COLORADO SPRINGS — Luis Padillo had wanted to visit Club Q for months. He would sometimes drive around nearby, trying to work up the courage to enter.
“I didn’t have anyone to go with me,” said Padillo, 21, who recently came out to his parents as questioning his sexuality. “I just wasn’t comfortable going by myself.”
But two days after a gunman stormed Club Q, killing five and wounding 18, Padillo finally stopped by to reflect on - and mourn with - Colorado’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
“I wanted to see the memorial,” said Padillo, standing in front of a collection of flowers, candles and rainbow flags. “This is a wake-up call, and a cry for change, and although it’s definitely saddening, it’s inspiring at the same time.”
As the nation grieves three mass shootings in the past two weeks, makeshift memorials have served as reminders of the nation’s unrelenting gun violence. But the tribute here has taken on a deeper meaning - it has become a space for LGBTQ teenagers and young adults to grieve, honor their community and ask, “What now?”
Some drove to Colorado Springs from as far away as Boulder, about 90 minutes north, just to stand in front of the memorial for a few minutes. Others came with their parents, reflecting a generational shift toward adults being supportive of their LGBTQ children. A few have stopped by multiple times on multiple days, saying they cannot explain why they keep coming back.
“I am trans and queer myself,” one 15-year-old, who asked to be identified by their first name, Eliot, said while viewing the memorial with their 61-year-old grandmother. “As a high school kid, it terrifies me that this could happen based on someone’s identify. . . . But being here helps.”
It was not lost on many young visitors that they were standing in front of a bar where they could not even legally drink. Yet many said they know what Club Q represents in this conservative community.
As soon as he heard about the shooting, Wyatt Krob, 20, knew he had to travel here from Denver, about an hour north. In January, after months of “connecting all of the pieces,” Krob told his parents that he was bisexual. He had planned to visit with his father, “but I couldn’t wait for him to get out of work,” he said.
Instead, Krob came alone. “I don’t fully understand it,” he said. “I just felt called to go and experience it myself.”
Krob, who attends Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., said the memorial’s combination of pain, anguish and “love” helped him better understand that spots like Club Q “are sacred places” for the LGBTQ community.
It also allowed him to dig deeper for information about himself. “I wanted to come here, find other people who are grieving, and also maybe have a better understanding of myself,” he said. “I would say for anyone who is questioning, or identifies as anything other than straight, this definitely hits home in their soul.”
A few feet away, Amber Cantorna stood wearing a sweatshirt that read “Free Mom Hugs.” Free Mom Hugs is a nationwide group of women whose members travel to LGBTQ-focused events to support youths.
Cantorna, 38, said the sight of so many young people demonstrated how rapidly younger adults - and many of their parents - have become more aware and supportive of issues involving sexual orientation and identity.
“You would not have seen this when I grew up in Colorado Springs, or when I left a decade ago,” Cantorna said.
Still, in a part of the country where it can take an hour to travel between isolated mountain and farm communities, she knows that many young adults still lack a supportive network.
Cantorna said she became suicidal and fled to Denver after her family ostracized her and even took away her set of keys to their house when in 2012 she told them she was gay. At the time, Cantorna’s father worked as a high-ranking official at Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based Christian conservative advocacy group.
She moved back to Colorado Springs last year but remains out of contact with her family.
Even in tragedy, Cantorna said, the Club Q memorial will become a place that helps members of the LGBTQ community feel less alone.
“A lot of queer people still live pretty rural, isolated lives where they don’t have a community to support them,” she said. “These are people who may not have a family or may not have a place to go for the holidays this week.”
Barbara Poma, who owned the Pulse nightclub in Orlando where a gunman killed 49 people in 2016, said she is not surprised that so many younger Colorado Springs residents are choosing to publicly grieve at Club Q. The memorial in front of Pulse still attracts hundreds of people per day to the shuttered venue.
“It amazes me to see the families and the young people there, but it happens every day,” said Pomo, whose onePULSE Foundation is building a permanent monument to honor the Pulse nightclub victims. “We have families that come to Orlando on vacation, but they will still bring their children to visit the memorial. . . . It is a place of pilgrimage, and a place of bearing witness and for people to face grief and have good conversations.”
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‘I hope people come here’
The number of younger Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is higher than it’s ever been before. In February, Gallup found that 7 percent of Americans now identify that way, including 21 percent of American adults who were born between 1997 and 2003.
In front of Club Q this week, several parents of gay or transgender children said they saw a family visit to the memorial as a way to show their children that more people love them than hate them or want to cause them harm.
On Wednesday morning, Layla Aronow brought her 12-year-old transgender son Kai to the memorial from their home in suburban Denver. They placed flowers at the crosses honoring the victims, while Kai chalked the sidewalk with messages including “We don’t choose who we love - We choose who we hurt.”
“When this happened, especially this close to the holiday, it just broke my heart,” said Aronow, 42. “It was important to me, especially with a trans child, to bring him here and show him that for every monster that might come, there are hundreds or thousands of others who are trying to do good.”
As Aronow and Kai took photographs of the candles and chalk writing that now line North Academy Boulevard, they got a firsthand lesson in how a community can help battle cruelty. A passenger in an SUV driving by the memorial rolled down the window and yelled an anti-gay slur at the crowd of mourners.
“That person clearly thinks that word is going to hurt us, and wants the power to hurt us,” Kai responded. “And it just doesn’t hurt us when we are together.”
Aronow swelled with pride.
“That is exactly what I want my son to say and believe,” she said.
Robin L., another transgender man who visited the memorial with his mother, said the collective grieving in front of Club Q had inspired him, even though he had never been inside the venue.
Robin - who is 21 and asked to be identified only by the first initial of his last name because he worries about online harassment - said seeing so many fellow young LGBTQ people standing together this week proved they are “living their ancestors’ dreams.”
“I hope that people come here, and they see that even though this is terrible, there are people everywhere that love them,” Robin said. “We will be here for each other, despite the fear.”
The memorial also attracted a steady flow of heterosexual teenagers and young adults. Many of them also believe that memorial symbolizes how solidarity can arise from the community’s sadness.
Ayden Derby, who is heterosexual and a senior at a local high school, said it is still common for some LGBTQ students to be bullied or harassed. But as Derby, 18, gazed at the memorial, he vowed to be a lifelong ally to the LGBTQ community.
“Stuff like this speaks to people, and definitely makes them reconsider the actions and words they say,” said Derby, who watched as his 17-year-old friend scrawled “You are wonderful” on a concrete barrier that separates the memorial from highway traffic.
But despite the support, Robin’s mother, Kathy L., still worries that the nightclub shooting represents a new, more dangerous time for Robin and other LGBTQ Americans. Especially outside of the nation’s largest cities, “it is getting worse for gay people because it has been getting better for gay people,” she said.
“Gay people have a few rights now, and sometimes you might see a pair of same-sex people walking downtown where you never would have 20 years ago,” said Kathy, who made several visits to the memorial this week to resupply origami paper to make butterflies. “So someone who is hateful and fearful sees that and then they decide to commit a hate crime.”
Ash Lowrance, a 23-year-old transgender man, echoed those concerns when they visited the memorial with their partner Alexis Mullins, who is 26 and identifies as queer.
Lowrance and Mullins moved to Colorado Springs two years ago from their conservative hometown in rural Illinois. Lowrance, who started testosterone treatment about six months ago, said the assault on Club Q has left them wondering if they should proceed with their transition.
“It kind of scares me. I am very early in my transition, and just knowing this happened is really hard to process,” Lowrance said. “A lot of young people are coming here because they realize just how messed up all of this is.”
Padillo, the 21-year-old who told his parents he will decide his sexual orientation when he falls in love, said he also remains “scared,” even though he found comfort at the memorial. He thinks the shooting will make it even more difficult for some young men to take their first steps into a gay bar.
“This just makes it seem like you are not wanted somewhere, and that can be frightening to a lot of people,” said Padillo, who added he is grateful he has a supportive family.
But after Krob spent about 30 minutes silently gazing at the memorial, the 20-year-old left feeling good. He knew exactly what he was going to do when he got back to Denver.
“I am going to go home and give my mom a big hug,” he said. “I didn’t take any pictures here to show her, but what I saw will definitely stick with me, and it’s going to sit in my head for a long time.”