COLORADO SPRINGS — Every year on Thanksgiving and Christmas, members of the LGBTQ community here would come to eat, drink and laugh at Club Q. The gay bar became a sanctuary, an oasis of affirmation and acceptance, for those who might be estranged from their own family with nowhere to go for the holidays.
Club Q’s staff and customers became that family.
“It’s not just a party place,” said Darryl Alexander, who regularly comes to the club with his husband, Dan. “It’s a community building.”
This community was shattered late Saturday night when a gunman indiscriminately opened fire into the festive crowd. Five people were killed — including bar staff and clientele — and at least 25 others were injured. Police took a 22-year-old man into custody, aided by two people who helped spare countless other lives by rushing the shooter.
Police have said the gunman’s motive, at this point, is not clear. But the LGBTQ community has been adamant that the unthinkable violence was marked by animus, the result of increasingly hateful anti-gay rhetoric on social media and in public discourse.
A lot has changed since Club Q opened 20 years ago. But the establishment’s importance to the community has not wavered.
With one of the city’s sole gay bars on the decline in 2002, Matthew Haynes, the club’s founding partner, could see the desperate need for a safe haven.
“Twenty years ago, people in our city government didn’t want this kind of bar there,” he told reporters Sunday afternoon inside the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.
The owners made sure the club’s parking lot didn’t face a busy street — better to shield who was coming and going. Cars would be vandalized just for being near the club.
Club Q, for many years, was the only gay bar in this bastion of conservatism, a city that is home to the headquarters of Focus on the Family, a Christian ministry that has long been intolerant of homosexuality. When the bar opened, the U.S. Supreme Court was still more than a decade away from legalizing gay marriage. Military members could still be kicked out for being their true selves.
The bar became a place to celebrate those historic milestones — and let loose. The establishment houses all-ages drag brunch shows, punk concerts and dance parties. Patrons can order “gayoli fries” to pair with “death by rainbow flight” cocktails.
“Nobody parties like Club Q!” the bar’s Facebook page boasts.
Darryl Alexander fondly recalls belting out “Heroes” by David Bowie on stage during a lip sync night. Last month, he took his niece to her first drag show.
“I’ve never had a bad time there,” Alexander said.
He clutched his husband’s hand Sunday afternoon in the pews of the All Souls church as community leaders and elected officials — including the nation‘s first openly gay governor, Jared Polis — grieved and prayed, sounding notes of resilience and heartache amidst yet another mass shooting in America.
Alexander’s eyes teared as he spoke of a friend who was shot at the club Saturday night and was still in surgery. (The friend’s injuries are not believed to be life-threatening, he said.)
He and his husband always ordered from one bartender, who’d give the couple a huge smile and the occasional free drink. The staffer, whom The Post is not naming because authorities have not yet identified the deceased, was killed in the flurry of bullets Saturday night.
“He’s always been good to us,” Alexander said.
Yes, Club Q always brought the party. But it went far behind that.
There are the holiday meals, the bingo nights and the charitable fundraisers for kids with cancer.
“This place has given people a sense of home, a sense of safeness, an ability to come out to be themselves where they won’t be harassed by others,” said Nic Grzecka, the club’s co-owner. “People can find their gender, find their sexuality, without the judgment of others.”
Leslie Herod, a Denver mayoral candidate and the state’s first openly LGBTQ and Black legislator, called Club Q a “safe haven.” It’s a place where you can dance like nobody’s watching, she said. And maybe, if you’re lucky, meet someone special.
Haynes and Grzecka on Sunday afternoon looked out into the masses occupying the pews, hundreds of teary-eyed men and women clad in rainbow t-shirts. They represented 20 years of people who grew up with Club Q, who frequented the establishment when nowhere else would have them. They saw couples who met in the bar, who relied on it in times of desperation and anguish.
“They may have walked into Club Q thinking they were strange, thinking they were different,” Haynes said. “They found their community there.”
The annual Thanksgiving meal next week won’t be at Club Q. But the owners pledged to find a way to feed their family.
“This community’s home has been taken away,” Grzecka said.