COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As a queer woman who has lived for 12 years in this city known for its conservative and evangelical Christian roots, April Slawson has been the subject of unflattering looks and comments at work and is always wary of strangers.
Last week, she finally told her friends that she felt “comfortable” here.
Then, just days later, a gunman entered the city’s only LGBTQ dance club, killing five people and injuring 19 others. On Monday, the suspect was charged with five counts of first-degree murder and five counts of hate or bias crimes.
As the people of Colorado Springs mourn those who have passed away, their queer community is also grappling with the harsh realities faced by many LGBTQ people living in 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 every LGBTQ person who spoke to NBC News said they considered Club Q one of the city’s only “safe havens” for their community. Though there are a handful of other queer bars in Colorado Springs, Club Q is the only space for them with a huge dance floor, a far cry from the dozens of LGBTQ bars and nightclubs in the big metropolises.
“I am horrified for the people who lost their lives and were injured, but fear is like cancer and it is going to be hard to kill,” said Slawson, 30, an engineer who moved to Colorado Springs in 2010 from an enclave. Liberal 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 LGBTQ people say they feel a sense of freedom and acceptance. The other two widely known LGBTQ bars, Icons and La Burla Bee, opened in the last two years and lack the entrenched history with the community that Club Q has established in the 20 years since it opened.
With its sprawling highways and open land, this city of 500,000 has a rural feel that LGBTQ people say invites more pickup trucks than pride parades. Gay neighborhoods don’t exist. There are no rainbow flags adorning their storefronts.
Researchers have repeatedly found that LGBTQ people, particularly queer youth, are “highly” affected by the attitudes and beliefs that surround them. Young people whose sexualities or identities are accepted are significantly less likely to commit suicide or suffer other mental health problems, according to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention group.
Christopher Aaby, 39, moved to Colorado Springs when he was about 6 years old. Growing up, the area’s “hyper-Christianity” made him feel rejected in a way that still persists, 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 he will in San Francisco or New York City.
“It’s something I think about every day when I leave the house,” said a grants manager for a nonprofit group. “Where I’m going, how am I going to have to act depending on the part of the city I’m going to.”
On Saturday’s shooting, he added: “It’s a reminder that we have to be careful, we have to look over our shoulders, while our straight 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 shooting site, leaving flowers, rainbow flags, handwritten cards and stuffed animals on the sidewalk to pay their respects to the victims. Several candlelight vigils have also been held throughout the city, with more than 200 people gathering in Acacia Park on Monday night.
Shelby Zamora, who uses the pronouns they and them, stood teary-eyed in front of a memorial to the victims Sunday night.
“It already seems like they don’t want us and so for this to happen, it feels like it’s making that point — that they don’t want us here,” the 25-year-old 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 when it reopens.
“Knowing that, do you go back? I don’t know how I feel about it,” the vape shop clerk said. “It’s probably the same kind of feeling kids going back to school feel after a school shooting.”
Club Q has been closed since the shooting on Saturday night. Icons and La Burla Bee are open and have served as gathering places for LGBTQ people after 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 future of the community. He likened the “old days” when he said LGBTQ people living in the city would “stick to ourselves” to today’s climate where “we can be ourselves.”
She added that despite the tragedy, the outpouring of support and solidarity from community members and queer people around the world speaks to the important role the LGBTQ community plays in Colorado Springs.
“Our community might be torn right now, but with a little bit of sewing, a little bit of glue, a little bit of love, we’ll get back there and do it stronger,” she said. “And we’re going to show the world: Just because this happened doesn’t mean we’re leaving.”