On Thursday, the New York Times ran a headline that said, “Colorado’s got a gay governor. Who cares?”
The writer’s point was that Jared Polis’ sexual orientation was a nonfactor in the governor’s campaign and election, accepted in our state as a matter of unremarkable course.
That Polis is gay was “interestingly uninteresting to voters,” as the conservative columnist George F. Will wrote. “What we found,” Polis told Will, “was that the voters don’t really care.”
In spite of the nonnewsiness of this news, and putting aside political affiliations for a moment, I still couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride that I lived in the first state in the country to elect an openly gay governor. Seems to me this was destined to happen in a Western state, where Polis’ election can be seen as a liberal landmark and a libertarian one.
Sure, Colorado experienced a blue wave this November, but I think the West’s live and let live mentality, it’s leave-me-alone tolerance for individuality, played a part as well.
“Right now, our nation is experiencing a period of growing divisiveness and rising tribalism,” Polis said in his inaugural speech, delivered on the steps of the state Capitol in Denver. “But here in Colorado, we choose a different path. Here, we have come so far, we have climbed so high, we have done so much, not just to say but to show that we reject the negative and divisive brand of politics.”
Polis added that the state has “decided to celebrate our differences.”
The vote made me think of other firsts that have happened in the West, where, perhaps, the minds are a trifle more inclined to mimic the wide-open spaces around them.
In 1869, the territory of Wyoming — hardly a bastion of progressivism then or now — became the first to grant women the right to vote, 50 years before the rest of the country. Colorado was next in 1893, and then Utah and Idaho passed suffrage laws in 1896. The country as a whole didn’t get around to it until 1920.
The first woman elected governor of a state was Nellie Tayloe Ross, a Democrat, in 1925 in Wyoming, She succeeded her deceased husband.
I love this one the most: Montana elected the first woman to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin, in 1916, four years before women could vote! The eldest of seven children, Rankin performed farm chores and maintained farm equipment side by side with men on the Western frontier, and those men thought that, hell, if she could do all that she could handle Congress, no problem.
Argonia, Kansas, elected the first female mayor in 1887.
Colorado elected the first three female state legislators in 1894.
It’s as if we pride ourselves on our contrariness here in the middle West.
Of course, not all the firsts are without controversy. Colorado was also first in the country to legalize marijuana, an experiment that is still very much a work in progress.
But let’s not forget that Apple, Amazon, and Google all sprang from the Western part of the country as well, a tribute to the fertile ground for innovation here in the Western climes.
Why might a preponderance of these firsts take place out here, in the rawboned wilds of the country?
I like to think there’s an intrepid explorer spirit behind that willingness to flaunt norms and dive headlong into the future. Perhaps we’re not as bound up by history and convention and the way it’s always been out here beyond the 100th meridian. It’s not all done and decided for us in the West, which is a land and society still very much in the making. We are believers in our ability to reinvent ourselves, that our narrative is still very much being spun.
As a result, Colorado and the West have shown a propensity to break new ground, to boldly go where the rest of the country hasn’t yet.
I like to think some of that has to do with our peerless geography. It’s impossible to look up at Pikes Peak and not think of the boundlessness of our potential. There’s just more room for self-invention and prickly individualism out here. We’re all still half-wild, still forming, willing to try new ways of doing things. That boundlessness is closer to the essence of what is best about America, I would argue.
Some think of us as a little less sophisticated, even backward out here, because of our inability to conform too much to trends on the left or right coasts, our desire to be left alone by our government, our obsession with self-reliance and consequent disdain for handouts and taxes.
Let me ask the Thoreau of the West, Edward Abbey, to weigh in on that:
“I have been called a curmudgeon, which my obsolescent dictionary defines as a ‘surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered fellow.’ Nowadays, curmudgeon is likely to refer to anyone who hates hypocrisy, cant, sham, dogmatic ideologies, and has the nerve to point out unpleasant facts and takes the trouble to impale these sins on the skewer of humor and roast them over the fires of fact, common sense, and native intelligence. In this nation of bleating sheep and braying jackasses, it then becomes an honor to be labeled curmudgeon.”
Let’s take a moment in this new year then to give ourselves a pat on the back for our orneriness, for not doing things the way the rest of the country does them. For being first up the mountain, no matter if you agree with that mountain or not.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous,” Abbey once wished a passel of Westerners, “leading to the most amazing view.”