Longtime lesbian activist left a legacy of inclusion in Wichita

Colleen Didier
Colleen Didier Courtesy

For the past four decades, anytime there was an event in Wichita, chances are there was Colleen “Coke” Didier.

At RiverFest. At Zoobilee, Chamber Music at The Barn, the Heart of America Men’s Chorus. Any gay pride events — she was always there, advocating for equal rights.

“She had a listening ear for people,”said the Rev. Dawn Frankfurt. “She put herself in the position that she was always watching out for everyone. She always had her pulse on the crowd.”

Ms. Didier, a retired city of Wichita employee, gay rights and disability activist, died Feb. 22 after a yearlong battle with cancer. She was 77.

A memorial service will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. James Episcopal Church.

Colleen Didier was born Aug. 25, 1940, in Newton. She attended St. Mary’s Catholic School, then transferred to Newton High School, where she graduated in 1958. She then attended the Wichita Business College and became an accountant and clerk. In 1963, she began working for the city in the finance department.

Early in her career, she had to hide who she was.

“Colleen worked at City Hall for 30 years and after she retired worked on different kinds of retirement and disability boards,” Frankfurt said. “She knew tons of people. But when she first started working, she knew she was a gay woman and it wasn’t safe to be public about her identity. It was scary and even dangerous.”

In the 1970s, Kansas gays and lesbians began to march and to champion their rights.

Wichita passed one of the few civil rights ordinances in the country protecting gays in 1977, putting the city on the map when singer Anita Bryant and her Save Our Children organization challenged it. The city repealed the amendment seven months after the City Commission passed it.

The amendment barred discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. Ms. Didier became cautiously more open about her identity.

In 2011, Ms. Didier told The Eagle how many of her friends in the 1970s lost jobs and were evicted from apartments.

“We were fighting for equal rights at the time,” Didier said. “You didn't tell anybody that you were gay, especially where you worked.”

Some left Kansas for the protection and anonymity of larger cities on the coasts.

But others stayed. She was one of them and became an active participant in the city’s early gay pride parades. She worked at Our Fantasy Complex, a bar that welcomed gays and lesbians, and served on the board for Positive Directions, an organization that helps to prevent HIV transmission and to increase awareness of sexual health resources and safer sex practices.

A post on the Our Fantasy Complex Facebook page said of Ms. Didier: “Colleen was a great mentor and rock in the community, with a heart of gold. What an incredible gift of life and legacy.”

Her friends called her “Coke,” in part because early in life someone once called her “Cola” as a nickname to Colleen. Other friends began calling her “Coke” and the nickname stuck.

Frankfurt said of her friend that “she was never loud or in your face. She was completely accepting of anybody and that came from her earliest background in the church learning about being a child of God and that everybody is a child of God. She came to help many people come to the church at St. James — some who had never been to church — came to a community that was open and welcoming.”

She also was an employee and bartender at the R&R Brass Rail and The Bar’s Open.

In 1986, Ms Didier met Jennifer King. The two would have celebrated their 32nd anniversary together on Thursday. They were married on April 18, 2015, at St. James Episcopal Church.

And, in 1992, she made news by becoming the subject of a Bob Getz column in The Wichita Eagle. Her car, parked in the employee parking lot, was spotted with a plastic bag of an unknown substance in the back window. Police pored over the white, four-door 1988 Toyota. The bag was sent to a lab.

It turned out she was “in possession of a $1.15 bag of catnip for her two cats, Tiny and Mitzi,” Getz reported.

She laughed at the incident good-naturally, King said.

“I think she made everyone feel safe,” King said. “She was so involved and such a social person. She never knew a stranger. She loved to talk on the phone, would talk to people on elevators, on the subway. She would always start a conversation.”

Besides King, Ms. Didier is survived by nephew Richard (Deb) Didier, niece Cindy (Clyde) Lindsey, nephew David (Stephanie) Unruh and numerous great and great-great nieces, nephews and cousins.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to St. James Episcopal Church, 3750 E. Douglas, Wichita, KS 67208 or Donna Sweet Emergency Fund, 1010 N. Kansas, Wichita, KS 67214.

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner