How Colorado Springs, with a history of hate, built LGBTQ safe spaces after the Club Q shooting

Colorado was not always a state known for its liberal policies, residents say.

Video byFaith Bernstein, Will Linendoll, and Asher May-Corsini
June 17, 2023, 6:07 AM

Ashtin Gamblin, a survivor of a November mass shooting that killed five people at a gay bar in Colorado, is still recovering from her injuries several months later.

The scars on her arms and chest, where she was shot nine times, are unmissable on her skin.

“I'm still dealing with my right arm being fractured and we have just recently gotten a piece of shrapnel out,” she said.

“They were unable to remove it during my surgeries. So we're just waiting for it to slowly work its way out. I'm still trying to work on straightening my arms and gaining the function of my hands,” she added.

The tragedy traumatized her both physically and emotionally, she said, – but it also emboldened her.

PHOTO: Ashtin Gamblin's gunshot wounds will be a permanent reminder of the Club Q tragedy.
Ashtin Gamblin's gunshot wounds will be a permanent reminder of the Club Q tragedy.
Adam Wolffbrandt/ABC News

Gamblin said she has long been supportive of the LGBTQ community as an ally.

She worked the front door of the bar, Club Q, with her close friend Derrick Rump, a gay man who worked at the venue as a bartender.

“He was my partner in crime, so to speak,” she said.

Rump was a victim in the tragedy. He and Daniel Aston, another coworker of Gamblin’s who was killed that night, were both prominent figures at Club Q.

The two acted as both advocates and chosen family members of the small queer community in the city.

“I would love to pick up where the boys left off and be their voice,” she said. “I want to fight for trans and gay rights. I want to be as vocal as they were about it, do everything in my power to try to fix a lot of things that are broken.”

Their tragic deaths in an attack that is being pursued as a hate crime is the reason Gamblin has chosen to get her human rights certification to act as a human rights consultant following the tragedy.

“It's no longer just being an ally and being supportive,” she said. “I know that there's a lot of hate. I've seen it, lived through it. And I don't want to deal with it. I don't really care what anyone has to say at this point.”

PHOTO: Ashtin Gamblin was shot nine times in the Club Q tragedy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Ashtin Gamblin was shot nine times in the Club Q tragedy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Adam Wolffbrandt/ABC News

Colorado Springs, where the tragedy happened, is known for its history of anti-LGBTQ hate.

When Club Q, a safe space for queer locals, became the scene of a mass shooting, it highlighted the lack of places in the community for them to go to and feel wholly welcomed.

Now, local residents and businesses are forced to reckon with and atone for the city’s history of hate, learning to open its doors to make safe spaces where there were none.

The city is a microcosm of the ongoing tension concerning LGBTQ issues around the country, as roughly 500 state bills targeting the community have creeped up across the U.S.

Allies nationwide are left wondering how to create space for a community facing restrictions in health care, education, inclusion and more.

History of hate

In the ’90s, Colorado earned itself the moniker of “the Hate State” after the passage of Amendment 2, which restricted queer people from claiming minority status, protected status or asserting claims of discrimination.

The movement for Amendment 2 was led by anti-LGBTQ religious fundamentalists from Colorado Springs, according to the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum.

The politically active Christian evangelical community earned national attention for stoking culture wars focused on feminism, LGBTQ rights and abortion – earning Colorado Springs itself the reputation of “the city of hate and bigotry.”

“There's lots of religio-political organizing happening here, specifically to remove protections for LGBTQ people, to remove access to reproductive health care,” said Pastor Mallory Everhart, Vista Grande Community Church in Colorado Springs.

“It really is this pressure cooker specifically of conservative religiosity,” Everhart added.

According to the Pioneer Museum, gay residents responded by coming out of the closet en masse, leading to the growth and strengthening of the queer community in the city and the state.

Colorado has since shed some of that reputation, making huge shifts by having some of the most robust anti-discrimination protections in the country, electing a gay governor as well as trans representation in the legislature.

Community takes action

But, according to residents, local leaders and survivors of the tragedy, pockets of hate still exist.

Liss Smith, an advocate at a local LGBTQ youth organization, said she’s noticed polarization in both those who support the community and those who don’t.

Pride flags have popped up in windows of downtown businesses that Smith “never thought I'd see a pride flag growing up here.”

On the other hand, there are people “going around downtown ripping pride flags down,” said John Arcediano, a survivor of the Club Q shooting.

Immediately following the shooting, a local reporter tweeted some of the hateful messages she received for covering the tragedy that centered LGBTQ voices.

“People are either more willing to support LGBTQ identities or less willing, vocally,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, for all the support and the love that we're seeing we're also seeing really amplified hatred.”

Businesses have played a vital role in creating spaces for LGBTQ residents after Club Q shut down following the tragedy.

Venues that don’t identify as specifically queer spaces have not just begun to put up Pride flags, but they’ve opened their doors to host drag performances, fundraisers for the victims of the tragedy, and more – even taking extra steps to make sure the security at the events eases concerns from patrons.

PHOTO: Club Q sign at the club in Colorado Springs, Colorado, November 29, 2022.
Club Q sign at the club in Colorado Springs, Colorado, November 29, 2022.
Hyoung Chang/Denver Post via Getty Images

These local venues have upped their security, with one venue hiring armed security on the premises for drag performances.

“After losing such a safe space to me, [Club Q], it took a minute, but I did start going out again, because I didn't want one person's actions to dictate how I was going to live the rest of my life,” said Club Q survivor Svetlana Heim.

She continued, “One of the local clubs here … upped its security and made sure we all felt safe there It's one of the only places I go, that I can feel safe and not worried all the time and not be paranoid and looking over my shoulder and watching doors all the time.”

One local business, Ladyfingers Letterpress, has begun working on a protest poster campaign with survivors of the shooting to help uplift the voices of those most impacted by the tragedy.

Club Q survivor Wyatt Kent lost his partner Daniel Aston in the tragedy.

Aston, a transgender man, had celebrated getting gender-affirming surgery by commissioning artwork from a local artist. Now, Kent and that local artist will be working together to create a poster using Aston’s poetry.

Morgan Calderini, the letterpress operator at the shop, says that the longevity of art is a powerful tool to send a message to the community from the survivors themselves.

“We hang them on our walls. We're reminded of these messages. We're inspired by them and we feel connection to them,” Calderini said. “We feel solidarity, we feel less alone, we feel power, we feel strength. And we feel it together.”

Art has been “tied to just every kind of social movement that there's ever been,” Calderini said, and she hopes art from the survivors themselves can push for the change needed in light of the attack on LGBTQ residents.

Though these stories of survivors may be hard to listen to – “don't turn away because it's too much … turn to them and listen to them and find a way to support,” Calderini said.

“America is very broken right now,” Gamblin said. “It's going to take more than just the people in the community to do that. It's going to take multiple allies and most of this country to fix this.”

Faith Bernstein and Will Linendoll contributed to this report.

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