When Justice Lord left New York City in 2009 to start fresh in Colorado Springs, he felt welcome. Inside a cafe, he remembers picking up a flier listing resources to help the LGBTQ community, including same-sex parenting.
“For me, it’s all about family. It’s all about that connection. It’s all about being able to have the same rights as everybody else that is walking along the same streets as you,” said Lord, a father of three. “And that’s what I thought Colorado was bringing me.”
Club Q, where he worked as a bouncer years ago, was where he “truly owned becoming a trans, two-spirit male.” And the city’s pride center was where he went to find community before it closed in 2015.
“(The pride center) was basically a place to feel safe and to feel like you were a part of something in the community,” he said, “because back then, the LGBTQIA population wasn’t that big. It wasn’t as big as it is now.”
For nearly 40 years, the center provided assistance and support programs for thousands of people across a region known for its tumultuous history when it comes to embracing the queer community. Last month, a gunman shattered a sense of safety at Club Q, one of the city’s few remaining spaces where many said they could be themselves without fear.
The tragedy that reverberated around the world has reignited local efforts to build more support for the LGBTQ community. Lord is one of a group of community members and organizations working together to assess the needs to develop a sustainable solution, including a possible LGBTQ resource center.
(Left) Noah Reich, left, and David Maldonado put up a memorial for Club Q shooting victims Daniel Aston, Kelly Loving, Ashley Paugh, Derrick Rump and Raymond Green Vance. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo) (Right) Flowers and signs decorate a memorial outside Club Q. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Dara Hoffman-Fox worked at the pride center 15 years ago and said it became a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community, offering computers, a safe meeting place and support groups, and did advocacy work with the city council.
“In Colorado Springs, it’s been a huge gaping hole without having a pride center,” Hoffman-Fox said.
While planning is in its early stages, organizers hope to connect the LGBTQ community in El Paso County with resources, from mental health and wellness services to legal help, such as workshops to help with name changes, while providing a safe meeting space and more.
Community Health Partnership, a health care nonprofit, plans to issue a survey early next year to help determine what’s most needed to support the LGBTQ community and identify gaps in care and equity.
A community advisory council made entirely of LGBTQ+ people helped create questions and the survey will be distributed online and in a more accessible print format, said Rachel Keener, the nonprofit’s LGBTQIA2+ Health Equity Project Manager. The data, which will be made available to the public online, will help CHP advocate for resources, funds and a community-centered model to support the community, Keener said.
“Everyone knows that there’s a huge gap in southern Colorado. That’s why these conversations have happened,” Keener said. “And so our organization is going to be convening all of these groups together to think about how we can make sure that this is sustainable.”
LGBTQIA2+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual, two-spirit and other affirmative ways people choose to self-identify.
For Lord, a priority will be creating an inclusive space.
“The top priority should be inclusion of all people, not just gay white men, not just gay white women,” Lord said. “We’re talking about trans people of all different walks of life. We’re talking about Black and brown people who don’t get recognized within the community.”
Lord said the pride center lost momentum after a former director died in a car crash. The center permanently shut its doors in 2015 due to “overwhelming debt and mismanagement issues,” The Colorado Springs Gazette reported at the time.
“Wouldn’t it be great if Colorado Springs became known as the ‘Love City’?”
While working at the city’s pride center, Hoffman-Fox remembers protesting outside Focus on the Family and speaking to parents participating in the evangelical nonprofit’s controversial program for converting their gay children into heterosexuals.
“The evangelical stronghold over the city was very present and impactful and dangerous,” Hoffman-Fox said, who was an associate director for the pride center in 2006 and 2007.
The megachurch has gone through a leadership change and Hoffman-Fox said the anti-queer rhetoric has been less evident since then.
“In the meantime, the progressive community, we just keep growing stronger and stronger and more visible,” they said.
Still, the attack on Club Q, where five people were killed and 18 injured, forced Colorado Springs to reckon with its past.
Colorado earned the reputation of the “hate state” in 1992 with the unexpected passage of Amendment 2, which banned laws that protected gay people from discrimination. The measure, which was drafted by religious fundamentalists in Colorado Springs, was later overturned by the state Supreme Court.
(Photo provided by the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum)
After leaving the pride center’s staff nearly 15 years ago, Hoffman-Fox started a private therapy practice, becoming the only counselor in the city specializing in gender, working with with transgender clients.
Now, the licensed professional counselor is working with Community Health Partnership to help form a long-term plan around the mental health needs for survivors of the shooting.
Hoffman-Fox is envisioning more safe spaces across the city, like cafes and bookstores, to serve as sanctuaries for the LGBTQ community.
“Wouldn’t it be great if Colorado Springs became known as the ‘Love City’? We’ve come all this way since the early ‘90s,” they said.
LGBTQ community centers are often places that provide life-saving services people can’t find anywhere else in their city or region, said Denise Spivak, CEO of Centerlink, a nonprofit organization of LGBTQ centers across the country.
“A lot of times, centers are providing services for our community that nobody else will, or that if they are provided, it’s not in places where communities feel safe,” Spivak said.
The most successful ones are those in communities that have identified the need for resources and have community support, she said.
In 10 years from now, you know what I would love? I shouldn’t have worries. I should be accepted.
— Jessica Laney, co-organizer with Pikes Peak Pride
In the past 11 years, the number of LGBTQ centers in the nonprofit’s network has doubled to 300, she said, and last year, they served more than 2.7 million people across North America, according to data collected by the nonprofit.
Sizes range from the largest LGBTQ center in the world in Los Angeles, with 700 paid staff positions and a 2022 budget of more than $145 million, to centers that operate with volunteer-only staff and rely on state and federal grants to provide vital services, according to the nonprofit.
Centers in Boulder and Denver and two youth centers in Colorado Springs and Durango are part of its network.
“If you’ve got the community behind you, and you’ve got that kind of support, it can be tremendously successful,” Spivak said. “And I think I think we have so many examples of that throughout the country, in all parts of the country — in red states, blue states, conservative areas, liberal areas — there are centers, pretty much in every corner of our nation.”
Inside Out Youth Services, a Colorado Springs organization that offers services to LGBTQ youth ages 13-24, became a “really important staple” through Shane Halloran’s transition. After his religious parents asked him to leave his house, he became homeless at 17.
“I had the support of adults who I did not have within my family or within my home life and it was kind of the first time I had felt supported just in my actual identity,” said Halloran, now 36.
But when he graduated from Inside Out, he saw the glaring gap of support for LGBTQ adults in the region.
“It’s a huge number of people that, as adults, don’t have access to any resources right now,” said Halloran, who later started the Colorado Springs Queer Collective to build resources for the LGBTQ community. “In Colorado Springs, the problem is massive.”
The number of U.S. adults who identify as LGBTQ has surged in the past decade, marking 7.1% of the population, more than double the percentage from 2012, according to data collected by Gallup. Data shows that LGBT people make up 4.5% of Colorado’s adult population.
Sustainable support for the LGBTQ community will require collaboration and looking at what hasn’t worked in the past, to avoid overlooking parts of the community who need the most support, he said.
Pikes Peak Pride, a nonprofit that runs the city’s annual pride parade in June, is also part of the conversation. After the pride center closed, its biggest event — the Colorado Springs Pride Festival — was kept alive by the help of Club Q owner Nic Grzecka. The parade, which drew more than 10,000 people downtown last year, was recently taken over by the nonprofit, said Jessica Laney, a co-organizer.
“The tragedy has shined light on the fact that there are a lot of resources here, but we don’t know about each other,” Laney said.
A gathering center for the LGBTQ community, that isn’t a bar or nightclub, is needed, Laney said. While she doesn’t know what more support exactly looks like in Colorado Springs, she hopes the future brings more visibility, advocacy and acceptance for her community.
“In 10 years from now, you know what I would love? I shouldn’t have worries,” Laney said. “I should be accepted.”