DENVER – Colorado Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s office staff knows that when Jesse Wright phones, his call should be put right through.
“I have tried real hard to limit that so that I don’t interrupt whatever is going on for her,” said Coffman’s friend, Wright, a gay man who has been battling HIV for nearly 25 years.
Sometimes confused for the powerful attorney general’s brother, Wright has been under the part-time care of Coffman for 15 years – something that few would expect of a busy elected official who has been labeled a conservative for pushing court battles that have included blocking implementation of federal carbon-pollution standards, federal fracking regulations and clean water rules.
With Coffman seriously considering a run for governor – something that requires surviving a divisive primary – it seems surprising that she would so publicly advocate for gay rights. But that is just what Coffman has been doing, inspired by friends such as Wright and others.
“Certainly there are fewer voices of Republicans in the political debate when it comes to equality and gay rights, and I find it somewhat perplexing because Republicans are about personal responsibility and individual rights,” Coffman told Colorado Politics in a recent interview.
She received cheers and applause for an emotional speech after the 2016 attack at Orlando’s Pulse gay nightclub, where 49 people were massacred in the worse mass shooting in U.S. history. She abandoned prepared remarks to speak directly to Colorado’s gay community.
“You are here for each other, and we are all here for you,” Coffman said at the time.
Recently, she stood on the steps of the Colorado Capitol surrounded by Democrats and told the crowd that she could be the only Republican attorney general in the country taking part in an LGBT pride event.
“I’m going to be challenging all of my colleagues to do this, because there’s no reason why we all shouldn’t be out here,” Coffman said at the rally at the state Capitol after marching in the annual PrideFest Parade.
History of LGBT advocacyYears before Coffman would meet Wright, she began her LGBT advocacy work in Atlanta, where she was an aspiring attorney. It was the late-1980s, and AIDS was an epidemic that stirred broad fear and anxiety.
In 1989, a young Coffman volunteered for a nonprofit called Open Hand, which is similar to Project Angel Heart in Denver, both of which deliver nutritious meals to people with chronic illnesses. At the time, AIDS was front and center.
“I wanted to volunteer with that group because I felt that people who were suffering from the disease were being ostracized and it was important to me to be part of serving that population when other people were looking and going in the other direction,” Coffman said.
In high school in Lebanon, Missouri, Coffman had friends who were gay. By the time she graduated in 1979, one friend had died by suicide, and another had attempted suicide because they were unable to grapple with social stigmas attached to being gay. These friends couldn’t even find acceptance among their own families.
“We still have kids committing suicide for this reason, and as long as that is going on, we have a lot of work to do,” Coffman said.
She found herself inspired by the stories of her gay friends while working in Georgia for the state department of health. At the time, the department was conducting rule-making around HIV/AIDS. Some proposed collecting the names of people who tested positive for the virus.
“It reinforced for me that as a society we were discriminating against a class of people based on a disease that we didn’t understand,” Coffman recalled. “It gave me more appreciation for what people who were homosexual were facing, whether they had HIV or AIDS or not. People made an assumption that they were a leper, that they had the disease.”
Meeting Jesse – a lasting friendshipIn 1999, two years after Coffman moved to Colorado, Coffman started volunteering at Project Angel Heart. About three years in, in 2002, Coffman became close with an HIV-positive man who lived by himself, as his partner had died of AIDS. That man was Jesse Wright.
Stricken by pneumonia – which was exacerbated by smoke from the massive, then-burning Hayman Fire – Wright was hospitalized. Coffman began having conversations with Wright and caring for him, which caused Project Angel Heart to ask her to make a decision. Coffman had to choose between the nonprofit and caring for Wright, as Project Angel Heart’s policy was not to get personally involved with individual clients.
She chose Wright.
“We are a big part of each other’s life and support,” Coffman said. “That’s had a lot to do with how I’ve looked at gay-rights issues since then, because of Jesse, the people I’ve met through him and the experiences I’ve seen so up close and personal.”
In the Colorado legislature, Republicans have repeatedly opposed legislation that would have prohibited the practice of gay conversion therapy, in which counselors attempt to turn people from being gay.
“When we talk about conversion therapy, I get my hackles raised,” Coffman said. “Trying to use therapy to make someone into something they’re not is a dangerous practice.”
Uphill battle for a RepublicanWhile Coffman has been somewhat comfortable putting herself out there as a Republican on the subject of gay rights, it is not always perceived as a safe place to be for a conservative.
Margaret Hoover, president of American Unity Fund, a Republican group that pushes conservatives to advance LGBT issues, said that in the years it was fighting for marriage equality, more than 230 Republican lawmakers in state legislatures across the country voted for marriage equality, while only two lost their seats for it.
Still, perception is holding back the party from fully embracing LGBT issues, with much of the religious right of the GOP using organized political networks in an attempt to block support.
“Some of the bills that would be pretty harmful to LGBT individuals are happening in red states with red legislatures and red executives, and often it’s a governor who we work with closely and who decides that that bill is not right for his state,” said Hoover, a Colorado native who lives in New York and worked in the George W. Bush administration.
“What we found is there are some legislators who are there in their heart, but they’re afraid to be there politically,” Hoover said. “Cynthia is like this shining example of somebody who has the courage of her political convictions. Her political convictions match her moral convictions.”
She added that there has been a “backlash” within the GOP since efforts to advance marriage equality succeeded.
“What we’re actually doing is fighting skirmishes that are really seeded in backlash on same-sex marriage from a politically motivated religious right,” Hoover said. “The landscape can look dim, but if you look granularly at it, if you squint, you can see real signs of hope.”
While much of the country has moved beyond opposing same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, many in the GOP have been scared to embrace progressive positions. Though the national GOP has come to largely ignore the subject, it also has not taken a strong stance.
Coffman said she is not bothered by any backlash she might receive for being a member of the GOP and a strong advocate for LGBT issues.
“People will only come along if they see other people out there doing what I’m doing,” she said.