Long before the Nov. 19 shooting at an LGBTQ+ bar in Colorado Springs that killed five and injured at least 18, the city had a history as a flashpoint in American queer life.
Located in the traditionally red El Paso County—home to three out of five military commands in the county, and a region former President Donald Trump won with 56.2% of the vote in 2016—Colorado Springs is home to many conservative evangelical groups including, notably, Focus on the Family.
In the early 1990s, a time when gay rights were the subject of increasing restriction in many places across the U.S., the city had developed a reputation as a hub of anti-LGBTQ sentiment. Colorado became nationally known as the “Hate State” when Focus on the Family fought for the passage of Amendment 2, a state bill that was written by a separate conservative group led by a local Colorado Springs car dealer. Amendment 2, which passed in 1992 with 53% of the vote, prevented local jurisdictions from passing non-discrimination protections for queer folks.
The U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down the amendment in 1996, but the effects of this policy were immediate, says Richard Skorman, a former Colorado Springs councilman.
Skorman tells TIME that the city soon “became the kind of place where a lot of anti-gay think-tanking happened, because of the success [of Amendment 2].” And though Skorman says many of the evangelical ministries that moved to Colorado Springs have since left, he believes that much of the rhetoric heard in angry school-board meetings across the country today can be traced back to that time and place.
In 2018, Colorado Springs was at the center of a controversy over Drag Queen Story Time, an event—versions of which are held in cities across the country—at which drag queens read stories to children at their local libraries. Club Q, the nightclub where the shooting took place, sponsored the event, causing uproar among conservatives in the area. Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, the controversy-courting Republican who was just narrowly re-elected to represent Colorado’s third district, publicly criticized events like these as recently as August. In a separate recent incident, the vice president of the Colorado Springs District 11 Board of Education, Jason Jorgenson, apologized in February after posting a transphobic meme on his social media account.
Nevertheless, some had been hopeful the city was changing. “[The shooting] was a particular blow for us because we felt like we were really coming out of a dark time… and the national reputation that we have felt like we were finally overcoming,” Skorman says.
Garrett Royer, Deputy Director of One Colorado, a state-wide LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, says the city has a very tight-knit queer population and has become more inclusive in recent years.
“Is the [shooting] surprising? In some ways, no. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any less shocking. Colorado has this dark history as well,” Royer tells TIME.
After the attack on Club Q—the day before Transgender Day of Remembrance, which commemorates the transgender lives lost due to violence—many in Colorado Springs’ small queer community felt that dark history roaring back to life.
As community organizers struggle to assess how to best help the community, Royer suggests the city work on creating greater support for the LGBTQ population in Colorado Springs. Designating a LGBTQ police liaison, a job that exists in some other cities, would be a start. “I think that the police force has done a good job in this instance. But it doesn’t mean that there’s not more work to be done,” Royer says.
Both Skorman and Royer emphasize to TIME that what happened at Club Q was not an isolated event, but rather a part of an ongoing crisis in America.
A recent poll from GLAAD, the LGBTQ media-advocacy organization, found that 48% of LGBTQ respondents are “more fearful for their personal safety” due to the current political environment. Among transgender people, this number rose to 72%. (The poll was conducted from Nov. 16-20, though 89% of responses were submitted prior to the Colorado Springs shooting late Saturday night.) GLAAD has also counted 124 separate incidents targeting drag events in 2022 thus far.
“LGBTQ Americans are reporting feeling unsafe, and there is documented evidence as to why, even before the horror of this past weekend and the deadly attack on LGBTQ people in Colorado Springs,” said GLAAD President and CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis, in a public statement. “We’ve seen the consequences. We’ve seen enough. It’s abundantly clear that something has to change in our politics and media to reject harmful rhetoric that leads to real life violence.”
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