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Club Q shooting: it’s no surprise that gay bars are under attack

The shooting in Colorado Springs is the latest in a long line – until pundits and politicians stop demonising LGBT+ people, it won't be the last

On Saturday evening, a man with a gun walked into a Club Q, a gay bar in Colorado Springs, and murdered five people, injuring 25 more. The suspect – Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22-year-old grandson of Republican assemblyman – was previously known to the local police force, having been arrested for a bomb threat in 2021. The charges were dropped. Of all the information to emerge in the aftermath, one struck me the most: a picture of 28-year-old Daniel David Aston, a bartender at Club Q, a trans man and one of the people who was killed. His eyes are closed, he is smiling slightly; he looks serene, almost blissful.

Gay bars have been closing en-masse over the past decade, owing to gentrification, changing social norms and the rise of hook-up apps, but they are still the beating heart of many queer communities. At one point, dedicated venues were the only place that LGBTQ+ people could congregate safely: if you live in a liberal enclave in a major city, then this might no longer be the case – you may well feel comfortable kissing your partner or being visibly trans in your neighborhood bar. But the need for a refuge is stronger in somewhere like Colorado Springs, a mid-size city in the middle of a Republican stronghold that was once ranked the fourth most conservative place in America. Club Q was the only LGBTQ+ space in the city, lending it a particular significance: as one patron who was present on Saturday, Joshua, told a reporter, “[Club Q] means so much, this is our only safe space here in the Springs, so for this to get shot up, what are we going to do now, where are we going to go?”

The violation of what ought to be a safe haven can make attacks on queer bars feel especially painful. As Richard Kim wrote in The Nation in the aftermath of the Pulse shooting in Orlando, “Gay bars are therapy for people who can’t afford therapy; temples for people who lost their religion, or whose religion lost them; vacations for people who can’t go on vacation; homes for folk without families; sanctuaries against aggression.” Whenever something like this happens, it’s tempting to lionise gay bars as utopian sites of community, self-actualisation and the exchange of inter-generational wisdom. And while this is certainly true for some people, sometimes, we don’t even need to employ such lofty defenses of their value. Sometimes they’re simply a place to get wasted with your friends and maybe find someone to sleep with. Whatever meaning they may possess, the people who visit them still deserve to be safe.

Far from being an isolated incident, the shooting at Club Q comes amid escalating violence against queer people across the globe. Earlier this year, two people were killed at a mass shooting at Oslo Gay Pride, while a further two people were murdered outside a gay bar in Bratislava in November. And it’s not just happening on foreign soil – here in Britain, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people continue to soar. As politicians and media pundits demonise LGBTQ+ people as predators, the US has seen a wave of violence: far-right extremists targeted a Pride event in Idaho; a gay bar in New York was set on fire, at least 32 trans people have been murdered, and drag shows across the nation have been met with a series of violent disruptions: in California, far-right group the Proud Boys stormed a Drag Queen Story Hour while screaming transphobic and homophobic slurs, while a similar event in Oregon saw armed protesters lobbing rocks and smoke grenades.

One of the most prominent voices in the anti-LGBTQ+ panic – Lauren Boebert – happens to be a Republican representative for Colorado, a position she has used to smear supporters of LGBTQ-inclusive education as groomers and denounce child-friendly drag shows as “depraved”. When the message that trans people represent a danger to innocent people is being hammered home again and again, when mainstream pundits are openly and explicitly inciting violence against LGBTQ+ people, we can’t be surprised when someone takes matters into their own hands – they’re connected. So it’s not absolving the Club Q shooter of personal responsibility to suggest that he was answering a call-to-action.

Much of this invective has been directed at trans people specifically, and the events of Saturday can be understood in part an instance of transphobic violence. Not only was one of the victims a trans man, but the shooting took place the day before Trans Day of Remembrance, when the venue was planning an all-ages drag brunch. It seems unlikely this is a coincidence. But at the same time, the attacker did not discriminate between trans and cis people. Every single person there was a target. It would be bad enough if trans people alone were at threat, of course, but this tragedy shows that it’s impossible to aim violent rhetoric at one subset of the LGBTQ+ community without endangering everyone else. We are bound together; our safety is indivisible. Instead of reflecting on this obvious truth, the British anti-trans group LGB Alliance attempted to exploit the shooting as a way of further dividing the community, tweeting their solidarity with “LGB people” alone – a distinction which the people who want to kill us seem, for the most part, uninterested in making.

If the gay bar is a space of sanctuary, it’s one which has been violated repeatedly throughout history. The modern gay rights movement owes its beginning to a violent intrusion, when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back against a police raid in 1979. Since then, queer spaces have continued to be a target: in New Orleans, in 1973, an arsonist set fire to a gay bar, killing thirty two people. In 1997, a bomb exploded at a lesbian bar in Atlanta, killing five people. A couple of years later in London, a far-right extremist set off a nail bomb in Soho’s Admiral Duncan (after targeting Brixton and Brick Lane), killing three people and wounding 97. More recently, in Orlando, in 2016, 49 people were killed at gay nightclub Pulse, in what remains one of America’s deadliest mass shootings.

But queer history is more than just a litany of atrocities; it’s also one of resilience, endurance and resistance. As well as being a terrible tragedy, what happened at Club Q is also a story of heroism: unarmed patrons tackled the assailant, hitting him with his own gun and preventing him from hurting anyone else, in a marked contrast to the sluggish police response to mass shootings in Uvalde or Orlando. It seems that LGBTQ+ people can rely on one another for protection, even if no-one else is willing to provide it. In the past, these tragedies have also acted as catalysts for queer solidarity and community work. After the shooting at Pulse, thousands of queer people over the world held rallies and vigil in solidarity, while the GoFundMe set up to support the victims and their families became the fastest ever to reach one million dollars. Five years later, a number of organisations formed in the wake of the shooting are still thriving, and have helped to transform the lives of queer Latinx people in the city. 

The resilience of the queer community may be inspiring, but we shouldn’t look too hard for hidden positives in a situation where five people have died. There is no upside for the victims, their grieving loved ones, or the people who survived. The LGBTQ+ community will show, once again, its capacity for solidarity and endurance, but it shouldn’t have to. And events like this leave their mark – according to one study, the Pulse shooting profoundly altered the perception of safety experienced by LGBTQ+ people in the US, with members of marginalised subgroups (such as the trans community) being even more negatively impacted. Sadly, while the social movements that emerged in response to the shooting have made progress in Orlando, Florida still went onto become the epicentre of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the US. It would be consoling to think that the events of Saturday would be a catalyst for reflection among the journalists and politicians pushing transphobic narratives, but recent history has shown us this is unlikely to happen. No atrocity will ever be so bad that these people express an ounce of contrition. They will not ask themselves any hard questions; they will not recognise the error of their ways or the blood on their hands. We cannot appeal to their better nature or hope they will eventually be moved by the humanity of the people they’ve set out to eradicate. All we can do is continue to fight them.

The gay bar has long been conceptualised as a sanctuary, a place of shelter from the violence of the outside world. As hard as it may be, we should keep pretending – as queer people always have done – that this is actually true.