Gay club owner: Shooting comes amid new ‘type of hate’

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) – The co-owner of the Colorado Springs gay nightclub where a shooter turned a drag queen’s birthday party into a massacre said he believes the shooting that killed five people and injured 17 others is a reflection of anti-LGBTQ sentiment that has evolved from prejudice to advocacy.

Nic Grzecka’s voice was edged with exhaustion as he spoke to The Associated Press Wednesday night in some of his first comments since Saturday night’s attack on Club Q, a venue Grzecka helped build into an enclave which sustained the LGBTQ community in conservative-leaning Colorado Springs.

Authorities have not said why the suspect opened fire on the club before being subdued by patrons, but they are facing hate crime charges. The suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, has not entered a plea or spoken about the incident.

Grzecka said he believes the targeting of a drag queen event is linked to the art form being cast in a false light in recent months by right-wing activists and politicians complaining about the “sexualisation” or “grooming” of children. Although general acceptance of the LGBTQ community has grown, this new dynamic has created a dangerous climate.

“It’s different walking down the street with my girlfriend’s hand and getting spat on (as opposed to) a politician who relates a drag queen to a groomer of their children,” Grzecka said. “I’d rather be spat on in the street than hate get as bad as where we are today.”

Earlier this year, Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a bill barring teachers from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation with younger students. A month later, references to “pedophile” and “grooming” in relation to LGBTQ people increased by 400%, according to a report by the Human Rights Campaign.

“Lying about our communities and making them into something they’re not creates a different type of hate,” Grzecka said.

Grzecka, who began washing floors and bartending 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 Colorado Springs’ LGBTQ community, which only Club Q had delivered.

City and state officials have offered support, and President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden reached out Thursday to Grzecka and co-owner Matthew Haynes to offer their condolences and reiterate their support for the community, as well as their commitment to fighting back against hate and gun violence.

Grzecka said Club Q opened after the only other gay bar in Colorado Springs at the time closed. He described that era as an evolution of gay bars. Decades ago, seedy, hole-in-the-wall gay venues were largely meant to find a hookup or date, Grzecka said. But he said that as the Internet offered anonymous ways to find love online, bars turned into well-lit, clean, non-smoking rooms for hanging out with friends. Club Q was at the forefront of that transition.

When he became co-owner in 2014, Grzecka helped shape Club Q into not just a nightspot, but a community center—a platform to create a “chosen family” for LGBTQ people, especially for those estranged from their birth families. Drag queen bingo nights, friends and Christmas dinners and birthday celebrations became staples of Club Q, which was open 365 days a year.

In the wake of the shooting, with the community center torn away from Club Q, Grzecka and other community leaders said they are channeling grief and anger into reconstructing the support structure that only this place had offered.

“When that system goes away, you realize how much more the bar really delivered,” said Justin Burn, an organizer with Pikes Peak Pride. “Those who may or may not have been part of the Club Q family, where do they go?”

Burn said the shooting pulled back a curtain on a broader lack of resources for LGBTQ adults in Colorado Springs. Burn, Grzecka and others are working with national organizations to conduct a community needs assessment while developing a plan to provide a robust support network.

Grzecka seeks to rebuild the “loving culture” and support needed to “make sure this tragedy turns into the best it can be for the city.”

It started Thursday night when Club Q’s 10th anniversary friends party was held at the non-denominational Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church. Survivors, community members, friends and family shared donated Thanksgiving meals under strung lights and near rainbow balloon towers.

Hosted by the LGBTQ group United Court of Pikes Peak Empire, the dinner’s bright atmosphere felt resilient. People smiled, hugged each other and told stories from the podium about those who lost their lives.

“Everybody needs community,” Grzecka said.

Earlier that day at the memorial, a stream of people walked slowly along the wall of flowers and candles that had burned out. Five white crosses were attached with wooden hearts inscribed with the names of the dead and notes written by mourners. “I hope you dance,” one person wrote on victim Ashley Paugh’s wooden heart.

On a concrete barrier was written a message: “Please hear our call. Protect us, our home.”

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Jesse Bedayn is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.

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