COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — After last November’s mass shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, which turned a drag queen’s birthday celebration into a massacre, the conservative community was forced to reckon with its reputation for being unwelcoming with gays, lesbians and transgender people.
What exactly motivated the shooter, who did not grow up in Colorado Springs and is now serving a life sentence, may never be known. But the attack killed five people, injured 17 others and shook the sense of safety at Club Q, which served as a refuge for the city’s LGBTQ+ community.
While members of the city’s LGBTQ+ community appreciated the array of city and state officials who spoke at the anniversary in front of the club, many say there is much more work ahead.
Club Q owner Matthew Haynes said the city has been unwaveringly supportive, a leap forward from when he founded the club two decades ago. But when Haynes reopens the place as The Q in a different location, it becomes clear that parts of the city aren’t as supportive.
The letters sent to Haynes said something like, “We don’t want those kind of people here.” In an elevator, Haynes said someone told him, “This is going to happen over my dead body.”
“It’s a reminder that intolerance still exists,” Haynes said.
The city has worked to be more inclusive since the shooting. Speakers on Sunday included the district attorney, former and current mayors, and Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who was the first openly gay man to be elected governor in the US.
“In decades past, a tragedy like this could have been swept under the rug,” Polis said in an interview, pointing to the list of speakers — which included a letter from Vice President Kamala Harris.
A new LGBTQ+ resource center will open in Colorado Springs, where an independent candidate surprisingly defeated a longtime Republican incumbent to become the first black mayor of the city, which has a metropolitan area of about 480,000.
Mayor Yemi Mobolade, a West African immigrant who has been mayor since June, said Friday he knows “what it’s like to feel like you’re on the outside looking in, to be a minority. And now, to be mayor of this great city, I bring that empathy to the mayor’s office.”
Mobolade said he has created a three-person community affairs office, with one person whose emphasis “is to be very inclusive of minority communities, including the LGBTQ+ community.”
Carlos Gonzalez, 42, a gay man with a transgender daughter, moved from Florida to Colorado Springs this summer, in part because Mobolade was elected. Gonzalez described himself as a “refugee” from Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis signed bills targeting drag queen shows, transgender children and the use of pronouns.
“We wanted to make sure we were in a place, in a city, state, where my kids didn’t feel different,” Gonzalez said, and “seeing what the complete opposite of politicians like Ron DeSantis was like, it gave me hope that we’re taking the right decision.”
However, as the city gathered on Sunday to mark the anniversary of the shooting, some members of the LGBTQ+ community still worry about their safety, including Jackson Oliver, 15, who is transgender.
After watching the big names speaking to the large crowd, Oliver became suspicious of how much of a political stance this represented. “I would love to believe that they really care, but I’m not really sure,” he said.
At his school, Oliver and his boyfriend made three other students throw rocks and insults in their direction. Sometimes they stop holding hands and move away to avoid harassment. At the local LGBTQ+ youth organization, protesters picket outside.
“It’s hard knowing that just by existing…my boyfriend and I are at risk,” Oliver said.
Additional security measures were in place for Sunday’s events in case anti-LGBTQ+ activists gathered to protest, as they did at this summer’s Pride events. Candidates backed by the conservative group Moms for Liberty, which opposes instruction about systemic racism and gender identity in the classroom, won recent school board elections, said Candace Woods, a queer minister and chaplain who has lived in Colorado Springs for almost two decades.
“Those who oppose queer rights and queer people living their lives continue to entrench themselves in those positions and are doing more politically to see those positions advance,” Woods said.
Colorado Springs, situated in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and home to the U.S. Air Force Academy and several conservative megachurches, has historically been conservative. However, the city also has a growing and diverse population that will surpass Denver’s by 2050, is home to a liberal arts college, and has touted itself as an outdoor boomtown.
On the night of the attack, Anderson Lee Aldrich entered Club Q and began shooting indiscriminately. Clubgoers dove onto a bloodied dance floor for cover and friends frantically tried to protect each other.
The attack was stopped when a Marine officer grabbed the barrel of the suspect’s rifle, burning his hand, and an Army veteran helped subdue and beat Aldrich until police arrived, authorities said.
James Slaugh, 35, was shot that night at Club Q. Last year, he regained mobility in his arm, but the mental scars are harder to shake. Loud music, banging, and rapid movements of other people can make you freeze. Dreams sometimes bring back memories of the night. In restaurants and cinemas, he looks for the nearest exit.
Slaugh met her now-fiancé at Club Q, then one of the few LGBTQ+ venues in the city. Since the shooting, he said, more welcoming spaces have opened. Slaugh added that he appreciates local and state leaders’ full support of the community, while also recognizing there is more to do.
“Hate will not be tolerated in this city on my watch and we stand firm,” Mobolade said Friday. “Our community will not be defined by the terrible acts of Club Q, but by our response to them. Our community has come a long way and I understand we still have a long way to go.”
Aldrich, who has not publicly revealed a motive for the shooting, pleaded guilty in June to five counts of murder and 46 counts of attempted murder for each person who was at the club during the attack. Aldrich also pleaded no contest to two hate crimes and was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences.
The attack came more than a year after Aldrich, who identifies as non-binary and uses they and them pronouns, was arrested for threatening his grandparents and promising to become “the next mass murderer” while stockpiling weapons, body armor and bulletproof and bomb-making materials.
Those charges were eventually dismissed after Aldrich’s mother and grandparents refused to cooperate with prosecutors.