By JESSE BEDAYN (Associated Press/Report for America)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The co-owner of the Colorado Springs gay nightclub where a shooter turned a drag queen’s birthday celebration into a massacre said he thinks the shooting that killed five people and injured 17 others is a reflection of anti-LGBTQ sentiment that has evolved from prejudice to incitement.
Nic Grzecka’s voice was tinged with exhaustion as he spoke with The Associated Press on Wednesday night in some of his first comments since Saturday night’s attack at Club Q, a venue Grzecka helped build into an enclave that sustained the LGBTQ community in conservative-leaning Colorado Springs.
Authorities haven’t said why the suspect opened fire at the club before being subdued by patrons, but they are facing hate crime charges. The suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, has not entered a plea or spoken about the incident.
Grzecka said he believes the targeting of a drag queen event is connected to the art form being cast in a false light in recent months by right-wing activists and politicians who complain about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children.
Even though general acceptance of the LGBTQ community has grown, this new dynamic has fostered a dangerous climate, he said.
“It’s different to walk down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand and getting spit at (as opposed to) a politician relating a drag queen to a groomer of their children,” Grzecka said. “I would rather be spit on in the street than the hate get as bad as where we are today.”
Earlier this year, Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a bill barring teachers from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation with younger students. A month later, references to “pedophiles” and “grooming” in relation to LGBTQ people rose 400%, according to a Human Rights Campaign report.
“Lying about our community, and making them into something they are not, creates a different type of hate,” Grzecka said.
Grzecka, who started mopping floors and bartending at Club Q in 2003 a year after it opened, said he hopes to channel his grief and anger into rebuilding the support system for Colorado Springs’ LGBTQ community 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 condolences and reiterate their support for the community, as well as their commitment to fighting back against hate and gun violence.
Club Q opened after the only other gay bar in Colorado Springs at that time shuttered, Grzecka said, describing that era as an evolution of gay bars.
Decades ago, dingy, hole-in-the-wall venues were meant largely for finding a hookup or date. But once the internet offered anonymous ways to find love online, the bars transitioned into well-lit, clean, non-smoking spaces to hang out with friends and Club Q was at the vanguard of that transition, Grzecka said.
Once he became co-owner in 2014, Grzecka helped mold Club Q into not merely a nightlife venue but a community center — a platform to create a “chosen family” for LGBTQ people, especially for those estranged from their birth family. Drag queen bingo nights, “Friendsgiving” and Christmas dinners and birthday celebrations became staples of Club Q which was open 365 days a year.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Grzecka and other community leaders hope to fill the gaping hole left by the desecration of Club Q.
“When that system goes away, you realize how much more the bar was really providing,” said Justin Burns, an organizer with Pikes Peak Pride. “Those that may or may not have been a part of the Club Q family, where do they go?”
Burns said the shooting pulled back a curtain on a broader lack of resources for LGBTQ adults in Colorado Springs. Burns, Grzecka and others are working with national organizations to do an assessment of the community’s needs as they develop a blueprint to offer a robust support network.
Grzecka is looking to rebuild the “loving culture” and necessary support to “make sure that this tragedy is turned into the best thing it can be for the city.”
That started on Thursday night, when Club Q’s 10th anniversary Friendsgiving was held at the non-denominational Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church. Survivors, community members, friends and family shared donated meals under strings of lights near rainbow balloon towers.
Organized by the LGBTQ group United Court of Pikes Peak Empire, the dinner’s bright atmosphere felt resilient. People smiled, squeezed each other in hugs and told stories from the podium about those who lost their lives.
“Everybody needs community,” Grzecka said.
Earlier that day at the memorial, a trickle of people walked slowly along the wall of flowers and vigil candles that had burnt out.
“I hope you dance,” someone wrote to victim Ashley Paugh on one of five white crosses fixed with wooden hearts inscribed with the names of those who had died and bearing notes scribbled by mourners.
On a concrete barrier a message was scrawled, “Please hear our calls. Protect us, our home.”
Jesse Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.