When Nicole Garcia, a transgender Latina Lutheran pastor from 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 do her hair, makeup, and 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 this place where I could do it, a place where I felt safe, a place where I had friends, a place where I knew people were ‘supporting’ me so to speak.”
After spending the past few days in Colorado Springs offering spiritual counseling and bereavement support to the community following last weekend’s shooting at Club Q, Garcia says she and those she consoles share the same concern.
“The fear is now: where is the safety?”
Members and allies of the local LGBTQ community have described Club Q as one of the few spaces in the area where gay residents can find a safe haven to express their identity. But its importance is not out of line: the role of place for Colorado Springs is demonstrative of the greater importance of LGBTQ bar and club spaces for the queer community across the country.
Gay, lesbian and LGBTQ bars have long served not only as arenas of expression for gender and sexuality, but also as mourning circles, wedding venues, spaces for political organizing and scenes to go wild. at drag shows. The spaces are also simply places where gay customers find what many adults seek in social spaces: the opportunity to drink and socialize with friends or find love at a party, all with less fear of harassment.
“These are not just watering holes or drinking places, in some ways they are our community centers, in some ways they 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 this space who have been harmed, anyone who might have been in this space is threatened and feels less safe afterwards than before.”
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“You Are With Your People”: The History of LGBTQ Clubs in the United States
It’s important not to idealize the history of gay and lesbian bars in the United States, many of which opened their doors under the action of organized crime and in dangerous and unsanitary conditions, according to Eric Marcus, founder and host of the podcast Making Gay History.
But despite the risks, these spaces were among the few where gays and lesbians could congregate and be openly themselves without fear of danger, he said.
“If you were a young bachelor and didn’t have a community yet, this was a place where you knew you could meet other gay people,” Marcus said.
As the cultural acceptance of the LGBTQ community has changed dramatically, the nature of these spaces of refuge has also changed. Early gay and lesbian bars often used passwords to enter, or had bouncers who held patrons’ driving licenses to prevent harassment inside the bar by strangers and to protect others from law enforcement , said Cathy Renna, director of communications at the National LGBTQ Task Force.
“Not so long ago these were literally the only safe spaces for gay people to congregate,” she said.
From then to now, spaces have provided not just a sense of safety, but a sense of freedom for members of the LGBTQ community by reducing the need for hypervigilance often required by being openly queer in public spaces, according to Renna .
“You go in and you 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, the sense of refuge is even more shattered
In conservative Colorado Springs, Club Q has been a hugely important gathering place: As 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 place frequented and enjoyed by LGBTQ allies. On the night of the shooting, Richard Fierro, whose heroism taking on the shooter 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, it doesn’t matter. I’m straight and my kids are straight, but we go out there and hang out with them because it’s about the community,” he told the journalists.
The attack on Club Q is far from the first of its kind in LGBTQ spaces, like the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse Club in Orlando that left 49 dead and the 1973 arson at the UpStairs Lounge in the New Orleans. According to Renna, the attacks on these spaces create fear for more than the LGBTQ community in the affected area.
“An attack on Club Q is an attack on all of our bars, clubs, community centers, safe spaces that we have created,” she said. “And what that does is it instills fear in people.”
The attack on a sacred space has deepened concern in a queer community already on edge from a rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric over the past year, including legislation targeting discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools basics, to legal debates on access to gender affirmation support for transgender and gender non-conforming youth.
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 of these spaces for LGBTQ people who have grown up without affirming their families and accepting environments. Data from a 2022 Trevor Project survey shows that 45% of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of trans and non-binary youth.
“All these kids who are hurting, trying to figure out what their sexual orientation or gender identity is – they won’t have a safe space to really explore themselves and that’s going to lead to negative behaviors, self-harming behaviors,” Garcia said.
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As safety concerns resurface, bars already have post-Pulse precautions
Concerns about safety in LGBTQ bars have grown since Club Q – as happens after most mass shootings in any venue. The Pulse nightclub tragedy has led many spaces to implement stricter security measures.
Jo McDaniel, co-owner of LGBTQ bar As You Are in Washington DC, said the space has always taken security measures including bag checks and “constant behavioral monitoring”. They also said their co-founder was trained in active shooters and that training for As You Are staff included multiple discussions of safety.
The bar could revisit an opportunity for more in-depth staff training, but As You Are is currently focused on finding resources for members of its community who are grieving after Club Q, McDaniel said.
“We want to make sure people who need us know we’re there,” they said.
In San Diego, Moe Girton, owner of the LGBTQ bar Gossip Grill, said his establishment is unfortunately no stranger to threats: Gossip Grill receives an average of one violent threat per week in the form of homophobic, transphobic or otherwise. hateful, and there were shooting or stabbing threats against staff, according to Girton.
“It’s something we’re constantly dealing with,” she said. “So we don’t have the luxury of relaxing our structures.”
Audrey Corley, owner of the Boycott Bar lesbian nightclub in Phoenix, said at least one patron told her he would be taking a break from LGBTQ nightlife following Club Q.
Others who frequent these types of spaces focused on individual security preparations before and after the Club Q shooting. Orlando Torres, a survivor of the Pulse shooting, said he walks through each building – community spaces at McDonalds – aware of his exits and on high alert for how to escape if a gunman enters.
Garcia, who has felt the power of LGBTQ bars and clubs to affirm personal identity and build community, said the answer lies in creating precautions to reassure patrons so they can enjoy these safe havens.
“If we step up our security and be vigilant about what’s happening around us, we won’t be able to live in the present, but we have to make sure people are safe,” she said. “The way forward is to figure out how we can recognize fear, but not let fear guide us.”