By Alison Berg and William Peterson, Rocky Mountain PBS
COLORADO SPRINGS — Tucked into a corner on Bijou Street in downtown Colorado Springs, ICONS is unassuming from the outside.
The city’s second “official” gay bar is a small space with a rainbow flag and yellow logo painted on the glass door outside. Opaque, sparkly windows cover the exterior and the only window into the inside shows something of a “typical” bar: glass bottles line shelves and stools sit next to a counter.
But walk inside and the bar is anything but typical.
The bar is decorated with purple ambient lighting, murals of LGBTQ+ icons and paintings from local artists. Bathrooms are plastered with the faces of RuPaul and Dolly Parton, playing their music in each bathroom. But the decor and recorded music is hardly the owners’ favorite part.
“Every bartender is a live singer — a professional, top-notch singer — which is really fun,” said Josh Franklin, who co-owns and co-founded the bar with his husband. “At any moment, you could be having a drink or they could be making a drink and pick up a microphone and sing you a song, which is really special.”
When prospective employees apply to ICONS, the owners first have them audition. Bartending can be taught, the two founders felt, but replicating the experience of a New York City piano bar in Colorado Springs would require talented performers first and foremost.
The bar started with five singers, four of whom the founders knew previously. Then word spread and El Paso County’s best vocalists came knocking at ICONS’ doors.
“They’ll make you a drink, and if they have a minute, they’re going to go up and give a full concert performance of a song,” said John Wolfe, Franklin’s husband and the bar’s co-owner and founder. “They’re going to sing Whitney Houston at you, and I guarantee your jaw will drop and you will cry tears. They are so spectacular. I don’t have the words for it.”
Wolfe said the two have had Broadway stars attend the bar and leave feeling envious of the talented bartenders.
“They will be better than singers you see on American Idol or The Voice [or] on a Broadway stage,” Wolfe said. “And we are so, so lucky to have them and that they want to be here and continue.”
Franklin and Wolfe met while auditioning for Broadway performances in New York City. When the two moved to Colorado Springs (Franklin’s hometown) in 2020, they quickly connected with the LGBTQ+ community and felt the community needed a relaxed space downtown.
Six months after COVID-19 hit and much of the world shut down, Franklin and Wolfe felt it was as good a time as any for the city’s queer community to have a gathering space. After six months in isolation, the two wanted to bring lonely community members together in a space that felt kind, inviting and classy.
“When we moved back here, there wasn’t a gay bar downtown at all, and that didn’t sit right with me,” Franklin said. “I wanted to make a space that just did not apologize at all for being gay and welcomed everybody in here to see what it’s like to celebrate who we are.”
Colorado Springs has long held a conservative, anti-LGBTQ+ reputation. Growing up in the city in the 1990s, Franklin said homophobia was all too familiar to him.
But Colorado Springs now could not look more different from the place Franklin grew up, he said. Many downtown businesses hang rainbow flags in their windows; surrounding restaurants and shops have gladly supported ICONS and the bar has been met with nothing but open arms, Franklin said.
“I think part of our mission is to sort of redefine what it means to be gay in in 2023 in Colorado Springs,” Franklin said. “I think people still have that image and that sort of version of Colorado Springs in their brain still, which is confusing to me because if you spend time downtown with these people, you’ll see in this area it is so welcoming and it’s a beautiful, queer-friendly neighborhood.”
Above all, Franklin and Wolfe want ICONS to be unapologetically kind and unapologetically queer, two things the founders say the world needs more of.
“It’s an eclectic group of a queer community here, so some people are in their sixties, and have never been to a queer bar before,” Wolfe said. “The purpose of the space, as far as family goes, is to provide that safety and the comfort and the unconditional love that maybe they’re not getting at home or from their immediate family.”
Em Grotton, a nonbinary bartender at ICONS, said the space provided “chosen family” for them when they moved to Colorado from Texas in search of a safer space to be openly LGBTQ+.
“Any queer space is important and sacred first and foremost, and we just don’t really have a lot of that here in Colorado Springs,” Grotton said. “It just really feels like a safe haven. And when you’re queer and maybe don’t know a lot of people in the community, you know that this is at least one place that you can go. And people are waiting with open arms.”
Though Franklin felt Colorado Springs had opened its arms to the LGBTQ+ community, the city was rattled with tragedy in November, when a gunman shot 25 people at Club Q, the city’s other explicit queer club. Seven died after the shooting.
“What happened at Club Q has changed a lot of things. I think we’ve been adamant to not let this define our future and we know that there’s a bright future for us in Colorado Springs,” Franklin said. “We’re mourning the loss of that horrible tragedy and the people whose lives were taken from us. They were part of our friends and family.”
ICONS closed its doors the day after the shooting to mourn with employees, many of whom knew victims of the shooting. But in the coming days and months, the bar stepped up to fill big shoes as the only official gay space in town.
“We’re all processing in our various ways, but we’re thrilled to be able to provide a space where people can come and feel that strength of community because it is strong,” Franklin said. “It’s not like this one event is going to take away our power. If anything, it’s empowered us to be more loving and kind and strong together and find the strength that is the queer community of Colorado Springs.”
Alison Berg is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at email@example.com.
William Peterson is a senior photojournalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.