by Jesse Bedayn and Amy Forliti
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 couldn’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 injuring 25 others. As the community mourns the lives lost, many are also grieving over the place that has become a sanctuary for many longing to fit in.
“We were just enjoying ourselves. 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. Its 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 drew those who wanted to sit down for a meal and relax, as well as those who wanted to dance into the morning hours.
Many left flowers on a corner near the club in the hours after the shooting. Charon Kim gazed at the growing memorial on Sunday, and said when a new member of the LGBTQ community moved to Colorado Springs or happened through, invariably they’d be directed to Club Q.
“Because of things like this, it becomes scary to exist,” Kim said.
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 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.”
The 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 lobbies 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.
Before Club Q opened, then co-owner Ken Romines had spent 15 months planning the business and visiting gay clubs across the United States and England for ideas, the Gazette of Colorado Springs reported on the weekend of the club’s grand opening. One goal was to keep residents from leaving the city to visit the Denver club scene, he told the newspaper.
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.”
Sophie Aldinger, who identifies as nonbinary and dropped flowers off at the memorial on Sunday, told reporters that Club Q was uplifting.
“There was so much laughter here and love here,” Aldinger said.
Korrie Bovee, who identifies as queer, said Colorado Spring’s tight-knit LGBTQ community is a small, protective pocket in a largely conservative city where verbal harassment isn’t uncommon.
Club Q is the cornerstone of a community of like-minded people who have each others’ backs, the 33-year-old said, adding that freedom to be oneself is not always found in schools or churches in Colorado Springs.
“My kids live here,” she 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 is just is an overwhelming feeling of authenticity and a welcoming energy,” Roberts said. “That level of comfort is so important and so sparing to us. 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.