In its toughest hour, when an armed assailant waged war on its patrons, Club Q remained what its clientele has long valued and what queer bars everywhere have been for generations: a source of friendliness and community, where people look out for one another.
After Ed Sanders was shot in the back and leg, he collapsed on the floor next to the bar next to a woman he didn’t know.
Sanders, 63, covered her with his coat to protect her from the next attack, he said in an interview from his bedside at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central in Colorado Springs.
After others in the crowd shot the gunman down, more guests rushed to help the wounded, he said.
“There were a lot of people helping each other. People who didn’t get hit helped out,” said Sanders, who has been visiting the club since its opening night two decades ago. “Like a family would.”
Amid tales of heartbreak and devastation following Saturday night’s shooting that left five dead and 18 others injured, there are tales of heroism, selflessness and deep compassion — based largely on the special kinship of queer people and their allies.
Along with the pain is a surge of love for Club Q and the people who made it what it was: a “safe place” for generations of LGBTQ people to let loose and have fun in an otherwise conservative city be able.
It’s a legacy that must not be forgotten or ignored, regulars said — particularly in times of political attacks on LGBTQ facilities.
Club Q hosted a drag brunch for “all ages” on Sunday. Such events have become a focus in the culture wars of American politics, with critics on the right suggesting they expose children to sexualized performers and defenders on the left dismissing these arguments as baseless and reflecting misinformed stereotypes about LGBTQ people.
To understand what’s been lost, one must see Club Q not as a threat, but as a haven, according to longtime patrons. It’s more than a bar or nightclub, they say — it’s a community center.
“It was home for a lot of us,” said Victoria Kosovich, 34, who is transgender, lives in a rural community outside of Colorado Springs and is a former drag queen performer at Club Q.
“In conservative towns like Springs, many of us were pushed out of our birth families because we could no longer lie to ourselves and to those we care about. When that happens, places like Q give us a place to find new family members that we choose, and they in turn choose us.”
The day after the shooting, mourners appeared outside the venue to honor the dead, the wounded and Club Q itself, lest the world misunderstand the extent of their grief.
“We are here not just to show people respect; We pay tribute to the club,” said Shenika Mosley, 34, who was there with her wife Jennifer Pena-Mosley, 23.
“There was so much laughter and love here,” said Sophie Aldinger, 23, who is non-binary. “It’s not right for something so ugly to happen here.”
Sophie Bjork-James, an assistant professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, has examined hate crimes, anti-LGBTQ prejudice, and the far-right and religious ideologies that helped drive them. Given so much recent rhetoric that “the queer community is in some ways a threat,” she said, it’s important to point out that bars like Club Q are quite the opposite: “incredibly welcoming places” that offer safety.
“There’s this picture of what this community is like that’s the polar opposite of what’s actually happening,” Bjork-James said. “Gay clubs are not
hedonistic dens of people getting drunk and dancing. They are spaces that create community for people who have been rejected – many of them by their families, many of them by their churches.”
For nearly 50 years, members of Colorado Springs’ LGBTQ community have been raising funds for local charities through a club called the United Court of the Pikes Peak Empire — part of a broader charity that has clubs from Canada to Mexico.
They raise funds with drag shows, bingo nights, and other events. They give everything away to organizations that provide safe spaces for LGBTQ teenagers, fight cancer and support other causes.
Joseph Shelton, 26, president of the group’s advisory board, said Club Q is “nine times out of ten” where the group hosts events.
“We go here for almost everything,” he said. “They firmly believe that every LGBT person, regardless of their identity – and their allies – has a place to go, have fun and be safe and live their lives authentically.”
Shelton and Sanders, a member of the organization, spent part of Saturday at an event hosted by their group’s sister chapter in Denver.
That night, Shelton dropped his friend off at Club Q and went inside briefly before heading home.
He hadn’t been home ten minutes when the group’s “Empress,” drag queen Hysteria Brooks, called to say there had been a shooting. Shortly thereafter, Shelton’s cousin called and said one of her friends had been shot at the bar.
Shelton jumped in his car and drove back to the club. Police cars and ambulances flew past; he tried to tell himself they weren’t all for Club Q.
In the days since, Shelton has spoken to the bar’s owners and local LGBTQ leaders about what’s next. Should the club reopen or become a memorial? The points of view are different – except on one thing.
“We will not hide in a hole. We’re not going back into the closet,” Shelton said. “We will come out of this bigger, we will come out of this stronger, we will come out of this smarter.”
James Slaugh is another regular at Club Q. He and boyfriend Jancarlos Dell Valle, both 34, met there about eight months ago. They came for karaoke, drag shows, or to hang out with other regulars and staff — who were always “super nice.”
“We knew the owners. We knew the drag queens. We knew people who would call us by our names, knew our orders,” Slaugh said. “Club Q was a safe place for me to experience who I am and understand my sexuality.”
On Saturday, the couple decided to cheer up their sister Charlene Slaugh, 35, who recently split from her girlfriend. The three went to the club.
After a night of dancing, they were preparing to leave when the shooter walked in.
Charlene was shot multiple times, including through the stomach. Here the left lung collapsed. She lost half the blood in her body before reaching the operating table, the family said, and is facing a tough recovery.
Dell Valle was shot in the leg. Slaugh said he was shot in the back of the arm, shattering a bone.
After filming stopped, he said, it went eerily quiet, but the techno music was still playing. It was scary. He didn’t know if the shooter was gone or reloading.
He then heard someone — possibly Richard Fierro, a US Army veteran who had helped bring the gunman down — yelling for people to call the police, and others in the bar hiding or ducking to the ground “got up and started helping people,” he said.
A stranger came up to him, checked his wound, told him he was fine, and then kissed his forehead.
“It made all the difference for me,” Slaugh said Tuesday from his hospital bed. “Everyone who wasn’t injured did something. They went around checking people. … This is just a testament to the love and connection we all feel.”