COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As a queer woman who has lived for 12 years in this city known for its conservative, evangelical Christian roots, April Slawson has been the subject of unflattering looks and comments at work and is always cautious around strangers .
Last week, she finally told friends she felt “comfortable” here.
Days later, a gunman walked into 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 Colorado Springs residents mourn those who died, its queer community also grapples with the harsh realities faced by many LGBTQ people living in conservative or rural areas of the United States – the loss of a safe space. , loss of security, loss of trust in their neighbours.
Going deeper into the pain of Saturday’s tragedy, nearly every LGBTQ person who spoke to NBC News said they saw Club Q as one of the city’s only “safe havens” for their community. While there are a handful of other queer bars in Colorado Springs, Club Q is the only space for them with a big dance floor — a far cry from the dozens of LGBTQ bars and nightclubs in major metropolises.
“I’m horrified for the people who lost their lives and were injured, but fear is like a cancer, and it’s going to be hard to get rid of,” said Slawson, 30, an engineer who moved to Colorado. Springs in 2010. from a southern California liberal enclave.
Colorado Springs has long been considered a stronghold of evangelism, an identity of Christianity that has a history of opposition to LGBTQ equality. It is home to several of the most anti-LGBTQ organizations in the country, including Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the Pray in Jesus Name Project.
The city has very few spaces where its 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 within the last two years and lack the deep-rooted history with the community that Club Q has established over the 20 years since followed its opening.
With its sprawling highways and vast expanses, this city of 500,000 has a rural feel that LGBTQ people say invites pickup trucks more than Pride parades. Gay neighborhoods do not exist. There are no rainbow flags adorning its windows.
Researchers have repeatedly found that LGBTQ people – especially young gay people – are “strongly” affected by the attitudes and beliefs around them. Young people whose sexuality or identity is accepted are much less likely to commit suicide or suffer from other mental health problems, according to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention group.
Christopher Aaby, 39, moved to Colorado Springs when he was around 6 years old. Growing up, the region’s “hyper-Christianity” made him feel rejected in a way that still lingers, he said. This feeling is reflected in his behavior. He said he didn’t feel safe holding his partner’s hand in public here, but would do so in San Francisco or New York.
“It’s something I think about every day when I leave the house,” said the grants manager for a nonprofit group. “Where I’m going, how I’m going to have to act depending on which part of town I’m going to.”
Of Saturday’s shooting, he added: “It’s a reminder that we have to be careful, we have to look over our shoulders, whereas our heterosexual counterparts don’t have to when they leave the home.”
Members of the Colorado Springs community gathered around the clock at the site of the shooting, leaving flowers, rainbow flags, handwritten maps and stuffed animals on the sidewalk to pay their respects to the victims . Several candlelight vigils were also held across the city, with more than 200 people gathering at Acacia Park on Monday night.
Shelby Zamora, who uses the pronouns they and them, stood with tears in her eyes outside a memorial for the victims on Sunday night.
“It already feels like they don’t want us here and so for that to happen, it feels like we’re making that point known – that they don’t want us here,” the student said. 25 years old.
Orion Wagner, 27, a gay man who grew up in Colorado Springs and lives a stone’s throw from Club Q, wondered if he would ever return to the venue if and when it reopens.
“Knowing it, are you coming back? I don’t know what I think about it,” the vape shop employee said. “It’s probably the same kind of feeling as kids going back to school after a school shooting.”
Club Q has been closed since the Saturday night shooting. Icons and La Burla Bee are open and served as gathering places for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the horror.
Jimmy Gomez-Beisch, 40, a gay burlesque dancer born and raised in Colorado Springs, struck a more optimistic tone for the future of the community. He contrasted the “good old days” when he said LGBTQ people living in the city would “stay true to ourselves” with the current climate in which “we can be ourselves.”
He added that despite the tragedy, the outpouring of support and solidarity from community members and queer people around the world speaks to the important role the LGBTQ community plays in Colorado Springs.
“Our community may be torn apart right now, but with a little sewing, a little glue, a little love, we’ll get back to it and we’ll come back stronger,” he said. “And we’re going to show the world: just because it happened doesn’t mean we’re leaving.”