Denver’s LGBTQ community is catering to sober-curious and all-ages crowds

Before she turned 21 a few months back, Denver drag queen Minerva asked bartenders and managers at her performing venues to mark her hand with a big black X.

“I wanted to make sure they didn’t try to serve me, because all it takes is one person to (mess) it up for everybody,” said Minerva, a 9-year drag veteran who has a busy schedule of 21-and-up shows planned around Denver PrideFest this weekend.

Between Denver’s surfeit of craft brewers and its ubiquitous legal-cannabis trade, sober and underage Denverites often have a hard time finding events that cater to them.

In the LGBTQ community, specifically, where partying, nightlife and large gatherings have long been part of a culture of solidarity, it’s only in recent years that family-friendly events have gotten the same billing as alcohol-driven ones, programmers said.

But fully sober options have taken center stage since the pandemic, both in Colorado and nationally, as non-alcoholic cocktails, sober bars and all-ages music events have opened up otherwise 21-and-up spaces and festivals to larger, more age-diverse LGBTQ audiences.

Minerva, now 21 and able to play anywhere she wants, has seen that trend spread quickly across Denver’s gay bars. When she started performing professionally in 21-only bars and clubs at the age of 18, she couldn’t afford to alienate any potential programmers, important as they are to developing artists. She was more concerned about protecting the venue than having fun — something that her of-age counterparts don’t have to worry about.

Running afoul of a liquor license isn’t a problem at these sober LGBTQ events. Some have always been this way, simply rebranding as sober-friendly to ride the trend. Others are reacting to the skyrocketing interest in sober-curious culture, in turn creating handy Google-search and marketing-terms for families and those in recovery.

On June 10, the “Oh My Stars!” monthly skate-date came back with its latest “sober-friendly, family-friendly Pride event.” (The series, put on by Rainbow Dome at Denver’s Rollerdome, returns July 8; rainbowdome.com for more). On Saturday, June 25, History Colorado Center is also rolling out a “Mild-Wild Pride Event,” designed to fold in a broader LGBTQ demographic that was previously invisible in educational Pride programming.

“All ages 13 and up are encouraged to come to play for a sober evening before the Pride Parade the next morning!” organizers said in a statement (historycolorado.org).

The June 24-26 Denver Pridefest in Civic Center Park, which is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people as it returns after the pandemic, is also launching its inaugural, 18-and-up sober area “serving non-alcoholic beverages for those choosing sobriety,” according to The Center on Colfax, the state’s largest LGBTQ organization. That’s an even narrower target audience than the all-ages crowd, which is welcome at the festival in general.

It helps sober attendees feel catered to, advocates and programmers said, as opposed to being forgotten in favor of alcohol-buying attendees — the latter being a revenue source that’s built into the business models of clubs and bars.

As noted, Denver is an evolving mecca for the larger sober events movement, with a new music program from The Phoenix sober community, which uses the Send Me a Friend app for sober and in-recovery music fans and musicians, and events such as Sundown Colorado, which debuted last year as the state’s first sober music festival. Multi-day fests such as Denver’s Underground Music Showcase have also committed to “sober bars and other resources for artists who struggle with substance misuse,” including LGBTQ and non-binary musicians and music fans, organizers said.

In April, veteran Denver singer-songwriter Jen Korte also launched her “Clearheads” program at Globeville’s hip Fort Greene bar, dubbing it “a booze-free hang” made possible by support from the Denver Music Advancement Fund.

But in addition to the sober bar culture here — Awake is one business that’s currently looking at franchising — there’s a larger LGBTQ scene that has always flown under the party radar in Colorado. One such event is the all-ages drag series at Mile High Comics, which has been the subject of praise and protests on the first Sunday of every month since it debuted in March 2019.

Colorado’s all-ages drag culture is also on display in the Discovery+ series “Generation Drag,” which debuted on June 1 and follows five young queens as they prepare for Denver’s annual Dragutante competition. It exists completely outside of Denver’s LGTBQ bar culture, but getting a foothold there is still important for young performers in the city’s hyper-competitive drag scene, which has produced two “RuPaul’s Drag Champions” (Yvie Oddly and Willow Pill).

“I have a lot of family with these bars,” said Minerva, who already had numerous shows at marquee venues such as Tracks, X Bar and Hamburger Mary’s under her belt before she could legally drink. “I consider Tracks my home because everyone there welcomed me in when I was 18 and has supported me nonstop. Now I’ve got my own show there (“Hell on Heels,” which debuted last month) that’s super successful, and people are even coming in wearing my merch line.”

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