COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — After the mass shooting last November at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs that turned a drag queen’s birthday celebration into a massacre, the conservative community was forced to reckon with its reputation for being unwelcoming to gay, lesbian and transgender people.
What exactly motivated the shooter, who didn’t grow up in Colorado Springs and is now serving life in prison, may never be known. But the attack killed five people, wounded 17 others and shattered the sense of safety at Club Q, which served as a refuge for the city’s LGBTQ+ community.
While members of the city’s LGBTQ+ community appreciated the string of city and state officials who spoke at the anniversary in front of the club, many say far more work lies ahead.
The Club Q owner, Matthew Haynes, said the city has been unwaveringly supportive, a leap from when he founded the club two decades ago. But as Haynes reopens the venue as The Q in a different location, it’s clear parts of the city aren’t as supportive.
Letters sent to Haynes read something like: “We don’t want those type of people here.” In an elevator, Haynes said someone told him, “This will happen over my dead body.”
“It’s a reminder that there’s still intolerance,” said Haynes.
The city has worked to be more inclusive since the shooting. Speakers on Sunday included the district attorney, the former and current mayors, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who was the first openly gay man to be elected governor in the U.S.
“In decades past, a tragedy like this could’ve been swept under the rug,” said Polis in an interview, pointing out the speaker lineup — which included a letter from Vice President Kamala Harris.
A new LGBTQ+ resource center is set to open in Colorado Springs, where an independent candidate surprisingly defeated a longtime Republican officeholder to become the first Black mayor of the city, which has a metro area of roughly 480,000 people.
Mayor Yemi Mobolade, a West African immigrant who has been mayor since June, said Friday he knows “what it’s like to feel being on the outside looking in, to be a minority. And now to be mayor of this great city, I bring that empathy to the mayor’s office.”
Mobolade said he created a three-person office of community affairs with one person whose emphasis “is to be very inclusive of minority communities, including the LGBTQ+ community.”
Carlos Gonzalez, 42, a gay man with a transgender daughter, moved from Florida to Colorado Springs this summer in part because Mobolade was elected. Gonzalez described himself as a “refugee” from Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed bills targeting drag queen shows, transgender children and the use of pronouns.
“We wanted to make sure that we were in a place, in a city, state, where my children didn’t feel othered,” said Gonzalez, and “seeing how it was the complete opposite of politicians like Ron DeSantis, that gave me hope that we were making the right decision.”
Yet as the city gathered Sunday to mark the shooting anniversary, some LGBTQ+ community members still worry for their safety, including Jackson Oliver, 15, who’s transgender.
After watching the big names address the large crowd, Oliver was wary of how much was political posturing. “I would love to believe that they genuinely cared, but I’m not too sure,” he said.
At his high school, Oliver and his boyfriend had three other students throw stones and slurs their way. Sometimes they stop holding hands and step apart to avoid harassment. At the local LGBTQ+ organization for youth, protestors picket outside.
“It’s hard knowing that simply by existing… me and my boyfriend are at risk,” said Oliver.
Additional security measures were taken for the events Sunday in case anti-LGBTQ+ activists gather to protest, as they did at this summer’s Pride events. Candidates supported by the conservative group Moms for Liberty, which opposes instruction on systemic racism and gender identity in the classroom, won the recent school board elections, said Candace Woods, a queer minister and chaplain living in Colorado Springs for nearly two decades.
“Those who are opposed to queer rights and queer people living their lives are continuing to become entrenched in those positions and are doing more politically to see those positions forwarded,” said Woods.
Colorado Springs, nestled at the foothills of the Rockies and home to the U.S. Air Force Academy and several conservative megachurches, has historically been conservative. Yet, the city also has a growing and diversifying population set to top Denver’s by 2050, is home to a liberal arts college and has marketed itself as an outdoorsy boomtown.
On the night of the attack, Anderson Lee Aldrich walked into Club Q and began firing indiscriminately. Clubgoers dove across a bloody dance floor for cover and friends frantically tried to protect each other.
The attack was stopped when a Navy officer grabbed the barrel of the suspect’s rifle, burning his hand, and an Army veteran helped subdue and beat Aldrich until police arrived, authorities said.
James Slaugh, 35, was shot that night in Club Q. Over the last year, he’s regained mobility in his arm, but the mental scars are harder to shake. Loud music, bangs and other people’s rapid movements can make him freeze up. Dreams sometimes resurface memories from the night. In restaurants and movie theaters, he scans for the nearest exit.
Slaugh met his now fiancé at Club Q, then one of the few venues for the LGBTQ+ community in the city. Since the shooting, he said, more welcoming spaces have opened. Slaugh added that he appreciates the local and state leaders’ full-throated support for the community while acknowledging there’s more to do.
“Hate will not be tolerated in this city under my watch, and we stand resolute,” Mobolade said Friday. “Our community will not be defined by the terrible acts at Club Q, but our response to it. Our community has come a long way, and I understand that we still have a ways to go.”
Aldrich, who has not publicly revealed a motivation for the shooting, pleaded guilty in June to five counts of murder and 46 counts of attempted murder for each person who was at the club during the attack. Aldrich also pleaded no contest to two hate crimes and was given five consecutive life sentences.
The attack came more than a year after Aldrich, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they and them, was arrested for threatening their grandparents and vowing to become “the next mass killer ″ while stockpiling weapons, body armor and bomb-making materials.
Those charges were eventually dismissed after Aldrich’s mother and grandparents refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
Associated Press writer Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.