COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — On a typical night out at Club Q, a stronghold for LGBTQ people in the largely conservative town of Colorado Springs, Daniel Aston could be seen letting loose and sliding across the stage on his knees followed by his mule to cries and howls.
The venue provided Aston, a 28-year-old transgender man and self-proclaimed “Master of Silly Business”, the liberating performances he had long sought. But on Saturday it became the site of the latest mass shooting in the United States when a man armed with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire and killed Aston and four others. Twenty-five others were injured.
His mother, Sabrina Aston, wavered between past and present as she spoke about her son Sunday night at their Colorado Springs home. Aston’s father, Jeff Aston, sat nearby, listening to his wife’s stories and alternating between squeezing her hands tightly and cupping her forehead.
“We’re in shock, we cried a bit, but then you go through this phase where you’re just a little numb, and I’m sure it will hit us again,” she said. “I still think it’s a mistake, that they made a mistake and he’s really alive,” she added.
His son’s eagerness to make people laugh and cheer began as a child in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he donned elaborate costumes, including the beast from “Beauty and the Beast”, roamed weird hats and wrote plays performed by neighborhood children.
Aston preferred to dress as a boy at a young age until teasing from other children prompted him to try on clothes for girls. While Sabrina Aston enjoyed helping her son’s hair, she said fashion led to weight loss. “He was unhappy,” she said.
After dating his mother, he attended Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and became president of its LGBTQ club. He’s held fundraisers with increasingly flashy productions (“He didn’t just stand and lip-synch,” Sabrina Aston bluntly explained) and stoked more hair bands from 80 years.
Two years ago, Aston moved from Tulsa to Colorado Springs – where his parents had settled – and started at Club Q as a bartender and entertainer, where his parents joined in the cheers at his shows.
″(Daniel’s shows) are great. Everyone has to go see him,” his mother said. “He lit up a room, always smiling, always happy and silly,” she said.
Members of Colorado Spring’s LGBTQ community say Club Q was one of the few havens where they could be fully authentic in one of the most conservative metros in the state. Sabrina Aston said that’s why her son went to the club; it allowed his identity to breathe and “he enjoyed helping the LGBT community”.
She first heard about the attack and her son being shot at 2am on Sunday when the phone rang. It was one of his son’s friends who announced that a shooting had taken place at Club Q and that their son was in Memorial Hospital.
Sabrina and Jeff Aston rushed to the hospital, where they were first asked to wait outside, then in a waiting room and finally in a private room where the detective asked them questions during authorities were working to identify the bodies.
Sabrina Aston told the detective about her son’s tattoos, including a heart on his left arm, pierced with an arrow and wrapped in ribbon that read “Mom.”
The couple were sent home without any updates and sat in a stupor, their minds racing through hope, then the worst, then hope that it wasn’t the worst.
“We thought he had just injured himself – you can fix the injury,” his mother said.
When a detective and patient advocate knocked on their door later that morning, Sabrina Aston said she was thinking of soldiers marching to the homes of still-unconscious wartime widows. She knew what had happened.
The parents were shocked, the tears flowed and they went numb.
“It’s just a nightmare you can’t wake up from,” she said.
Bedayn is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.