How Colorado Springs celebrated Pride seven months after the deadly Club Q shooting

Spectators at the 2023 Pikes Peak Pride parade Photo: KXRM-TV screeenshot

At 12:15 a.m. on November 20, 2022, Colorado Springs resident Jessica Laney’s phone started ringing. A shooting had just occurred at Club Q, a local gay bar, and her friends wanted to know if she was okay.

Because Laney had helped organize the local Pikes Peak Pride event that year, and because Colorado Springs is a small enough community, she immediately thought of the people she knew who’d be affected: the bar’s owners, its bartenders, the artists who regularly performed there, and the many patrons who congregate there, seeing as it’s the only gay bar in the region.

She began sending text messages to inform friends about what had happened and to check on others. The shooter killed five people and injured at least 19 others. Less than a minute after the shooting began, a straight military veteran named Richard Fierro tackled the suspected shooter and beat their face bloody using their own handgun. As Fierro held the suspected shooter down, another patron stomped on them with her heels. Meanwhile, other people helped everyone else escape.

It has been barely seven months since the shooting. Club Q remains closed. Some of its workers have taken up gigs at other LGBTQ+-friendly venues nearby. While the survivors deal with medical bills and post-traumatic stress disorder, the friends and family of the slain have continued to grieve and feel anger, worrying that the national wave of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and legislation may influence another shooting in the future.

“Everyone in the queer community of Colorado Springs was impacted, just by our proximity to this, this violation of our safe space, and this attack on our community,” Gretchen Pressley, the communications director of the Pikes Peak Pride, tells LGBTQ Nation.

Pressley, Laney, and a committed group of organizers and volunteers helped resurrect the local Pride event in 2022 after a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 shutdowns. Last year’s event attracted over 10,000 attendees and over 100 vendors for a parade and fair. The organizers had planned to build upon that success, but then the shooting happened.

“The stakes got so much higher with the Club Q tragedy,” Pressley told LGBTQ Nation. “We really wanted to make it an emotional, moving event for our community, to help with the healing process, to help recognize the heroes in our community, to help commemorate the friends that we’ve lost… to kind of come together as a community and mourn our friends but also realize that we are still together and we are stronger together.”

KXRM-TV screeenshot At the 2023 Pikes Peak Pride parade, Sabrina and Jeff Aston hold a picture of their slain son, Daniel Aston

From the very beginning, organizers knew they’d have to communicate closely with the victims’ families, the injured, the survivors, the employees, and others affected by the shooting, Pressley says, to get a sense of the community’s needs and how Pride could best serve them.

“But I think we underestimated just how much more work it was going to be to pull off just a little bit extra of a memorial program just because of the emotions involved,” Pressley said. “In our heads, it was like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna do this meaningful thing for the community.’ But I think we underestimated… how much people would want it to be perfect and how much say people would want to have in it.”

Any time event organizers thought about publicly displaying the names or photos of the slain, they checked in with family members to make sure it was done respectfully. This led to the shutdown of one idea: handing out keepsake buttons with the victims’ names on them. Some families pushed back against the idea, saying that if the buttons were lost or discarded, then their loved ones’ names could end up on the ground, trampled and forgotten by Pride attendees. Organizers shelved the idea.

Organizers also wanted to honor the unsung heroes from that night: like Barrett Hudson, a patron who took seven bullets in his back but still climbed a fence to alert people at a nearby convenience store; Bianca, a bar employee who knocked down a fence to help others escape; and a local performer named Hysteria who wasn’t at the shooting but still came to assist people into ambulances. They deserved recognition and a chance to tell their stories too, Pressley said.

But there was also another dark reality to contend with: the potential threat of violence from right-wingers. Violent attacks on Pride events increased in 2022. In May, the Department of Homeland Security warned about a coming increase in anti-LGBTQ+ violence and the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism predicted that the anti-LGBTQ+ Proud Boys group was planning to disrupt Pride events nationwide.

KXRM-TV screeenshot Richard Fierro (seated at far right) bangs his drum while serving as the parade’s grand marshal.

“Safety was always a priority for our team,” Pressley told LGBTQ Nation, “but at the same time, we never wanted to make our festival Fort Knox,” she added, referring to the fortified Kentucky military installation where the U.S. stores much of its official gold reserve.

Organizers coordinated with local police and other security forces to monitor social media for threats beforehand and to provide a greater presence and repeated safety sweeps during the event. Planners kept the festival area open, rather than bottlenecking attendees through a single security checkpoint, so that people could flee quickly in case of an emergency. The national group Parasol Patrol also showed up, just in case they’d have to block anti-LGBTQ+ protesters with their rainbow-colored umbrellas.

The event began last Saturday morning with a memorial ceremony. It began at 11 a.m. and featured speeches from Colorado Springs Mayor Yemi Mobolade and some of the victims’ family members, as well as audio recordings from some of the survivors. At 11:56 a.m., attendees observed a moment of silence, commemorating 11:56 p.m. on the night of the attack, when the first phone calls came into the 911 emergency services line.

Leading up to the event, organizers erected four billboards across the city featuring the five slain victims’ names and faces. The Pride organizers also helped erect a four-sided monument for the shooting where people left handwritten notes and small gifts as tokens of their love, support, and remembrance.

Justin Burns, one of the Pride organizers, told KKTV that the monument was meant as a physical embodiment of people’s memories. It may now travel around the city or country until it can find a permanent home, Burns said.

Organizers also named Fierro, the straight veteran and brewery owner who stopped the shooter, as the parade’s grand marshal. His daughter’s boyfriend, Raymond Green Vance, died in the shooting.

On Sunday, the morning of the Pride parade, Fierro decorated his Chevrolet El Camino with papel picado, colorful decorative flags often displayed during Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday commemorating loved ones who have died. Leading the parade, Fiero sat in his vehicle’s hatchback, wearing a rainbow sash and banging a drum as marchers followed him.

Pikes Peak Pride’s executive director, Jessica Laney, told LGBTQ Nation that, for a long time, Colorado was known as the “hate state.”

In 1992, Colorado voters passed Amendment 2, a law forbidding cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances to protect gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, which the state defended to the Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans. In 2006, a majority of state voters refused to support civil unions for same-sex couples. Colorado Springs is home to Focus on the Family, one of the nation’s oldest anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups. Part of the state is also represented by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R), a politician who is one of the nation’s largest sources of anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech on Twitter

But the state is changing, Laney pointed out. It now has an out gay Gov. Jared Polis (D), a politician who has vocally opposed other states’ bans on LGBTQ+ content in schools and transgender athletes in sports. He has signed bills requiring state agencies to collect data about sexual orientation and gender identity, requiring private insurance plans to cover gender-affirming health care, a ban on so-called conversion therapy, and other bills banning gay and transgender panic defenses, allowing trans people to change their gender markers on state ID, and providing additional funding for HIV prevention.

This has made Colorado a haven surrounded by many other red states that are restricting LGBTQ+ rights, Laney said. She and her fellow organizers made “Power of Pride” the theme of this year’s event, a phrase that she said is especially significant considering the shooting and the state’s progress on LGBTQ+ rights over recent years.

“Having pride in yourself, having pride to be your authentic self, and being able to show the world that we are here and that we’re not going away, there’s amazing power in that,” she said, adding that she herself knows how a Pride event can change lives.

Six years ago at a Pride event in Tampa, Florida, Laney felt for the first time in her life that she could really be herself as a trans woman and trust that a larger community would accept and support her. “That’s why we volunteer the amount of hours that we do,” she said, “because it may help someone else to have the same experience.”

An estimated 15,000 people attended Pikes Peak Pride last weekend — making it the city’s largest Pride event to date. The festivities included over 120 vendors, food trucks, drag shows, live bands, poetry, dance troupes, a youth area, a drag story time, dance and makeup tutorials, karaoke, and an open mic.

Among the paradegoers were Jeff and Sabrina Aston, two parents who lost their son Daniel in the shooting. Holding a picture of Daniel in a frame surrounded by rainbow-colored paper and hearts, Jeff Aston told KXRM-TV, “It’s just a good feeling to be out here and to bond with the families and the victims.”

His wife, Sabrina Aston added, “Pride here in Colorado Springs was always kind of small, and this year it’s really big. And I think it will stay that way from now on.”

“I think it’s vital to show people we’re not going to go underground just because some people want us to. We have support and we have love and we have resilience,” says Liss Smith, communications and advocacy director of Inside Out Youth Services, a local LGBTQ+ organization, told Time magazine.

“We have to shift our focus and understanding of the world we’re living in and make joy the thing that overshadows the fear or overshadows the negativity that we’re seeing,” she said. “I’m holding that real close to my heart, to make joy the reality.”

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