COLORADO SPRINGS, Col. (AP) – The co-owner of the Colorado Springs gay nightclub where a shooter turned a drag queen’s birthday party into a massacre said he thinks the shooting that killed five and injured 17 others was a reflection of anti-LGBTQ sentiment that has evolved from prejudice to incitement.
Nic Grzecka’s voice was tinged with weariness as he spoke to the Associated Press Wednesday night in some of his first comments since Saturday night’s attack on Club Q, a venue Grzecka helped build in an enclave that supported LGBTQ community in conservative-leaning Colorado Springs.
Authorities did not say why the suspect opened fire on the club before being forced into submission by patrons, but they are facing hate crime charges. The suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, did not file a statement or speak about the incident.
Grzecka said she believes the targeting of a drag event is connected to the art form misrepresented in recent months by right-wing activists and politicians who complain about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. Even as general acceptance of the LGBTQ community has grown, this new dynamic has fostered a dangerous climate.
“It’s different walking down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand and getting spat at (as opposed to) a politician who equates a drag queen to a groomer of their kids,” Grzecka said. hate becomes as bad as where we are today.”
Earlier this year, the Republican-dominated Florida legislature passed a bill that bars teachers from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation with younger students. A month later, references to “pedophiles” and “grooming” in relation to LGBTQ people increased by 400%, according to a report by the Human Rights Campaign.
“To lie about our community and turn it into something it’s not creates a different kind of hate,” Grzecka said.
Grzecka, who started mopping floors and bartending at Club Q in 2003, a year after it opened, said she hopes to channel her pain and anger into figuring out how to rebuild the support system for the community Colorado Springs LGBTQ that only Club Q had provided.
City and state officials have offered support, and President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden reached out to Grzecka and co-owner Matthew Haynes on Thursday to offer their condolences and reiterate their support for the community, as well as their commitment to fighting the hate and gun violence.
Grzecka said Club Q opened after the only other gay bar in Colorado Springs at the time closed. You described that era as an evolution of gay bars. Decades ago, seedy and seedy gay clubs were primarily meant for finding a meet or date, Grzecka said. But she said once the internet offered anonymous ways to find love online, bars turned into well-lit, clean non-smoking spaces for hanging out with friends. Club Q was at the forefront of that transition.
Upon becoming co-owner in 2014, Grzecka helped transform Club Q not only into a nightlife venue, but also into a community hub, a platform for creating a “families of choice” for LGBTQ people, especially those outside to their family of origin. Drag bingo nights, friends parties and Christmas dinners and birthday parties have become staples at Club Q, open 365 days a year.
In the aftermath of the shooting, with the community center that was Club Q stripped away, Grzecka and other community leaders said they are channeling the pain and anger to replenish the support structure that only that place had offered.
“When that system goes away, you realize how much more the bar was really providing,” said Justin Burn, a Pikes Peak Pride organizer. “Those who may or may not have been part of the Club Q family, where do they go?”
Burn said the shooting pulled back the curtain on a broader lack of resources for LGBTQ adults in Colorado Springs. Burn, Grzecka and others are working with national organizations to do a community needs assessment as they develop a plan to offer a strong support network.
Grzecka is trying to rebuild the “culture of love” and the support needed to “make sure this tragedy turns into the best thing it can be for the city”.
That began Thursday night when Club Q’s 10th Anniversary Friendship Party was held at the non-denominational Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church. Survivors, community members, friends and family members shared donated Thanksgiving meals under hanging lights and near rainbow balloon towers.
Organized by the LGBTQ group United Court of Pikes Peak Empire, the bright atmosphere of the dinner felt resilient. People smiled, hugged each other and from the podium told stories of those who had lost their lives.
“Everyone needs community,” Grzecka said.
Earlier that day at the memorial, a trickle of people walked slowly past the wall of flowers and vigil candles that had gone out. Five white crosses were fastened with wooden hearts engraved with the names of those who had died and notes scrawled by the mourners. “Hope you dance,” someone wrote on victim Ashley Paugh’s wooden heart.
A message was scrawled on a concrete barrier: “Please listen to our calls. Protect us, our home.
Jesse Bedayn is a corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places reporters on local newsrooms to report on hidden issues.