The bar was hidden from main roads behind other local businesses in Colorado Springs, offering a sense of privacy and security in a country that is seeing a rise in violence and threats against the LGBTQ+ community.
It was a place where many found love, some found their calling in drag, and others found a nice, cold drink to enjoy amongst the bar’s chaos.
Svetlana Heim went on her first ever date with a woman at Club Q – with her close friend Derrick Rump as her bartender.
“I remember I had gotten a little tipsy because I was nervous,” she said. “I'd gone up to him, and I went, ‘See the girl I’m with. I’m on a date – Do you think she likes me?’ He goes ‘I don’t know, you’ve got to ask her!’”
A mass shooting killed five people there, including Rump, and left over a dozen injured on November 19, 2022.
The shooting traumatized Heim.
“Honestly, even six months in, I still struggle to sleep,” she said. “I still have nightmares.”
Heim, a bisexual woman who was born in Russia where anti-LGBTQ sentiment runs deep, is disheartened by the growing violence against the LGBTQ+ community seen across the U.S.
“This is supposed to be the land of the free, home of the brave,” she said.
“How many adults [did I have] telling me as a child, I should be so grateful to be adopted into America – and now I almost die because I like women and men?” she added.
‘There is still hate in this world’
The Department of Homeland Security released a warning in May that threats of violence against the LGBTQ+ community are on the rise and intensifying around issues of drag-themed events, gender-affirming care, and LGBTQ+ curricula.
These have been the center of debate in states across the country and have led to death and bomb threats against LGBTQ-affirming spaces like drag shows.
Colorado Springs is a microcosm of the ongoing battle across the country between conservative and liberal voices fighting over the rights of LGBTQ+ people.
The small city, a conservative part of the largely liberal state of Colorado known for a history of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, has been forced to reckon with that past following the shooting and amid nationwide pressure.
“Absolutely, there is still hate in this world,” Club Q survivor Charlene Slaugh, who is still recovering from 13 to 17 gunshot wounds, said. “However, I feel like we have a lot more support now.”
Some residents have become more vocal than ever, with Pride flags going up in storefronts throughout the city and several businesses opening their doors to host LGBTQ+ events now that Club Q is shut down.
However, reports of Pride flags being ripped down and local news outlets receiving backlash for covering the Club Q shooting highlight ongoing tensions in the city.
“This community has not been overtly accepting in a lot of ways,” said John Arcediano, a Club Q survivor.
He continued, “But on the other end, there have been businesses and organizations that have opened their doors … where they have openly welcomed us, they have put on drag shows for us, they have allowed us to still have a sense of community and make sure that we still have some form of space.”
But finding safe spaces in a community shattered by violence that left both physical and emotional wounds is a daunting task.
‘My safe space is …’
For Ashtin Gamblin, who was working the front door of Club Q on the night of the tragedy, safety has become almost unattainable.
Gamblin was shot nine times and reminders of the tragedy will be a part of her body forever.
“Five times to my left arm, twice to my right arm and twice in my left breast,” she said and just recently got a piece of shrapnel removed from her arm.
Her husband is an infantryman in the U.S. army and she has found irony in the fact that “he is supposed to be the one that gets shot.”
Despite her jokes, the paranoia and pain weigh heavy on Gamblin’s shoulders.
“There is no safety anymore,” Gamblin said. “I don't feel safe walking into a grocery store. I don't feel safe, hardly anywhere.”
She has not returned to clubs or bars since.
Arcediano, a former bartender at Club Q, has returned to the bar scene, but not without a struggle.
“I never thought that I would have a panic attack walking into a bar or a place that was considered a safe spot,” Arcediano said.
When he walks into a venue – LGBTQ+ or not – he said he now experiences an eerie moment where he thinks: “All these people have no idea what could really happen,” reflecting on the tragedy that killed two of his coworkers.
“The idea of having that comfortability was totally taken away from me,” Arcediano said. “And it really made me vulnerable, and it challenged every thought process that I have ever had on what it is to have a safe space.”
‘A stronger community’
Slaugh said her version of a safe space isn’t a physical place at all.
“My safe space is with my family, my friends, my community,” she said.
Throughout her monthslong recovery, she found that what helped her pull through were the people by her side. She and other survivors have built a supportive community – a necessity following the traumatic events of that night.
“Knowing that we're all in this together, that's created a stronger community for me,” Slaugh said.
She’s been able to return to bars and clubs – but with a newfound awareness for where the exits are and what people around her are doing.
Adriana Vance, the mother of victim Raymond Green Vance, said that raising her younger son in Raymond’s absence has been a painful reminder of the state of gun violence and hate in the U.S. right now.
“Nowhere is safe, I feel, it doesn't matter where you're at,” Vance said. “To me, I feel like there's no safe zone. Because if people made a decision to do something, they're going to do whatever they can to accomplish that.”
Raymond was a gentle giant, according to his mother – “a big man, but a big heart, a kind heart.”
“He was just a light to me,” she said. “He was my best friend.”
Though she and Raymond had long been allies for the LGBTQ+ community, she said her son’s death has been a reminder of the fight to create safe spaces where everyone can feel protected.
She says her efforts are an extension of Raymond’s legacy: “He didn't deserve to die like this. So now it's up to me to be his voice. And to try to be the voice of other people too,” Vance said.
Persecution amid Pride Month
The Colorado Springs community is facing the compounding impacts of discrimination in the U.S.
Not only do survivors need to cope with the aftermath of a tragedy, but they also are forced to face the impact of legislation and political rhetoric around the LGBTQ community.
Slaugh has decided to go into trauma-informed resilience coaching following the tragedy “to help others through their own adversity and help them pivot through life, build resilience to it.”
She says talking about the tragedy has helped her mental health.
“If I'm to suppress it, I feel like it'll affect me more,” she said. “When I'm able to talk about it, I can heal from it.”
Gamblin, who has relied on therapy throughout the recovery process, said there hasn’t been much time to process the tragedy. She’s taken on an activism role in her community in honor of the lives lost in the shooting.
“Every day there's another fight,” said Gamblin, an ally to the community who is pursuing a human rights certification to be a consultant and fight for LGBTQ rights.
“There's another battle. There's another doctor's appointment. There's another interview. … It's going to take multiple allies and most of this country to fix this,” she said.
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