After the mass shooting last November at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs that turned a drag queen's birthday celebration into a massacre, the conservative community was forced to reckon with its reputation for being unwelcoming to gay, lesbian and transgender people.
What motivated the shooter, who didn't grow up in Colorado Springs and is now serving life in prison, may never be known. But since the attack that killed five people, wounded 17 others and shattered the sense of safety at Club Q, which served as a refuge for the city's LGBTQ+ community, Colorado Springs has taken steps to reshape itself as inclusive and welcoming.
A new LGBTQ+ resource center is set to open in the city, where an independent candidate surprisingly defeated a longtime Republican officeholder to become the first Black mayor of the city of roughly 480,000 people. And the owners of Club Q, which has been shuttered since the Nov. 19, 2022, attack, plan to build a memorial and reopen at a new location under the rebrand The Q.
Mayor Yemi Mobolade, a West African immigrant who has been mayor since June, said Friday he knows "what it's like to feel being on the outside looking in, to be a minority. And now to be mayor of this great city, I bring that empathy to the mayor's office."
Mobolade said he created a three-person office of community affairs with one person whose emphasis "is to be very inclusive of minority communities, including the LGBTQ+ community."
Yet as the city prepares to gather Sunday to mark the shooting anniversary, some LGBTQ+ advocates say work remains.
"It feels like there's some real fear in the community and then it also feels like those who are opposed to queer rights and queer people living their lives are continuing to become entrenched in those positions and are doing more politically to see those positions forwarded," said Candace Woods, a queer minister and chaplain who has called Colorado Springs home for nearly two decades.
Additional security is planned for the memorial events in case anti-LGBTQ activists gather to protest, as they did at this summer's Pride events. Candidates supported by the conservative group Moms for Liberty, which opposes instruction on systemic racism and gender identity in the classroom, won the recent school board elections, Woods noted.
Colorado Springs, nestled at the foothills of the Rockies and home to the Air Force Academy and several conservative megachurches, has historically been conservative. Yet, the city also has a growing and diversifying population set to top Denver's by 2050, is home to a liberal arts college and has marketed itself as an outdoorsy boomtown.
On the night of the attack, Anderson Lee Aldrich walked into Club Q and began firing indiscriminately. Clubgoers dove across a bloody dance floor for cover and friends frantically tried to protect each other.
The attack was stopped when a Navy officer grabbed the barrel of the suspect's rifle, burning his hand, and an Army veteran helped subdue and beat Aldrich until police arrived, authorities said.
Sunday's gathering outside of Club Q, which Mobolade and Gov. Jared Polis are expected to attend, will allow people to "come together to stand as one community," the club said when announcing the event.
"Hate will not be tolerated in this city under my watch, and we stand resolute," Mobolade said Friday. "Our community will not be defined by the terrible acts at Club Q, but our response to it. Our community has come a long way, and I understand that we still have a ways to go."
Aldrich, who has not publicly revealed a motivation for the shooting, pleaded guilty in June to five counts of murder and 46 counts of attempted murder for each person who was at the club during the attack. Aldrich also pleaded no contest to two hate crimes and was given five consecutive life sentences.
The attack came more than a year after Aldrich, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they and them, was arrested for threatening their grandparents and vowing to become "the next mass killer " while stockpiling weapons, body armor and bomb-making materials.
Those charges were eventually dismissed after Aldrich's mother and grandparents refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
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