COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado. — As a queer woman who has lived in this city for 12 years, known for its evangelical, Christian, and conservative roots, April Slawson was the subject of unflattering looks and comments at work and is always wary of strangers.
Last week, she finally told friends that she felt “comfortable” here.
Just a few days later, a gunman entered the city’s only LGBTQ dance club, killing five people and injuring 19 others. On Monday, the suspect was charged with five counts of first-degree murder and five counts of bias or hate crimes.
As people in Colorado Springs mourn the deceased, the queer community is also coming to terms with the stark realities faced by many LGBTQ people in conservative or rural areas of the United States — the loss of a safe space, the loss of security, the loss of trust in their neighbors.
Almost all LGBTQ people who spoke to CNNBreakingNews.net confirmed that they considered Club Q to be one of the city’s only “safe havens” for their community. Although there are a handful of other queer bars in Colorado Springs, Club Q is the only place for them with a big dance floor—a far cry from the dozens of LGBTQ bars and nightclubs in major cities.
“I’m appalled for the people who lost their lives and were injured, but the fear is like a cancer and it’s going to be difficult to overcome,” said Slawson, 30, an engineer who moved to Colorado Springs in 2010 from a liberal enclave in southern California.
Colorado Springs has long been considered a stronghold of evangelism, a Christian identity that has spoken out against LGBTQ equality in the past. It is home to several of the country’s LGBTQ organizations, including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the Pray in Jesus Name Project.
There are very few places in the city where LGBTQ people say they feel a sense of freedom and acceptance. The other two well-known LGBTQ bars, Icons and La Burla Bee, both opened in the last two years and lack the deep-rooted community story that Club Q has created in the 20 years since it opened.
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With its sprawling motorways and vast countryside, this city of 500,000 residents has a rural feel that, according to LGBTQ people, is more conducive to pickup trucks than to Pride parades. There are no gay districts. There are no rainbow flags adorning his storefronts.
Researchers have repeatedly found that LGBTQ people — particularly queer youth — are “strongly” influenced by the attitudes and beliefs around them. According to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention group, they are significantly less likely to commit suicide or suffer from other mental health issues.
Christopher Aaby, 39, moved to Colorado Springs when he was around 6 years old. As a child, he said, he felt rejected because of the “hyper-Christianity” of the area in a way that still persists. This feeling is reflected in his behavior. He said he didn’t feel safe holding his partner’s hand here in public, but would do so in San Francisco or New York City.
“I think about that every day when I leave home,” said the grant manager for a nonprofit group. “Where I go, how I have to act, depends on which part of the city I’m going to.”
He added to Saturday’s filming: “It’s a reminder that we need to be careful, we need to look over our shoulders while our straight colleagues don’t have to do that when they leave home.”
Members of the Colorado Springs community have gathered around the clock at the scene of the shooting, leaving flowers, rainbow flags, handwritten cards, and stuffed animals on the sidewalk to pay their respects to the victims. Several candlelit vigils were also held across the city, with more than 200 people gathered in Acacia Park on Monday evening.
Shelby Zamora, who uses the pronouns she and she, stood in front of a memorial to the victims on Sunday evening with tears in her eyes.
“It feels like they don’t want us, and for that to happen, it feels like they’re making this point known — that they don’t want us here,” said the 25-year-old student.
Orion Wagner, 27, a gay man who grew up in Colorado Springs and lives just a block away from Club Q, debated whether he’ll ever return to the venue when it reopens.
“When you know about it, are you going back? I don’t know what I think of it,” said the vape shop employee. “It’s probably the same feeling as if kids are going back to school after a school shooting.”
Club Q has been closed since filming on Saturday evening. Icons and La Burla Bee are open and have served as a meeting place for LGBTQ people after the horror.
Jimmy Gomez-Beisch, 40, a gay burlesque dancer born and raised in Colorado Springs, set a more hopeful tone for the community’s future. He contrasted the “old days” when he said LGBTQ people who live in the city would “stay with us,” with the current climate where “we can be ourselves.”
He added that despite the tragedy, the great support and solidarity of community members and queer people from around the world speaks to the important role of the LGBTQ community in Colorado Springs.