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Anti-LGBTQ sentiment in Colorado Springs had some in the community anticipating tragedy

“There’s still so much hatred for our community and we’re all just people trying to live our lives,” said Liss Smith, communications manager for Inside Out Youth Services.

Parker Grey stopped going to Club Q about a year and half ago “because of the growing hatred for our community that started in” Colorado Springs, Colorado.

A gunman opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle at the LGBTQ club late Saturday night, killing five people and injuring at least 25 others. The suspected shooter, who was hurt in the attack, was apprehended by police and is in the hospital.

While no motive in the shooting has been disclosed by authorities, the violence comes amid heightened tensions for the LGBTQ community. Several drag events around the country have drawn protests and threats, with some protesters carrying firearms, and more than 240 anti-LGBTQ bills were filed in the first three months of this year, most of them targeting trans people

Grey, 25, noted the rise in violence against transgender people, particularly trans women of color, over the last few years. “You can just feel it. As a community, being through so much grief and so much loss after so many years, it’s almost like you can feel tragedy coming.”

Follow along for live coverage of the shooting.

He said that sense was present at Club Q even before the shooting.

“The numbers thinned out at the club naturally with Covid, but I think people began to fear for their safety again like they did back in 2016 when Pulse happened,” he said, referring to the 2016 massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53.

While authorities say they have not determined a motive or whether the shooting will be prosecuted as a hate crime, the founder of Club Q said Sunday that "it very much feels targeted."

"He went in there with a definite mission," Matthew Hayes said of the gunman. "So, of course, we want that hate addressed."

Grey said the city's most recent Pride celebration drew a smaller crowd than its first Pride event a few years ago. There have always been protesters, he added. Recently, he and his friends have traveled to Denver, more than an hour’s drive north, for most LGBTQ events.

Garrett Royer, deputy director of One Colorado, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization, described Colorado as “a mixed bag” when it comes to LGBTQ policies.

He said that the state has some of the best legal access for transgender and nonbinary people to update their gender markers on identity documents, but that there is an overwhelming pushback of negative rhetoric — especially at the local level, and particularly on school boards — that are trying to inflame or politicize trans or LGBTQ youth.

“You see a number of attacks coming from state school board of education members who believe that teachers, educators, administrators, who are supportive of LGBTQ students are in some way groomers,” he said. “Obviously, there are consequences to that kind of rhetoric.”

He pointed out, however, that just this month, the state Board of Education finalized and approved more inclusive K-3 social studies standards that will allow the mention of the LGBTQ community.

Liss Smith, the communications manager for Inside Out Youth Services, an organization that provides support for LGBTQ people ages 13 to 24, said Colorado has a long history of institutionalized discrimination against the community.

"We were the nexus of Amendment 2 in 1992, which basically codified discrimination against the LGBTQ folks in Colorado state law," said Smith, who uses they/them pronouns.

Amendment 2 was a ballot initiative passed by Colorado voters that prohibited the state from enacting anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian and bisexual people until it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1996. The movement that advocated for that amendment started in Colorado Springs, they said.

"I don’t know that we ever believe that we’ve fully grown out of that," said Smith, 32, a longtime Colorado Springs resident. "But I think there’s been so much encouragement in recent years of how much growth there has been, and how accepting and warm the community has the potential to be that we’ve seen."

"And not to say that hate doesn't happen here. It does," they added. "Last night was just kind of an example of what happens when it’s taken to violence. And it all comes from the same place of hatred. And we see that in our school boards, we see that in interactions that our young people have with their peers."

There have been instances this year of school board members, such as Jason Jorgenson, vice president of the Colorado Springs District 11 Board of Education, posting transphobic memes on social media. He shared a meme in February that showed a trans person hooked up to an ultrasound machine, which projected an image of fecal matter, KOAA News5 reported. The text read, “When you transgender and you think you pregnant…," according to the station. He later apologized, the outlet reported.

"There's still so much hatred for our community and we're all just people trying to live our lives," Smith said.

They recalled multiple incidents of hate or ignorance directed at LGBTQ youth at area high schools in the last two years. Most recently, in Colorado Springs, a transgender girl was kicked out of the homecoming dance because she wore a dress, Smith added.

“We know as LGBTQ people that even our safe spaces carry some element of danger, because they’re our spaces,” Smith said. “And I think that’s just something that you have to grow to accept as a queer person living today.”

Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican, who called the shooting Saturday “absolutely awful,” has made anti-LGBTQ policies a part of her platform. She opposes marriage equality and introduced legislation that would ban gender-affirming treatments for transgender youth.

A report earlier this year cited Boebert along with nine other politicians as driving rhetoric implying that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are “grooming” children.

Boebert and Jorgenson did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

"Obviously that rhetoric in the media and nationally and this effort to demonize LGBTQ folks for simply existing and being who they are, it does influence the way that people think about an already vulnerable community," Royer said.

Grey, who lives in close proximity to Club Q, plans to host a “Remembrance and Radicalization“ event Monday evening in Acacia Park. He said that he has received a lot of questions about using the word “radicalization,” and that he “wanted it to be very clear that we are not just sad, but that we’re also angry.”

He said violence is a major part of LGBTQ people’s lives “and it’s happening continuously, and you hear all these half-assed apologies from these politicians on their Twitters and then we see no action.”