COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As a queer woman who has lived for 12 years in this city known for its evangelical Christian and conservative 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 that she felt “comfortable” here.
Then just days later, a suspect entered the city’s sole LGBTQ dance club, killing five people and injuring 19 others. While a motive has not been shared by authorities, the suspect is facing five counts of first-degree murder and five counts of bias-motivated or hate crimes.
As the people of Colorado Springs grieve those who died, its queer community is also grappling with the stark realities many LGBTQ people face living in some conservative or rural areas of the United States — the loss of a safe space, the loss of security, the loss of trust in their neighbors.
Deepening the pain of Saturday’s tragedy, nearly all the LGBTQ people who spoke to NBC News said, they considered Club Q one of the town’s only “safe havens” for their community. Although there are a handful of other queer bars in Colorado Springs, Club Q is the sole space for them with a large dance floor — a far cry from the dozens of LGBTQ bars and nightclubs in large metropolises.
“I’m horrified for the people that lost their lives and were injured, but the fear is like a cancer, and it’s going to be hard to cut it out,” said Slawson, 30, an engineer who moved to Colorado Springs in 2010 from a liberal enclave in Southern California.
Colorado Springs has long been considered a stronghold of evangelism, an identity of Christianity that has a history of opposing 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 two other widely known LGBTQ bars, Icons and La Burla Bee, both opened in the last two years and lack the deep-rooted history with the community that Club Q has established in the 20 years since it opened.
With its sprawling highways and wide-open land, this city of 500,000 has a rural feel that its LGBTQ people say is more inviting to pickup trucks than pride parades. Gayborhoods do not exist. There are no rainbow flags adorning its storefronts.
Researchers have repeatedly found that LGBTQ people — particularly queer youths — are “heavily” impacted by the attitudes and beliefs around them. Youths whose sexualities or identities are accepted are significantly less likely to commit suicide or suffer from other mental health issues, according to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention group.
Christopher Aaby, 39, moved to Colorado Springs when he was about 6. Growing up, the area’s “hyper-Christianity” made him feel rejected in a way that still lingers, he said. That sense is reflected in how he behaves. He said he doesn’t feel safe holding his partner’s hand in public here but will do so in San Francisco or New York City.
“It’s something that I think about every day when I leave the house,” the grants manager for a nonprofit group said. “Where I’m going, how I’m going to need to act depending on the part of town I’m going in.”
Of Saturday’s shooting, he added: “It’s a reminder that we do have to be careful, we do have to look over our shoulders, whereas our heterosexual counterparts don’t have to do that when they leave the house.”
Members of the Colorado Springs community have been gathering around the clock at the site of the shooting, leaving flowers, rainbow flags, hand-written cards and stuffed animals on the sidewalk to pay their respects to the victims. Several candlelit vigils have also taken place across the city, with more than 200 people gathering at Acacia Park on Monday night.
Shelby Zamora, who uses they and them pronouns, stood teary-eyed in front of a memorial for the victims Sunday evening.
“It already feels like they don’t want us and so then for this to happen it feels like it’s making that point known — that they don’t want us here,” the 25-year-old student said.
Orion Wagner, 27, a gay man who grew up in Colorado Springs and lives around the block from Club Q, debated whether he’ll ever return to the venue if and when it reopens.
“Knowing about it, do you go back? I don’t know how I feel 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 shooting Saturday evening. Icons and La Burla Bee are open, and have served as places of gathering for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the horror.
Jimmy Gomez-Beisch, 40, a gay burlesque dancer who was born and raised in Colorado Springs, struck a more hopeful tone for the community’s future. He contrasted the “old days” when he said LGBTQ people living in the city would “stick to ourselves” to 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 from all over the world speak to the important role the LGBTQ community has in Colorado Springs.
“Our community might be torn right now, but with a little bit of stitching, a little bit of glue, a little bit of love, we’ll get back there and we’re going to come back harder,” he said. “And we’re going to show the world: Just because this happened doesn’t mean we’re going to go away.”