By Maggie Sharpe
Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising outside a gay bar in New York City. Following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, people congregated outside and began to fight back against the police, marking the beginning of a nationwide movement against anti-gay laws and police abuse.
Rossmoor resident and lawyer Gerald “Jerry” Gerash was one of the pioneers who fought for gay rights, both in the courts and in grassroots movements. A 1969 graduate of Denver Law School, Gerash was recently honored by Denver Public Library as a “Colorful Coloradan” – a series designed to teach young people about Colorado history.
“My story teaches kids about gay people, gay liberation and the relationship to other struggles for social justice,” said Gerash, who has lived at Rossmoor for four years and is a member of the LGBT Alliance and JEICOR.
Gerash was born in the Bronx, the son of immigrant Russian Jews who fled persecution in their homeland.
His “Colorful Coloradan” story recounts: “Jerry and his brother Walter understood the struggles of many communities in the Bronx at the time including Irish, Puerto Ricans, African Americans and Jews. This ingrained in both boys a strong sense of right and wrong and a need to fight against injustice.”
When Gerash was 10, the family moved to Los Angeles.
Gerash said he knew when he was 14 that he was gay. He also knew that it wasn’t something he dared to share openly.
“At that time the gay community was hidden and underground,” said Gerash. “We wanted it that way – we didn’t want our families, friends, bosses or landlords to know. We could get kicked out of our homes, lose our jobs or get beaten up. We were the pariahs of society.”
In fact, Gerash didn’t “come out” to his parents until his 40th birthday.
“That’s an example of the shame and oppression I felt and showed my own self-loathing,” said Gerash, adding that his mother was “fine” with his homosexuality, but that his father cried.
“I’d never seen my dad cry before,” said Gerash, adding that his father became much more accepting as time went on. “I remember he said to me, ‘If you were a hunchback, I’d still love you.’”
Gerash went on to earn a degree from U.C. Berkeley in optometry, which he practiced in Oakland until his brother encouraged him to pursue a law degree in Denver, where Walter already had a successful law practice.
Inspired by the Stonewall Uprising a couple of years earlier, in 1972 Gerash and some friends formed the Gay Coalition of Denver (GCD) to fight for civil rights.
“At that time there were only two gay organizations in Denver – a motorcycle club and a community church,” said Gerash.
Although Colorado law had changed that year to decriminalize sodomy, Denver police continued to use another law against “lewdness” to harass and arrest gay men. In fact, in the first few months of 1973, local records show that 100 percent of the people arrested for “lewdness” were gay.
Gerash and the GCD filed a lawsuit – which they ultimately won – to establish that these laws were discriminatory and illegal. The outcome was that police could no longer harass or arrest gay people for such public shows of affection as holding hands that were considered the norm for heterosexuals.
“This meant gay people no longer had to hide who they were,” said Gerash.
Later that year, the GCD organized the community to show up at the Oct. 23 Denver City Council meeting to push for repeal of anti-gay laws on the city’s statutes. Even Gerash was surprised by the turnout.
“About 350 gays and lesbians showed up – I didn’t even know most of them,” he said. “We were pretty outspoken. I think we found strength in numbers. We didn’t beseech any favors; speakers demanded that certain laws be repealed. We nearly got arrested, but by some miracle we didn’t.”
Although most city council members were downright hostile to the group at first – and made them wait three hours to speak – the stories of harassment, entrapment and arrest stats seemed to sway the council. Since Gerash and the GCD had recently filed the lawsuit over the “lewdness” statute, they had all the criminal arrest records at their fingertips.
“I presented a slide on ‘Discriminatory Enforcement of Ordinance 823 (lewdness)’ that showed 99.1 percent of the ‘complaining witnesses’ were police officers and 100 percent of those arrested were gay,” said Gerash. “I think that visual turned the tide.”
Within one month, Denver City Council voted to repeal the four anti-gay laws that GCD had sought to remove.
Gerash made a movie about that city council meeting called “Gay Revolt at Denver City Council” with speaker after speaker revealing everything from what it was like to be gay or lesbian in Denver in the 1970s, to blatant discrimination at the hands of police. The now-historic recordings and photos of speakers and councilmembers that Gerash compiled were taken not by city staff, but by members of GCD.
“I didn’t make the movie until 30 years after that meeting,” said Gerash. “When I read a quote by a friend of mine in a local newspaper that, ‘the Gay Coalition of Denver wanted to save the world, but they just faded away,’ I had to set the record straight about GCD and how they organized the gay community and helped launch the gay civil rights movement nationwide.”
As a teen in L.A., Gerash remembers getting a fake ID so that he could get into gay bars.
“Gay bars were not so much about drinking alcohol; they provided a social outlet and a place where gay people could go to just be themselves,” said Gerash.
In the mid-1970s, Gerash spearheaded the effort to open a community center in Denver to serve as both a gathering place and resource for gay people. In 1976, the GLBT Community Center opened and today still provides a hub for information, resources, social activities, support and advocacy.
“It’s the third oldest community center of its kind in the country,” said Gerash. “It’s a place where everyone from young people to seniors can thrive and develop their potential, free from negativity and hostility.”
Gerash is modest about his legacy to the gay community and says there’s still a lot of work to be done.
According to Denver Public Library’s “Colorful Coloradans,” “even in 2019, nearly half of gay kids say their communities reject them … on the bright side, 75 percent of gay kids now say they feel accepted by other kids their age.”
Gerash says the statistics about the younger generation are encouraging, but homophobia is still very much alive today.
“Homophobia doesn’t just disappear because they’ve passed gay marriage laws,” says Gerash, who points out that homophobia, by its very name, is a mental illness. “But the change among young people is dramatic and hopeful. Young people are learning from their contemporaries, rather than their parents.”
Jerry Gerash will speak at B’nai Israel of Rossmoor on Friday, May 17, in the Vista Room at Hillside. The service starts at 7:30 p.m., followed by Gerash’s talk entitled “The Best Kept Secret of the U.S. Gay Revolution: Denver’s gay community.”