Election 2024

Could queer-owned businesses be key to unseating Lauren Boebert?

LGBTQ business owners outside of Good Judy's in Grand Junction, Colorado
(l-r) Jesse Daniels, Marcus Deans, Stella Rae Van Dyke, and Hollie and Kimmie Sandoval outside of Good Judy's, Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo by Joshua Scott for LGBTQ Nation

In Grand Junction, Colorado, Jesse Daniels opened Good Judy’s on St. Patrick’s Day and was undoubtedly trying his luck. “I don’t know that there’s another gay bar between Salt Lake and Denver,” the bar owner, 42, told LGBTQ Nation. “We’re it.” 

Not only, per Daniels, is his the only gay bar for 250 miles across America’s vast west, but it’s also in what has historically been a Republican stronghold: far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert‘s (R-CO) 3rd congressional district, part of the state’s agrarian Western Slope. 

“The rural queer community looks completely different from the metropolitan one, so you don’t see them on the regular — you may only see them at Pride,” Daniels said. “There are still people afraid that you will lose your job over this kind of stuff, even though Colorado doesn’t allow for that. But we are in the conservative part of the state.”

The opening of Daniels’ bar marks a cultural shift. Queer entrepreneurs in Boebert’s district are gaining economic visibility and signaling to others — in their own communities and beyond — an enduring presence and increasing financial independence. In the queer community, “Not everyone works a standard job,” Daniels said. “We’re trying to keep each other’s heads above water; I want to start building queer wealth.”

Jesse Daniels, owner of Good Judy's in Grand Junction, Colorado
Jesse Daniels opened Grand Junction’s only LGBTQ+-owned gay bar, Good Judy’s, in March 2023. Photo by Joshua Scott for LGBTQ Nation

Grand Junction is one of the largest cities in the district (population: 68,034) Boebert represents. It’s also a progressive pocket: Per 2020’s electoral map, the city is a blue speck in a sea of red. That LGBTQ+ business owners should bear the onus of flipping their district is an unrealistic burden, but their presence and impact are hard to deny. As several queer locals transition from gig jobs to enterprise ownership, they’re poised to gain economic influence, which may unnerve politicians like Boebert, who has called members of the queer community “degenerates.” 

Nonetheless, her hateful views — calling Pride-goers “groomers,” saying Flag Day is not for “rainbow” flags, using anti-trans slurs — are far from absolute. In the 2022 midterms, Boebert won in a recount by only 546 votes. It was one of the final elections to be called and is now one of the most hotly watched districts as another election cycle looms.

Given LGBTQ+ business owners’ increased prominence, it is not hard to see the culture — and political power — shifting within the Western Slope; nevertheless, prejudices persist.

“Try being trans and going to get a good job somewhere,” said Angie, a guest (whose last name is not given) on the HBO reality show We’re Here, in which drag superstars Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela travel to small towns to show locals, guerilla-style, the power of drag. The second season’s 2021 finale focused on Grand Junction, where Angie has experienced people “not hiring you because of who you are. We are discriminated against.”

Acceptance levels vary in the region, impacting one’s professional life. “There are some people in this town who are very vocal about their dislike for people who are different from them,” Bob said in the Grand Junction episode. “And I also think that there are also plenty of queer folks right here in this town. That’s why I always say, ‘We’re everywhere.'”

There have been “gay-friendly, but not necessarily gay-owned and -operated bars,” Daniels said. Good Judy’s, one of several recently opened queer-owned businesses in Grand Junction, gives queer bartenders, drag queens, and DJs a social nucleus for a decentralized community and a workplace by and for LGBTQ+ peers. Locals of all stripes and nearby college students from Colorado Mesa University swing by the bar, and, as Daniels has noted, more continue to come, not just from Grand Junction but also farther away.

‘What matters to me is the people in this town.’

Kimmie and Hollie Sandoval in Grand Junction, Colorado
Kimmie (left) and Hollie Sandoval launched a franchise of Bird, a scooter rental service, which has gained quick popularity throughout Grand Junction. Photo by Joshua Scott for LGBTQ Nation

Kimmie Sandoval, 35, and her wife, Hollie Sandoval, 33, saw their region’s outdoor scene as a business opportunity. Kimmie is the fleet manager, and Hollie is the fleet mechanic for Bird, the electric scooter rental behemoth.

“What has always made me feel comfortable is the community we’re in,” Kimmie told LGBTQ Nation.” For the most part, the Grand Junction community is absolutely welcoming; I don’t get heads turned in a negative way when I’m out and about with my wife and children.”

The wives had previously worked at a car dealership but sought other opportunities in early 2023 to allow them more time at home with their children. A Bird job listing caught their attention, and what started as a 30-day trial quickly transformed into a lucrative new business.

“We were told on our 30-day meeting that we blew Bird’s expectations,” Sandoval said, sharing that Grand Junction riders more than doubled the company’s average profit per ride. “That was pretty amazing.”

Sandoval — who moved back to Colorado, where her family is from, in 2008 — and her wife purchased 125 scooters, which locals and tourists ride around the college campus, along the waterfront, and downtown. 

Sandoval is unsure if customers know she is part of a lesbian-owned business. “I’m sure more know than I imagine,” she said. “I’m not really one for politics, so it doesn’t matter to me if the higher-ups at Bird are good with what we’re doing. What matters to me is the people in this town. We just keep trucking, and we know the majority of our money goes right back into Grand Junction.”

As a blue oasis, queer businesses may have an easier time getting their start there than in other parts of Boebert’s district. But as the businesses gain steam, they may become a lightning rod: for criticism from politicians, as Boebert’s rhetoric around drag has shown, but also for inspiration, motivating others to realize their business dreams.

“There are not that many businesses in our community with [LGBTQ+] leaders, but for us to be one of them — and I’m tearing up right now — it means the world to us,” Sandoval said. “It means that we’re doing something right.”

How small businesses can make a big impact

Marcus Deans at Kodiaxe, his axe-throwing  venue in Grand Junction, Colorado
Marcus Deans at Kodiaxe, his axe-throwing venue in Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo by Joshua Scott for LGBTQ Nation

E-scooters befit a Western city; so does axe throwing.

Marcus Deans, 39, owns Kodiaxe, which is now just over three years old and provides gated lanes where patrons can toss axes at targets. “I have been in Grand Junction for quite a few years and know quite a few people in the LGBTQ+ community,” Deans told LGBTQ Nation. “Grand Junction is a smaller community, so I rely on word-of-mouth to get the word out.” 

As with Sandoval’s enterprise, some may not know of Kodiaxe as an explicitly queer business. “I don’t advertise Kodiaxe specifically as gay-friendly,” Deans said, though not out of a lack of pride. Do politics influence commerce, whether or not Coloradans are a fan of Boebert? “I’m sure that it does play a role from both sides,” Deans said.

While Sandoval highlights some business difficulties (a few scooters have been tossed into the river), homophobia has not been an issue.

After moving to Grand Junction, “I will say never at one point did I not feel welcome,” she said. Deans agreed: “I haven’t experienced anything overtly motivated by politics, either positive or negative.”

Grand Junction stands in stark contrast to Sandoval’s upstate New York upbringing. “The first weekend I was here, there was a drag show at Colorado Mesa University,” she said. “Coming from a small town in New York, we didn’t have any sort of acceptance, period.” 

At that drag show, Sandoval first met Daniels; the two are peers who tell others in town about one another’s businesses to keep the wealth flowing. For Sandoval and many others, drag shows can foster community, something Boebert is determined to disempower. 

“Take your children to CHURCH, not drag bars,” the congresswoman tweeted during Pride Month last year. But reports indicate more churches are closing and losing followers, while gay bars like Good Judy’s are finding theirs, highlighting, in capitalist America, a pattern where building community also means building wealth. The western two-thirds of Colorado had no gay bar, but, as the famous line from Field of Dreams says, “If you build it, they will come.”

“I would say that probably the most surprising demographic is the tourist industry,” Daniels said. On a spring weekend right after opening, “I probably spoke to about six people from Denver or New York, just passing through.” Others are here “for wine or biking or hiking.”

That tourism revenue also benefits the city’s drag queens, who, despite Boebert’s vitriol, enhance Grand Junction’s culture and economy.

“I work every Thursday through Sunday, I run all the shows; I’m kind of the Head Judy if you will,” Stella Rae Van Dyke told LGBTQ Nation. The 33-year-old drag queen and “big blonde gal” has quickly nested at Good Judy’s. She was born and raised in Grand Junction and called Good Judy’s “a haven.” Van Dyke hosts “Second Saturday — our monthly big drag show, a proper drag revue.”

Drag queen Stella Rae Van Dyke
Drag queen Stella Rae Van Dyke at Good Judy’s in Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo by Joshua Scott for LGBTQ Nation

Van Dyke has seen a few gay-friendly bars come and go in Grand Junction, always grateful that they provided a safe space, but at Good Judy’s, “I like to tell people, ‘Welcome to Judy’s, welcome home.’ It’s here for queer people,” said Van Dyke. “This is a queer bar; we are here for our entire alphabet and our allies.”

“To work at a queer-owned business in one of the reddest parts of the state is liberating”

Stella Rae Van Dyke

The mere presence of the bar, Van Dyke feels, is a beacon. “I’m 6’2 flatfooted, and then wearing six-inch heels, you kind of tower over anyone; my goal was to create pockets of safe spaces, but it’s also dangerous to do that on your own, so there wasn’t any place that was home,” she said. To her, Good Judy’s “is something that we definitely need, and we are trying to build it so it’s radiating out and catching a broader community.” 

“It’s important to encourage more queer-owned businesses, to better facilitate queer financial independence and political power,” she continued. “As more queer-owned businesses develop, that community can become something like an LGBTQ+ chamber of commerce, which could provide a voice to the community in a way that we have not had before.”

Despite Lauren Boebert, Colorado West Pride all year long

LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs in Grand Junction, Colorado
(l-r) Jesse Daniels, Marcus Deans, Stella Rae Van Dyke, and Kimmie and Hollie Sandoval at Good Judy’s, Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo by Joshua Scott for LGBTQ Nation

Queer businesses can’t grow without more visibility in the community.

“We went from 250 attendees at our first Colorado West Pride [in 2012] to over 7,000 in 2019, and our numbers were back up to 5,000 last year after COVID,” Daniels said.

Daniels serves on the board of Colorado West Pride, the largest pride organization in the state’s Western Slope.

“I’ve been here since the first pride in Grand Junction, and I have gone every year,” Kimmie Sandoval said. “To me, it’s gotten huge.”

The organization’s events create a sense of community and networking opportunities. “We’ve had our mobile axe-throwing trailer at Colorado West Pride in past years,” Deans said.

The profits incurred lift queer business, which can then be disseminated to support others. “We’ve been to Good Judy’s at least once a month,” Sandoval said. Running one of the queer-owned businesses, Sandoval said she and her wife “like to think of ourselves as shop local: we know the majority of our money goes right back into our community.”

“The majority of our money goes right back into our community.”

Kimmie Sandoval

Community generates wealth, and wealth generates power, with most believing that sexual orientation and/or gender identity shouldn’t stand in the way of the American Dream. A 2023 GLAAD study indicated that a “91% supermajority of non-LGBTQ Americans agree that LGBTQ people should have the freedom to live their life and not be discriminated against.” 

With the 2024 election looming in the distance, Lauren Boebert is financially underperforming. Democrat Adam Frisch, who ran against Boebert in the 2022 midterms, is campaigning anew and already outraising his opponent nearly three to one. 

The ousting of Boebert would bring change, but over the years, her district’s queer business owners have already seen perspectives evolve. “My junior year in high school, I was contemplating coming out, and then Matthew Shepard happened,” Daniels said. “That drove a lot of us right back into the closet.” 

However, in the 25 years since, “It’s been night and day,” he said. 

Still a conservative powerhouse, the Western Slope’s political landscape is indeed changing: in the past three presidential elections, the percentage of Republican voters in Mesa County has decreased from 65.08 to 62.78 percent, and

As tides slowly shift, support for queer people has extended to queer businesses, which may radiate outward, influencing more than Grand Junction alone.

“We do seem to have a large LGBTQ+ community compared to the size of the community in general,” Deans said, “and as it continues to grow, we do see a lot of support from all areas here.”

That support is more than just financial; it nods toward the possibility of a future where Colorado’s LGBTQ+ people are celebrated by their elected officials. “To work at a queer-owned business in one of the reddest parts of the state is liberating — we’re creating an oasis of peace and communion in a space away from an otherwise hostile environment,” Van Dyke said. “The future of the Western slope belongs to anyone who is willing to work and build for it.”

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