In small towns and conservative cities like Colorado Springs, being queer can be a lonely and fearful experience. Unlike other minority groups, we are usually the only queer members of our immediate families. Places like Club Q are essential in helping us find the unconditional love and understanding that is often absent from our childhoods.
Born and raised in a small New Jersey town, I now live in a smaller town situated in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York, a conservative part of the country. I have never attended a Pride Parade, stepped foot inside a gay bar, and was closeted late in life, not coming out as bisexual until I was 28. After the attack in Colorado Springs, I found myself processing familiar emotions, from sadness to anger to fear. It is the latter feeling that has me reflecting most on the potential consequences of this attack and on what the homophobic and transphobic environment that surrounds it will do to kids like me, who are growing up in places where being queer is out of the ordinary.
I was 12 years old when Matthew Sheppard (21, he/him) was beaten, tortured, and tied to a fence like a scarecrow in rural Wyoming. He would die six days later in a Fort Collins, Colorado hospital. I was terrified as I began to struggle with my sexuality that I would end up like Matthew if anyone knew the truth about me. The impact of this particular high-profile murder in 1998 helped keep me in the closet, and my mental health continued to deteriorate. I wanted to escape where I grew up and move to San Francisco, influenced in part by being a fan of the TV show Full House, and in part by the city establishing a national reputation of acceptance for queer people.
The great migration that saw six million African Americans in the first half of the twentieth-century move from the southeastern U.S. to urban cities in the northeast, midwest, and west has been emulated by the queer community as we have left our small towns in droves to seek greater acceptance in cities. Absent from this narrative is that the south remains the largest geographic center for Black people in the U.S. and for at least one in five queer people, a number that is likely higher given the pressure to remain closeted in rural America. I was one of the ones who could not afford to move away, as my mental health made me unable to emotionally and financially support a relocation. I am becoming more accepting of my sexuality and starting to understand that my well-being is better served by living in the country. Each person deserves the same opportunities to live an authentic life no matter where they reside, without concern for our safety and free of any infringement on our civil rights.
Club Q was such a home for the extended family of the queer community of Colorado Springs, a warm place to be on a cold autumn night. That home was violently taken away in a matter of minutes late in the night on November 19 and into the next morning when a 22-year-old shooter entered the club and began firing an assault rifle, killing five people: Kelly Loving (40, she/her), Daniel Davis Aston (28, he/him), Derrick Rump (38, he/him), Ashley Paugh (35, she/her), and Raymond Green Vance (22, he/him). At least 19 individuals suffered physical injuries. The bravery of two people in the club who were able to subdue the shooter undoubtedly saved many more lives. Club Q, the only gay nightclub in the city of Colorado Springs, has announced its intentions to reopen the club in the future.
This tragedy did not happen out of thin air. It is the predictable outcome of the relentless attacks against the queer community from reactionary right-wing forces in the U.S. and internationally. The last two years, following four long years of the Trump administration, have seen a massive rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation proposed and passed in states throughout the country, from the dystopian “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida to several other bills preventing trans and nonbinary individuals from participating in youth sports or receiving life-saving, gender-affirming health care. This election cycle saw a majority of republican candidates attacking trans, nonbinary, and drag show performers in their campaigns and promising to enact more anti-LGBTQ policies if elected. The Democratic Party has failed to meet the urgency of this moment, offering at best platitudes and symbolic gestures worth as much as thoughts and prayers even as queer rights and lives have been under attack.
Celebrities like Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and comedian Dave Chappelle, who hosted SNL the week before the shooting, have come out as TERFs, promoting the concept of trans-exclusionary radical feminism. This reactionary form of liberalism has helped popularize and legitimate the right-wing’s manufactured concerns over the indoctrination of children by gay teachers, who they claim are “grooming” kids to become queer, and the need to protect the sanctity of women’s sports from the “invasion” by a small number of trans athletes. This is not really about the integrity of NCAA women’s swimming or girls’ sports in Ohio, where a state lawmaker initially proposed that genital inspections be included in an anti-trans sports bill.
A genuine interest in the progress of female sports would center around more funding for their school programs and higher salaries for professional athletes like Brittney Griner, a Black queer woman whose ongoing detention in Russia stemmed in part from her need to earn a living playing basketball overseas. The ideological movement driving this debate seeks to enforce restrictive, binary norms of sexuality and gender, continuing the earlier push for “bathroom bills” between 2014-2016. The acceptance of transphobic commentary as reasonable political discourse, referring to gender dysphoria as a mental illness and ridiculing trans people’s very existence is no different than earlier tropes used publicly against other queer identities.
One should not ignore the location of the shooting, Colorado Springs, a conservative city that is home to both the U.S. Air Force Academy and one of the most prominent anti-LGBTQ groups in the country, Focus on the Family (FOF). The fundamentalist protestant organization began in California in 1977 before relocating to Colorado Springs in 1991. FOF has strongly opposed all forms of queer family recognition from same-sex marriage and civil unions to parenting through available paths like adoption and surrogacy. And they are advocates for other detrimental policies for queer people including conversion therapy, abstinence-only sex education, abortion bans, and the promotion of patriarchal gender roles.
James Dobson, FOF’s founder has leveraged his psychology degree from the University of Southern California to give himself credence when associating queerness with mental illness on his popular radio program and during his numerous media appearances. FOF has been a longstanding partner of the National Day of Prayer Task Force formed in 1983 and also headquartered in Colorado Springs which, among other things, hosts the National Day of Prayer Breakfast held annually in Washington D.C., where every President since Ronald Regan has spoken, including Democratic presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden earlier this year. Shirley Dobson, the wife of James Dobson, served as Chair of the task force from 1991 to 2016. It is this toxic atmosphere that James Dobson and Focus on the Family have helped foster over three decades that has emboldened anti-LGBTQ individuals and right-wing militia groups to harass queer people seeking love and acceptance at drag shows in California and Texas, at a Pride Parade in Idaho, and at a Colorado Springs nightclub.
Last week, the lawyers representing the suspect in the Club Q shooting disclosed in court that their client is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. There has been wide speculation that this may be an attempt to avoid hate crime charges or that it is right-wing trolling by the shooter. Regardless of how the shooter identifies, we should reject any attempts by the right or the center-left political establishment to deflect from the homophobic and transphobic nature of this attack, as the environment, they have created and enabled with their speech, actions, and inactions ensures that more individuals, particularly from socially conservative families, will internalize homophobia.
A small minority of ashamed and closeted individuals will seek God’s forgiveness by preaching anti-LGBTQ hate in their places of worship or advocating for anti-queer legislation. An even smaller minority will engage in direct violence against others in the queer community. But the detrimental consequences of this shame and the fear engendered by attacks like the Colorado Springs shooting are most likely to result in depression and a greater risk of self-harm, as most people, including closeted queer people, are not violent towards others. We have a serious gun problem in the U.S. with most homicides involving handguns and a record number of deaths this year from mass shootings in modern U.S. history. Still, the majority of gun deaths in the U.S. every year are suicides.
The shooting in Colorado Springs was a product of hate, but it’s the indifference to queer lives by much of the political establishment that helped contribute to this attack. It was the indifference to the health and welfare of queer people during the early years of the Aids Epidemic that saw the legacy media slow to report, and the National Institutes of Health slow to respond. We see echoes of another inadequate response in the U.S. government’s handling of a public health crisis, monkeypox, where gay and bisexual men are in a high-risk category.
The response from mainstream gay rights groups and the Democrats to this shooting will undoubtedly be to support more funding for police and perhaps more punitive laws around hate crimes. It should not be easier to get a gun in the U.S. than to have an abortion or apply for forgiveness on your student loan debt that should not exist in the first place. But reports that the shooter in Colorado Springs was able to have a gun despite a prior arrest last year will lead to calls for more red flag laws, which will only empower the police to further criminalize the communities they already target: people of color, the disabled, the poor, and individuals who are houseless.
Queer people themselves, contrary to the stereotype of us all being wealthy and college educated, and despite the greater visibility of queer people in recent years, remain almost three times more likely to be houseless at some point in our lives, with one in five queer people experiencing houselessness before they turn 18. We are disproportionately stopped and arrested for minor crimes at higher rates than the general population. The impact is felt most by queer women, who make up about five percent of the total population, but 40 percent of those serving in women’s prisons.
Queer youth are also overrepresented in juvenile facilities, comprising double our representation at 20 percent, with 85 percent being queer people of color. The same goes for the transgender community: at less than one percent of the population, they are two percent of the prison population. When in prison, trans and nonbinary inmates like CeCe McDonald and Chelsea Manning are commonly misgendered and forced to serve in the prisons that correspond with their gender at birth. In and out of prisons, we are also more likely to be victims of sexual violence.
To the extent that corporate America is interested in supporting the LGBTQ community, their priority is not addressing the root causes of violence against us, but taking ownership of the movement and selling us anything and everything with a rainbow. When we are victims of a mass shooting, they are eager to respond with condolence statements, highlighting their work to make a positive difference for their queer employees and our community. Their support does not go far beyond providing small financial contributions to LGBTQ advocacy groups.
At the same time, corporations can comfortably hide behind the U.S.’s intentionally broken campaign finance and disclosure laws and continue giving large donations to anti-LGBTQ politicians and conservative political groups, like Focus on the Family. The nearby city of Golden, Colorado is home to the Coors Brewing Company, which has a long, ugly track record of anti-LGBTQ politics that were the focus of a queer and labor-led boycott in the 1970s. The Coors family today remains majority shareholders of the company and are major political donors to anti-LGBTQ politicians in Colorado and nationally. Despite this history and its present actions, the company has become an annual accepted sponsor of the Denver Pride Parade.
Democrats have made a concerted effort in recent years to display a rainbow coalition of diverse candidates who, once in office, do not represent the needs of their communities. Before entering politics, Pete Buttigieg, the first major openly gay presidential candidate, worked for the consulting firm McKinsey and Company. The company settled last year for $600 million for its role in the Opioid Epidemic that has ravaged communities like mine. He is now serving as Biden’s Secretary of Transportation as the administration attempts to get Congress to intervene in stopping a potential rail strike, screwing over rail workers in the process. Buttigieg’s ascension inside the Democratic Party helps them to project the appearance of LGBTQ diversity for the public, while his identity is used to deflect criticism as he serves the interest of major private corporate donors.
In contrast, working-class queer workers are using their voices for a different purpose. They are fighting for union representation at Starbucks as the company publicly embraces all queer identities, while quietly threatening trans benefits for unionized stores. In another positive step, Disney employees (including those in Orlando, the site of the Pulse Night Club shooting) successfully pressured executives to come out against Florida’s anti-gay legislation; however, the backlash the company has received from Governor Ron DeSantis and other social conservatives is only tolerable so long as it doesn’t affect their bottom line. Some on the Right are suggesting that Disney’s decision to fire their CEO last week was a result of him being too “woke,” and DeSantis is positioning himself for a presidential run in 2024, hoping to recreate the success that George W. Bush had running on homophobia to win a second term.
We know from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June with the Dobbs decision that the civil rights victories we achieved through mass movements are not secure. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas made explicit threats for overturning prior progressive rulings on contraception, same-sex marriage, and sodomy. The capitalist political parties will continue to deny us the society we all deserve as they battle over whether or not queer people specifically as a group are entitled to the bare minimum of legal protections. The advocacy groups will only be as strong as the political parties they support. We need to build working-class political institutions that go beyond their work.
Despite the hysteria from the right about the “gay agenda,” the objective of having children attend a drag show story hour is to help them understand and accept people from all walks of life, which can sometimes mean accepting themselves. The Left should defend these events and support the teaching of queer history and comprehensive sex education in schools that includes the existence of non-heteronormative sex. We should do the same for Critical Race Theory. The legalization of sex work, a disproportionately queer worker industry, is important to help some of our most vulnerable and judged members of our community find the respect and safety they deserve. Healthcare, including gender-affirming care, and mental healthcare, is a primary need in a homophobic society and it should be universal and free. Housing should also be a universal right.
This has been a difficult year for trans and nonbinary people who have found themselves under the gun literally and figuratively. The broader queer and feminist communities have not been united in their defense. We have seen what the absence of solidarity brings: the loss of abortion rights in several states, violence targeted against Black people at a Buffalo grocery store, and now violence targeted against the queer community. Before the Club Q shooting, 32 known trans and nonbinary people had already been murdered.
Their lives mattered; Kelly, Daniel, Derrick, Ashley, and Raymond’s lives mattered. We honor all of them and all of us by expecting more than the right to exist. We owe ourselves the ability to live. It will take a queer liberation movement that recognizes that the struggle against patriarchy is our struggle, the struggle against racism is our struggle, and the struggle against capitalism is the only way out of the closet for everyone.
Featured Image credit: Photo from the Denver Channel; modified by Tempest.
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William Gifis is a bisexual, a socialist, a writer, and a mental health advocate originally from Hopewell, NJ. He is also a Co-Chair for the High Peaks chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and a member of the Tempest Collective.