described as a complete about-face. Even in Colorado, once known as the “Hate State” for its anti-gay policies, Polis’s gayness was “interestingly uninteresting to voters,” as conservative columnist George Will wrote.

“What we found,” Polis said, “was that the voters don’t really care. This has been a much bigger deal nationally.”

The national press trumpeted his win as part of a “Rainbow Wave” that carried more than 150 LGBT candidates into office nationwide. Here in Colorado, Polis, 43, a five-term congressman from a district that includes Boulder and Fort Collins as well as rural and mountain communities, has been shruggingly, who-cares gay for years.

He does not conform to the clichéd gay stereotypes: He’s a techie nerd with thinning hair and an ungymmed physique, in ever-present blue sneakers and a western belt. (Polis’s inaugural ball is the Blue Sneaker Ball; the dress code is easy to infer.) In 2014, GQ called him the worst-dressed congressman ever, although he’s improved his style a bit since then.

When Polis was first elected to Congress in 2008, though, the usual preconceptions about gay men preceded him. “The things people assume but don’t know about the LGBT community,” said his partner, Marlon Reis, 37. “All gay men are stylish, they dance well, they yada yada yada.” When they arrived in Washington, Reis continued, “Barney Frank actually said to Jared one day, ‘Your suit looks like you crumpled it up in your pocket for the whole day.'”

His recent campaign for governor focused on education (Polis proposed to fund full-day preschool and kindergarten for the entire state), affordable health insurance and renewable energy, and he neither played up nor played down his sexual orientation and his family. Reis, who has generally shied away from interviews and public appearances, campaigned with him, but sparingly.

Other openly LGBT officials have served in Congress, but not many. The last gay governor, Jim McGreevey of New Jersey, stepped down after announcing both his gayness and the affair that led to his resignation. Polis said that his election — which is similar only to that of Kate Brown, the openly bisexual governor of Oregon who was re-elected last year — “can show LGBT youth that their orientation or gender identity shouldn’t stand in the way of whatever they want to achieve in life, including public service.”

But in his own political lifetime, there was good reason to think that it could.

 Polis and Reis met in Boulder in 2002, when Reis was finishing college.
Polis and Reis met in Boulder in 2002, when Reis was finishing college. The New York Times

Colorado’s First First Gentleman

“How would it be when we arrived in Washington? Would we be treated differently?” Reis wondered when Polis was first elected to federal office in 2008. Politics has always required its practitioners to negotiate deals and deal-breakers, the spoken and the unspeakable. When Polis was elected to the House, he and Reis — before kids, before dog — road-tripped to Washington through the American South, stopping in Amarillo, Texas, and swinging up through Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, to see Dollywood.

They recalled stopping at a steakhouse in Amarillo for dinner one night. “We might be the only Jewish people in town but they probably understand that,” Polis told Reis at the time. “There’s not a lot of gay people but they probably understand that. But no matter what you do in this town, don’t say you’re a vegan.”

Reis, a vegan, is slim and baby-faced, with an abiding love of animals and Halloween. He and Polis met in Boulder in 2002, when Reis was finishing college. He taught Polis about Romantic literature; Polis taught him about baseball. He worked as a freelance writer, volunteered for LGBT organisations and advocated for animal welfare.

Reis plans to make animal welfare one of his signature causes as First Gentleman of Colorado — his new title — and proceeds from the inaugural ball will support, among other organisations, the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg.

“When I first arrived with Jared in Washington, I had zero sense of what I was supposed to be, if there was even a definition of what a congressional spouse would be,” he said. “I was completely terrified in the beginning to talk to anyone.”

Polis had been interested in politics for years, but Reis endured what he called a “steep learning curve”. He devoted himself to raising their two children, Caspian, now 7, and Cora, now 4 — “the kids are better at working a room than I am”, Reis joked — and slowly grew more comfortable in his place among the congressional spouses, even as something of an odd man out.

“I always likened it to being the toy at the bottom of the cereal box,” he said. “Everyone wanted to come up and they all wanted to be friends. They made hilarious comparisons. They said, ‘My hairdresser of 30 years is gay.'”

The primary-night event for Jared Polis in Broomfield, Colorado, on June 26, 2018.
The primary-night event for Jared Polis in Broomfield, Colorado, on June 26, 2018. The New York Times

 Under the Table

When Polis made his first congressional run, he came out publicly in a local newspaper article. By then, he and Reis had been together for years, but because of his political aspirations, Reis remembered, “we went out to restaurants and held hands under the table.”

“The reality I think is that 10 years ago this was an issue that detractors could bring up to harm a candidate,” Reis said. And Polis has been subjected to slurs and threats; in his first campaign, he received so many pieces of hate mail that he began to tack them up. “It filled up a whole wall,” he said.

More of the attacks were anti-Semitic than homophobic, Polis said — he is also Colorado’s first Jewish governor — and the vitriol diminished over time. But it is not gone. Polis mentioned the anti-gay sentiment he faced during last year’s campaign: sign defacings in Eagle County, letters to the editor in Walsenburg, homophobic slurs written in shaving cream on his car.

He shrugged it off. “It just looked out of touch and weird and it didn’t cost any votes,” he said. “People have said far worse in politics.”

The state is not a gay mecca in the way New York, California or Florida are perceived to be — “The district I represent, most of the time I represented it, didn’t have a single gay bar,” Polis said — but Colorado holds a central and complicated place in the history of LGBT rights in the United States. It carries, Polis said, “a lot of baggage”.

The first major Supreme Court victory for the gay-rights movement, Romer v. Evans, came in 1996 in response to Amendment 2, a Colorado constitutional amendment that prohibited the passage of laws specifically protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. The Supreme Court struck down the amendment as unconstitutional, a decision that served as a precedent for later milestones, including Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which decriminalised sodomy nationwide, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which made marriage equality the law of the land.

Colorado also happens to be where the first unchallenged same-sex marriage licence was granted, in 1975, by a Boulder County clerk named Clela Rorex, thanks to the vague wording of the Colorado legal code. It may be the base of Focus on the Family, which preaches family values that do not include homosexuality, headquartered in Colorado Springs, but it also home to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, in Denver.

It was in Lakewood — just west of Denver — that Jack Phillips refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple at his Masterpiece Cakeshop, leading to another Supreme Court case; the court ruled in Phillips’s favour against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission last year.

“We won’t be ordering cake from them,” Polis said.

Jared Polis poses for a selfie at his primary-night event in Broomfield, Colorado, on June 26, 2018.
Jared Polis poses for a selfie at his primary-night event in Broomfield, Colorado, on June 26, 2018. The New York Times

Money Changes Everything

Colorado’s progress on gay rights was coaxed into motion by the concerted effort of a number of wealthy and committed Coloradans — including Jared Polis.

In 1994, Tim Gill, 65, a multimillionaire software developer, established a foundation and poured hundreds of millions into advocacy after being stunned by the victory at the polls of the anti-gay Amendment 2 in 1992. At the time, Gill said, two-thirds of Coloradans said they didn’t know anyone who was gay or lesbian.

Gill eventually extended himself and his donations into the political arena, and, with a like-minded group of megadonors known as the Gang of Four, helped to swing Colorado’s General Assembly from Republican to Democratic in 2004 — the same year that 11 states adopted ballot measures banning same-sex marriage.

The Gang of Four included Polis, who was one of the richest members of Congress during his tenure. Before taking office, Polis was an entrepreneur; he digitised his parents’ greeting-card business into the e-card behemoth BlueMountain.com and founded ProFlowers.com, an online flower-delivery service.

“I think he saw an opportunity when the state was changing for him to become a more active participant,” said Scott Miller, 39, who is Gill’s husband and, with him, the co-chair of the Gill Foundation.

Gill and Miller have since supported Polis’s congressional campaigns and his run for governor, although they initially backed one of Polis’ opponents in his first congressional primary. “My mission in life is to protect as many people as I possibly can in the shortest amount of time,” Gill said. “Essentially, in every case where legislation was passed, there was an LGBT elected official who helped it.”

At his inauguration Tuesday, the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus warmed up with True Colors (Cyndi Lauper, who first recorded it, was booked for the inaugural ball that night) before remarks from local grandees and faith leaders and the new officials were sworn in. Polis sat with Reis and their children behind a pane of bulletproof glass, a precaution one veteran Colorado reporter noted he hadn’t seen in five previous inaugurations. But when Polis got up to speak — after a quick selfie with the crowd — he addressed divisiveness and diversity only briefly.

“We complement one other, learn from each other, make each other better, and in that work, we respect each other’s rights,” he said.

Then he turned to economics, the environment and health care, and, like the startup guru he is, declared himself ready to get to work.

c.2019 New York Times News Service