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Jessy Smith Cruz pins a pride keychain to a sign at Club Q, a gay club where at least five were killed and 18 were injured during a shooting late Saturday night. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

COLORADO SPRINGS — Matthew Haynes opened Club Q 21 years ago with the goal of making sure LGBTQ people in Colorado Springs had a long-lasting place to call home.

He opened a bar and nightclub, yes. But Haynes says Club Q has always been a community center more than anything else.

“There have been so many happy stories from Club Q,” he told The Colorado Sun on Sunday morning. “People meeting and relationships being born. So many celebrations there. We’re a family of people more than a place to have a drink and dance and leave.”

A man armed with a rifle tried to shatter that family late Saturday when he walked into Club Q and opened fire on patrons, killing at least five and injuring 18 others. A source familiar with the matter told The Colorado Sun that law enforcement has evidence suggesting the shooting was a hate crime.

Haynes wasn’t at the club when the shooting began. He said he arrived as the attack was ending and that he’s now trying to help his employees and patrons work through the aftermath. 

Police credit at least two patrons with stopping the attack.

Haynes, who is a co-owner of Club Q, said he opened the club because Colorado Springs’ main gay bar at the time, Hide and Seek, appeared on the verge of closing. (The Colorado Springs Independent reports Hide and Seek shut down in 2005. The Gazette reported it opened in 1969.)

Club Q in seen in Colorado Springs. The gay night club was the scene of a mass shooting where five people were killed and 17 wounded late Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“It was clear that the Hide and Seek was in trouble, was failing,” Haynes said. “I bought that real estate (Club Q) intentionally because other gay clubs have come and gone in Colorado Springs. By owning that real estate and making our mark there it was intended to be long term. And it has been. It was literally: There wasn’t any place in Colorado Springs.”

Over 21 years, a lot has changed. 

Colorado Springs, which is home to Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian organization, has grown more friendly to the LGBTQ community, as has the rest of the country.

“Twenty-one years ago, we didn’t have marriage,” Haynes said. “Twenty-one years ago you got kicked out of the military if they found out you were gay. You couldn’t go sit in a restaurant next to your partner. Club Q was that safe place for people to come and feel and understand that they are normal — that the way they feel is normal and there are people just like them.”

Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez on Sunday called Club Q “a safe haven for our LGBTQ citizens.” 

“Every citizen has the right to feel safe and secure in our city to go about our beautiful city without fear of being harmed or treated poorly,” he said at a news conference. 

Jessy Smith Cruz embraces Jadzia Dax McClendon outside Club Q, a gay club where five were killed and 17 were wounded during a shooting late Saturday night. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Alycia Erickson, a pastor at Pikes Peak Metropolitan Church, which was founded in 1979 by members of the LGBTQ community, knows many people who patronize Club Q and and called it a refuge for them. “Club Q has been an important part of this community for many years,” Erickson said. “We are not welcome in so many places, and we can’t be ourself. Gay bars have been a sanctuary of a different kind.”

Kerstin Smith, 50, used to visit Club Q frequently about a decade ago. She always felt like it was more friendly and less of a “meat market” than other clubs.

“They are so welcoming to everybody,” Smith said outside of Club Q on Sunday, where she went to pay respects and leave a teddy bear at a makeshift memorial. “It’s kind of a big deal because we have a small LGBTQ community.”

Stoney Bertz, the southern Colorado field organizer for the LGBTQ advocacy organization One Colorado, said in a written statement that they were shocked and heartbroken that such an attack could happen in their home city.

“Personally, Club Q has been a huge part of my life and, as one of the very few safe spaces for queer folks in the area, I know it has been so important to many others,” Bertz wrote. “It’s devastating that someone would intentionally target a safe space. My heart is with the whole city because this impacts us all.”

Kelsey Fauser, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, described Club Q as a place “for safety, love and security,” and where people in the LGBTQ community could celebrate themselves and “just be.”

“It’s hard when you hear about news like this because it isn’t just some distant place or a news headline, but rather you know the color of the walls,” said Fauser, who is part of a LGBTQ league with drag queens and kings who perform at the nightclub. “You know how it smells and what it is like and the atmosphere on a Saturday night. So when those news reports start coming, it is much more enfleshed in your body because you’ve been there.”

Joshua Thurman, 34, embraces other mourners outside Club Q on Sunday morning. Thurman was at the club when the shooting happened and took shelter in the club’s dressing room with several others. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

She welcomed anyone grieving to attend the church for Sunday morning’s worship and to light a candle for those killed and wounded.

Club Q’s other owner, Nic Grzecka, posted an image on Facebook of a black ribbon behind a rainbow heart containing the Club Q logo. He said he is safe.  

“Please respect the privacy of those injured tonight,” he said. “I am beyond heartbroken. At this time we need your prayers.”

Haynes said he doesn’t know what’s next for Club Q.

“It’s just too early,” he said. 

Update: This story was updated at 4:36 p.m. on Nov. 21, 2022, to reflect that Colorado Springs police have revised downward the number of wounded victims to 17.

Colorado Sun staff writers Elliott Wenzler and Olivia Prentzel reported from Colorado Springs. Colorado Sun editor Lance Benzel also contributed reporting from Colorado Springs.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — jesse@coloradosun.com Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The...

Olivia Prentzel

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer for The Colorado Sun. Email: oliviaprentzel@coloradosun.com

Elliott Wenzler

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter...

Lance Benzel

Lance Benzel is Team Editor for The Colorado Sun. Lance has been a journalist for more than two decades, much of it at...