COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — In the mostly conservative city of Colorado Springs, Club Q has long been a go-to spot for members of the LGBTQ community — a safe space where many felt they could let down their guard and just be themselves.
It’s a place where LGBTQ teenagers can’t wait to be old enough to enter to dance under the neon lights. It’s one of the first spots new LGBTQ residents are sent to meet others in the community and feel a sense of belonging.
But all that was shattered this weekend when a gunman entered the club as people were drinking and dancing — killing five people and leaving 17 with gunshot wounds. As the community mourns the lives lost, many are also grieving because it happened at a place that’s seen as a sanctuary for many longing to fit in.
“We weren’t out harming anyone. We were in our space, our community, our home, enjoying ourselves like everybody else does,” said Joshua Thurman, who was on the dance floor when the shooting started. “How can we now do anything knowing something like this can happen?”
Club Q is an 18-and-up gay and lesbian nightclub that features dancing, drag shows, karaoke and drag bingo, according to its website. It’s Facebook page, which boasts “Nobody Parties like Club Q!,” posted flyers for a Halloween party, a shots party, as well as trivia. Some describe it as a cozy, welcoming place that has drawn those who wanted to sit down for a meal and relax, as well as those who wanted to dance into the morning hours.
The club’s doors remained closed after the shooting, as many people left flowers on a corner nearby.
Stoney Roberts, the southern Colorado field organizer for One Colorado, an LGBTQ advocacy group, described it as a sacred space and said the shooting felt like a “desecration.”
Roberts, a nonbinary trans person, graduated from high school in 2007 and couldn’t wait to be old enough to go to Club Q, which, Roberts said, back then was one of the only safe spaces in Colorado Springs for LGBTQ people.
“I came of age there,” said Roberts, who performed in Club Q’s drag shows from 2009 through 2011. “If it were not for Club Q, if it were not for the experiences I had there, I would not be the person I am, and I would not be nearly as passionate about supporting the community as I am.”
A sense of home for members of the LGBTQ community is what Matthew Haynes, one of the club’s co-founders, hoped to create when he started the club two decades ago.
“There have been so many happy stories from Club Q,” Haynes told The Colorado Sun. “People meeting and relationships being born. So many celebrations there. We’re a family of people more than a place to have a drink and dance and leave.”
Colorado’s laws are now among the country’s friendliest to LGBTQ people, though it wasn’t always that way, and Colorado Springs was particularly unwelcoming.
The city has been home to Focus on the Family, a fundamentalist Christian organization that lobbied against LGBTQ rights, and to Colorado for Family Values, which pushed in 1992 for a constitutional amendment to prevent local governments from enacting anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people. Though Colorado voters approved the amendment, the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1996.
Ashlyn May, 18, and Reese Congleton, 19, grew up in Colorado Springs feeling as if they had to keep their queer identity quiet. May recalls being looked at with disgust when, in a middle school class, she proposed that Queen’s song “I Want to Break Free” was about exploring coming out as gay.
Even now, “it’s scary to hold hands in public,” Congleton said.
Congleton was nervous to go to Club Q for the first time because she hadn’t come out to many people or been to a bar before. Inside, rainbow lights bounced around the room where drag queens would make their grand entrance through a curtain on the stage.
The lively audience was excited for Congleton, who said she went from feeling like she had been merely tolerated in public to “being celebrated. … It’s really special to not feel alone.”
That’s why May attended bingo on Wednesday evenings, where a drag queen’s compliment about an outfit tore away their insecurities. “Yes, I am hot!” said May, who was excited to bring their queer younger sister to Club Q for bingo this week to show her “it’s okay to be queer, and it’s okay to love who you love.”
Justin Godwin, 24, and his friend visited Club Q for the first time Saturday, and left in an Uber just minutes before the shooting. He said he’s been thinking of all the people who were dancing, sitting at the bar and enjoying the night.
“They’re all there for different reasons, whether they’re regulars, their first time, they’re celebrating something. It’s just supposed to be a fun environment where we feel safe, where people aren’t judging you, giving you looks or anything,” Godwin said. “You’re just being yourself, like no matter how you look, like everyone just feels welcome.”
“It’s just crazy to think someone had the intentions to go in there and just do any harm to anybody,” he said. “It’s just sad for people who find a home somewhere and it gets ruined.”
Korrie Bovee, who identifies as queer, said Club Q has been the cornerstone of a community of like-minded people who have each others’ backs, in a city where verbal harassment is not uncommon and freedom to be oneself is not always found in schools or churches in Colorado Springs.
“My kids live here,” the 33-year-old said, wiping a tear from her eye. “It’s just hard to know I’m raising my kids in this context.”
Roberts said Club Q is laid out in a “cozy, warm way” with a bar area, a dance floor and a DJ booth. There is a patio where people can gather outside. And the DJs are “always amazing.”
“There just is an overwhelming feeling of authenticity and a welcoming energy,” Roberts said. “That level of comfort is so important. … My heart goes out to people who thought they were in the arms of that comfort and that turned out not to be the case.”
Roberts said that as a Black queer person, most places in Colorado Springs seem welcoming, but there is always that “underlying nuance of realizing where you are.”
At Club Q: “You can take a deep breath and you can be your authentic self.”
Forliti reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press writer Jamie Stengle contributed from Dallas.