When Nicole Garcia, a transgender Latina Lutheran pastor in Colorado, first came out, she spent her evenings in LGBTQ bars exploring her gender identity.
The drag queens at the Denver drag bar she frequented taught her how to style her hair, apply makeup and do her nails. She even performed on stage.
“It really gave me a place to explore … how I want to express myself in the world,” she said. “The bar gave me that place where I could do it, a place where I felt safe, a place where I had friends, a place where I knew people ‘had my back’ so to speak.”
After spending the past few days in Colorado Springs offering spiritual guidance and grief support to the community after this past weekend’s shooting at Club Q, Garcia says she and those she’s consoling share the same concern.
“The fear now is: Where is safe?”
Local LGBTQ community members and allies have described Club Q as one of few spaces in the area where queer residents can find a safe haven for expressing their identity. But its significance is not an outlier: The venue’s role for Colorado Springs is demonstrative of the larger significance of LGBTQ bar and club spaces for the queer community across the country.
Gay, lesbian and LGBTQ bars have long served not just as arenas of expression for gender and sexuality, but as mourning circles, wedding venues, spaces for political organizing and stages to let loose at drag shows. The spaces are also simply places for queer patrons to find what many adults look for in social spaces: the opportunity to drink and socialize with friends or find a love interest on a night out, all with a lessened fear of harassment.
“These aren’t just watering holes or drinking establishments, in some ways these are our community centers, in some ways, these are our temples where we gather to worship, where we gather to commune,” LGBTQ podcast personality Dan Savage told USA TODAY. “It’s not just the people in that space who were harmed, anybody who could have been in that space is threatened and feels less safe after than they did before.”
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‘You’re with your people’: The history of LGBTQ clubs in the US
It’s important not to romanticize the history of gay and lesbian bars in the U.S., many of which first opened under the operation of organized crime and with unsafe and unsanitary conditions, according to Eric Marcus, founder and host of the Making Gay History podcast.
But despite the risks, those spaces were some of the few where gays and lesbians could congregate and openly be themselves without fear of danger, he said.
“If you were a young single person and you didn’t have a community already, it was one place where you knew you could meet other gay people,” Marcus said.
As cultural acceptance of the LGBTQ community has changed drastically, so has the nature of these safe haven spaces. Early gay and lesbian bars often utilized passwords for entrance, or had bouncers hold onto the driver’s licenses of patrons to prevent harassment inside the bar from outsiders and keep others safe from law enforcement, said Cathy Renna, communications director at the National LGBTQ Task Force.
“It wasn’t that long ago that these were quite literally the only safe spaces for queer people to gather,” she said.
From past to present, the spaces have provided not just a sense of safety, but a sense of freedom for members of the LGBTQ community by lowering the need for the hypervigilance often required by being openly queer in public spaces, according to Renna.
“You walk in and you just exhale and realize you’re in a safe space,” she said. “You realize you are with your people.”
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After Club Q, a sense of safe haven is further shattered
In conservative Colorado Springs, Club Q has been a strikingly important gathering place: While the city’s population has exploded in recent decades and its LGBTQ community has followed suit, queer spaces have struggled to keep pace.
Club Q was also a venue patronized and valued by LGBTQ allies. On the night of the shooting, Richard Fierro, whose heroics tackling the gunman at Club Q saved the lives of other patrons, was at the club with his family to watch a family friend perform in a drag show.
“Gay, straight, doesn’t matter. I’m straight, and my kids are straight, but we go there and patronize them because it’s about community,” he told reporters.
The attack on Club Q is far from the first of its kind on LGBTQ spaces, such as the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse Club in Orlando that left 49 people dead, and the 1973 arson of the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. Attacks on these spaces create fear for more than just the LGBTQ community in the affected area, according to Renna.
“An attack on club Q is an attack on all of our bars, clubs, community centers, safe spaces that we’ve created,” she said. “And what that does is it instills fear in people.”
The attack on a hallowed space has heightened alarm in a queer community already on edge from a rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric over the past year, including legislation targeting the discussion of LGBTQ topics in elementary schools, to legal debates over access to gender-affirming care for transgender and gender-nonconforming youths.
A rise in inflammatory language among politicians and other public figures denigrating members of the LGBTQ community has also created a hostile environment that fuels anti-gay stigma and promotes radicalization.
For Garcia, her greatest fear is the consequences of losing the safety and support from these spaces for LGBTQ people who grew up without affirming families and accepting environments. Data from a 2022 Trevor Project survey shows that 45% of LGBTQ youths seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of trans and nonbinary youths.
“All these kids that are suffering, trying to figure out what their sexual orientation or gender identity is – they’re not going to have a safe space to really explore themselves and it’s going to result in negative behaviors, self harming behaviors,” Garcia said.
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While security concerns resurface, bars already have precautions post-Pulse
Concerns over security at LGBTQ bars have risen since Club Q – as happens after most mass shootings at any venue. The Pulse nightclub tragedy led many spaces to institute stronger security measures.
Jo McDaniel, co-owner of LGBTQ bar As You Are in Washington D.C., said the space has always taken security precautions, including bag checks and “constantly monitoring behavior.” They also said their cofounder is active shooter trained, and that As You Are’s staff training has included multiple discussions surrounding safety.
The bar may revisit an opportunity for more in-depth staff training, but As You Are is currently focused on finding resources for its grieving community members after Club Q, McDaniel said.
“We want to make sure folks who need us know we’re here,” they said.
In San Diego, Moe Girton, owner of LGBTQ bar Gossip Grill, said her venue is unfortunately no stranger to threats: Gossip Grill receives an average of one violent threat a week in the form of homophobic, transphobic or otherwise hateful clientele, and there have been shooting or stabbing threats against the staff, according to Girton.
“It is something that we constantly deal with,” she said. “So we don’t have that luxury of loosening up on our structures.”
Audrey Corley, owner of the lesbian nightclub Boycott Bar in Phoenix, said at least one patron has told her they would be taking a break from LGBTQ nightlife in the wake of Club Q.
Others who frequent these kinds of spaces have focused on individual safety preparations both before and after the Club Q shooting. Orlando Torres, a survivor of the Pulse shooting, said he walks into every building – from community spaces to McDonalds – aware of its exits and on high alert for how to escape should a gunman enter.
Garcia, who has felt the power LGBTQ bars and clubs hold for affirming personal identity and building community, said the answer lies in creating precautions to reassure patrons so they can enjoy these safe havens.
“If we increase our security and are vigilant about what’s going on around us, we’re not going to be able to experience the present, but we have to make sure that people are safe,” she said. “The path forward is figuring out how we can recognize the fear, but not let fear guide us.”