COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The co-owner of the Colorado Springs gay nightclub where the shooter turned a drag queen’s birthday celebration into a massacre said he believes the shooting left five people dead. And the injury of 17 others is a reflection of the anti-gay sentiment that has evolved from prejudice to incitement.
Nick 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 at Club Q, a place Grzecka helped build Enclave. that has kept Colorado Springs’ LGBTQ community conservatively inclined.
Authorities have not said why the suspect opened fire on the club before being brought into submission by patrons, but they do face hate crime charges. The suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, has not filed a plea or spoken about the incident.
Grzecka said he believes targeting the drag queen event is related to the art form being cast in the wrong light In recent months by right-wing activists and politicians complaining about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children. Although public acceptance of the LGBTQ community has grown, this new dynamic has fostered a dangerous climate.
“It’s different walking down the street holding my friend’s hand and spitting on (as opposed to) a politician tying a drag queen to their children’s nanny,” Grzyca said. “I’d rather spit in the street than hate become as bad as we are today.”
Earlier this year, the Republican-dominated Florida 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 LGBT people were up 400%, according to a report by the Human Rights Campaign.
“Lying about our society, turning them into something they are not, creates a different kind of hate,” said Grzecka.
Grzecka, who started mopping floors and bartenders at Club Q in 2003 a year after it opened, said he hopes to channel his grief and anger into figuring out how to rebuild the support system for the LGBTQ community in Colorado Springs that Club Q only provided.
City and state officials 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 affirm their support for the community, as well as their commitment to responding to hate and gun violence.
Club Q opened after the only other gay bar in Colorado Springs closed at the time, Grzecka said. He described that era as the development of gay bars. Decades ago, dirty, up-the-wall gay venues were largely aimed at finding a relationship or a date, Grzecka said. But he said that once the internet offered anonymous ways to find love online, bars moved to well-lit, clean, smoke-free places to hang out with friends. Club Q has been at the forefront of this transition.
Once a co-owner in 2014, Grzecka helped shape Club Q as not only a nightlife venue but a community hub – a platform for creating a “chosen family” for LGBTQ people, especially for those separated from their families of origin. Bingo nights, friend and Christmas dinners and birthday celebrations became staples at Club Q which was open 365 days a year.
In the aftermath of the shooting, with the community center that was Club Q torn apart, Grzecka and other community leaders said they are channeling their grief and anger into reconfiguring the support structure that only this place has provided.
“When that system goes away, you realize how much more the pub was really doing,” said Justin Byrne, an arranger at Pikes Peak Pride. “Those who may or may not have been part of the Club Q family, where do they go?”
Byrne said the shooting brought back the curtain on a broader lack of resources for gay adults in Colorado Springs. Burn, Grzecka, and others work with national organizations to conduct community needs assessments as they develop a blueprint for offering a strong support network.
Grzecka is looking forward to rebuilding the “culture of love” and support needed to “make sure this tragedy turns into the best thing it can be for the city.”
It began Thursday night, when Club Q’s 10th Anniversary Friends Giving was held at the non-denominational Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church. Survivors, community members, friends and family share donated Thanksgiving meals under strung lights and near towers of rainbow balloons.
Organized by the LGBTQ group United Court of Pikes Peak Empire, the dinner’s bright atmosphere felt relatable. People smiled, hugged each other, and told stories from the platform about those who lost their lives.
“Everyone needs community,” said Grzecka.
Earlier that day at the memorial, a few people walked slowly along the wall of flowers and candles that were burning. Five white crosses were installed with wooden hearts on which the names of the dead and notes written by mourners were engraved. “I hope you dance,” someone wrote on the wooden heart of victim Ashley Bowe.
On a concrete wall was scrawled the message, “Please hear our calls. Protect us, our home.”
Jesse Bedine is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that puts journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.