Nation/World

For LGBTQ community, nightclub shooting wasn’t first instance of hate in Colorado Springs

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COLORADO SPRINGS - Club Q was Diamond Kobylinski’s first gay bar. This was where they tried out drag as a teenager, dancing and lip-syncing with X’s scrawled on their hands to mark their age.

It was where they came for their first drink, and where they rang in birthdays with their adoptive family - the lesbian couple that took them in after a childhood in foster care - and a chosen family of bartenders, performers and regulars who gathered nearly every weekend.

But now it had become a crime scene, cordoned off by caution tape that limited Kobylinski to standing on the side of a nearby road, pondering just how this integral venue for queer life here - a beacon in a place once known as “hate city” - had been warped into the latest site of a deadly mass shooting.

“Club Q was my everything,” Kobylinski said, gazing at a makeshift memorial of bouquets, candles and Pride flags. “Safe spaces are numbered, and that’s the biggest shock: It meant something that this was a safe space.”

The rampage at one of the only gay bars in Colorado’s second-largest city has devastated its tightknit LGBTQ community, whose members describe Club Q as a welcoming haven for free expression in one of the capitals of American conservatism. As Colorado Springs struggled to move past its label as ground zero for the evangelical push to limit gay rights, the bar served as the rare gathering space where those rights were never up for debate, and safety was presumed.

Police say they are still investigating a motive for the attack, which killed five people and injured another 18. But suspect Anderson Lee Aldrich is facing charges of murder and committing a bias-motivated crime, in a spurt of violence that began near midnight Saturday that has punctuated a wave of rising anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and laws.

For a city whose recent history has been sullied by three decades of political attacks on transgender and gay people - over spousal benefits, nondiscrimination rules and even the ability to start high school clubs - it has felt like a punch in the gut.

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“It’s a heartbreak,” said Richard Skorman, a former city council member who helped lead up much of the liberal response to those earlier attacks out of the coffee shop he owns downtown. “We’ve made such great strides in this area, and it’s terrible we have to go through this again.”

Gay and transgender residents described Colorado Springs as a difficult place to be out, with some citing recent episodes of discrimination and hate crimes. But others said they’ve observed greater tolerance recently - more rainbow flags on storefronts and fewer nasty comments, measures of acceptance long in coming.

Colorado, once infamous for its anti-LGBTQ laws, is now reliably blue, a political transformation driven by liberal enclaves like Denver, Boulder and their suburbs. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat and the country’s first openly gay man to hold that position, was just reelected by a nearly 20-point margin.

But while even Colorado Springs has drifted left in recent years, Saturday’s shooting brought a swift recognition of the city’s painful history.

“I don’t think there has really been the ability to move freely and safely here,” said Stoney Roberts, a field organizer with the advocacy group One Colorado and a onetime drag performer at Club Q. “That’s why we relied so much and rely so much on these safe spaces.”

Seeds of a movement

The area’s politics have always leaned right, fueled by a large military presence that includes the Air Force Academy, the Army’s Fort Carson and the Peterson Space Force Base. But the decision by local business boosters in the 1980s and early ‘90s to recruit fundamentalist Christian groups to relocate to Colorado Springs, an effort to jump-start the economy, made the city a hotbed of right-wing extremism.

A Washington Post story from that era said that Colorado Springs had developed a reputation “for intolerance and venomous, values-based politics.”

One of the largest and most influential groups to arrive was Focus on the Family, an organization that opposes same-sex marriage and promotes conversion therapy - a widely discredited practice that purports to “cure” gay and transgender people. It also trained candidates for local office who embraced those views. Its presence, along with dozens of other similarly minded groups, prompted one evangelical leader, the Rev. Ted Haggard of the New Life Church, to call Colorado Springs “the Vatican of evangelical Christianity.”

“It has been underneath us always: The military, religious organizations - there’s a way in which they are cultivating things that may inspire a place like Colorado Springs to be the next target,” said Tre Wentling, an assistant professor and queer studies scholar at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.

An important political moment came in 1992, when conservative activists in Colorado Springs rallied support across the state for a ballot measure known as Amendment 2, which added a clause to the state constitution preventing municipalities from passing gay rights protections.

The campaign was successful, and more than half of Colorado voters approved the amendment, even as they voted for Democrat Bill Clinton for president. It was a significant setback for those seeking equal treatment under the law, but the measure also backfired on its backers: It wound up sparking a full-blown gay rights movement in the state and in Colorado Springs.

“The LGBTQ community in the city before then was fairly marginalized, fairly isolated, fairly underground and did not have a lot of places for community social gathering spots,” said William Schultz, a professor of American religions at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. “Amendment 2 brought a lot of people in Colorado Springs out of the closet.”

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Nearly four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Amendment 2 unconstitutional.

The influence of evangelicals has waned in the city since then, and a network of small local organizations to support LGBTQ people has thrived - but gay bars, which have long operated as community centers, have struggled to stay open.

In 2005, the long-running Hide and Seek, which was thought to be one of the largest gay clubs in the western United States, shut down for good when its owner said he couldn’t afford repairs required after being assessed for several fire code violations.

But shortly before Hide and Seek closed its doors, a newcomer opened, offering $2 margarita specials, ‘80s night on Tuesdays and a beacon of hope in a community desperate for a reliable haven: Club Q.

‘A place I can put my hair down’

Teagan Gilbert and Victoria Kosovich had very different journeys to Club Q, but they were searching for the same thing at the low-slung club in a strip mall set off from the street, some 20 minutes northeast of downtown.

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Gilbert, now a Navy veteran, was in town for training and feeling alone in a new city, where she knew no one. So she Googled: “Where are LGBTQ safe spaces in Colorado Springs.”

“That’s how I found Club Q,” said Gilbert, who a couple of years later would join a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its ban on transgender military service members.

“I was like ‘Okay, here’s a safe place,’ " she said, recalling when she walked inside. “Here’s a place I can put my hair down, here’s a place I can grab a drink and laugh and play pool and get a hug.”

Kosovich, too, just wanted a place where she could feel comfortable being herself. She was starting to transition when she first went to Club Q, and it’s where she took part in her first drag shows. The night before one of those early performances, in June 2016, a gunman killed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, and Kosovich’s show morphed into a fundraiser.

“We did the show, we poured out our grief and our anger onto the stage, and we helped out the way we could,” she said Sunday. “And that’s all we can do now, too.”

Kosovich and Gilbert had plenty of friends inside Club Q on Saturday night, and knew at least two of those killed.

“It was supposed to be the place where that doesn’t happen,” Kosovich said. “Maybe out on the street you’re going to get accosted and yelled at and called a slur, but in there, it doesn’t happen. They died having that safety betrayed.”

‘A direct personal attack’

Jonas Anderson, a 25-year-old transgender man, moved here to get away from his hometown in the Florida Panhandle, where it felt like he could never openly discuss his gender identity - not even with his family, he said.

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Friends warned him that Colorado Springs would not be a reprieve from conservative politics. But high rents and heavy traffic in Denver and a desire for a small-town feel pushed him farther south, where he quickly found a job at a coffee shop downtown and a community of “queer weirdos” at Club Q.

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“I was just this nervous, shy, little gay kid walking in there. I didn’t know what was happening,” Anderson recalled. “They just welcomed me and really made me feel like it was okay to be a loser who didn’t know what to drink at a bar. Really made it okay to be whoever you were at that place.”

After his first few nights at Club Q, Anderson worked up the courage to order his own cocktail from one of the bartenders: the playful, mullet-sporting Daniel Aston, on whom he was starting to develop a small crush.

Anderson nervously stuttered until the bartender interjected with a question - something sweet or something spicy? - and poured out a fruity, red concoction dubbed the Captain Hook. But he loved it.

That cocktail will forever be a reminder of Aston, who was one of the five people killed at the bar over the weekend.

“It does feel like somebody came in to my own home and robbed me blind or, you know, shot my mom or something,” Anderson said. “It feels like a direct personal attack. Because it was somewhere that I cared about. It’s people I care about, people I know.”

Less than 48 hours after the attack, Anderson was already thinking about how to fight back.

“None of us are going to just let this go and be like, ‘That’s sad. They’re gone,’” he added. “We want something to change - for this business to come back, and bigger, and for more queer spaces to just gay up this town.”

‘We’ll be here’

By Monday night, ICONS - a piano bar described by one of its owners as “the classy gay uncle to Club Q” - had unlocked its doors after shutting down for a day, welcoming a stream of friends and regulars who crowded onto plush chairs and stools, leaning on each other.

“We felt powerless, and when we thought about what we could do, it was just: open up and be here for the community,” said John Wolfe, who co-owns the place with his husband. “This place is a sacred place to a lot of people, they met their chosen family here when they couldn’t have it anywhere else.”

At a table near the front, by a small stage where bar staff belt show tunes, Lydia Lockhart sat with some of her closest friends. They didn’t know where else to go.

“I showed up tonight because I will not let fear and hate win,” Lockhart said. “I want to continue to celebrate with my community, and I’m so thankful for my group that we have each other to go through this with.”

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Sitting to her right, Phoebe Rudolph replied: “That’s what they want, is for us to not be here together.”

“I’m protesting by being alive,” she said. “I’m protesting by kissing a woman I love.”

The friends, whose party sometimes grows to 15 or so, have been coming to ICONS twice a week, sometimes more.

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“The people, the music, it’s like balm to your soul,” said Becca Stephens, who was born and raised in Colorado Springs and grew up in an intensely conservative environment, where discussing gender and sexuality was taboo.

“I don’t even care if this city likes me or wants me here, I’m not leaving,” Stephens said. “These mountains, this place. I don’t need a church. This is our church.”

As they spoke, bartender and actor Mark Autry climbed onstage to sing the evening’s final song, “Morning Glow,” from the musical “Pippin.” The bar’s TVs displayed a black ribbon with a rainbow heart and “Club Q” in the center.

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As a disco ball shimmered in the dim light, Autry sang about finding hope in the darkness, about the morning glow that will come after “the phantoms of the night” fade into the past. He held the final words - “at last” - for a longing beat or two.

“We love you,” he told the crowd. “Come back, we’ll be here - we’ll be here - we’re not going anywhere. We’ll be here tomorrow, and every day after that.”

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The Washington Post’s Cate Brown, Jennifer Hassan and Anne Branigin contributed to this report.

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