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In Search of a Safe Space, Club Q Shooting Survivors Look for Ways to Push Forward Without Fear

In Search of a Safe Space, Club Q Shooting Survivors Look for Ways to Push Forward Without Fear

A shooter killed 5 people at a Colorado gay bar just before midnight on November 19, 2022. More than a dozen were injured. Here some share their thoughts on what's happened in the last year.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Two shots of Fireball whisky sat on stages Friday and Saturday night -- the drink of choice of two bartenders who were among the five victims of the 2022 mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the Club Q mass shooting, where a shooter wearing a bulletproof vest opened fire until several patrons took them down in the city’s most prominent queer space.

Kelly Loving, Daniel Aston, Derrick Rump, Ashley Paugh, and Raymond Green Vance were killed. About 20 others were injured. Others were left with emotional and mental wounds.

Shortly before midnight on November 19, 2022, the shooter came in carrying several weapons, including an AR-style assault gun -- one notoriously used in mass shootings.

The shooter pleaded guilty to 51 charges over the summer. Those included five counts of first-degree murder and 46 counts of attempted first-degree murder. The judge sentenced the killer to five life sentences and 48 years in prison for every attempted murder charge, making the prison sentence a total of 2,208 years.

As the one-year anniversary is remembered, community members, survivors, and the victims’ families have gathered several times throughout the weekend to honor the legacy of Loving, Aston, Rump, Paugh, and Vance. They've danced, performed drag, cried, and celebrated their losses. They've found temporary spaces to feel safe thanks to the local community and bars making it known they are affirming and inclusive. The survivors are also looking ahead to what they can do to continue their friends' legacies, but also how they learn to move on after experiencing and witnessing such violence.

Two Shots of Fireball: A Community Gathers to Remember the Victims

On Friday night, at a bar West side of the town about a twenty-minute drive from the site of Club Q, survivors and those who knew the victims gathered to prepare for the days ahead. Some had organized a show featuring drag performances, singing, and comedy. It was a night to settle before emotions and memories came flooding back, maybe in ways unexpected.

About 30 people were at LauraBelles, a saloon-inspired bar where an armed bodyguard volunteered his time to stand watch. Several people said it had become a refuge after the violence at Club Q.

At one point Potted Plant, a Colorado drag performer also known as Wyatt Kent and the partner to Aston, did a call and repeat: “What do we do when trans lives are attacked?”

The crowd shouted back: “Stand up. Fight back.”

Throughout the performances, people took to the stage to offer hope and solidarity. Thomas James, one of the people who took down the shooter, performed a stand-up comedy routine.

Others sang songs to honor “their boys,” referring to Club Q bartenders Aston and Rump, who also owned part of the bar. On stage, that night and Saturday night two shots of Fireball, the cinnamon-flavored liqueur, sat for the two. The fiery whisky was their drink. That night and the next night and at memorials, Fireball was used to toast the two.

LauraBelles is one of a handful of bars and clubs that have become a refuge after the shooting and the closing of Club Q. Outside, survivors and community members spoke about their experiences and their memories of those who died.

Some spoke about their ongoing recovery. Some said their doctors were still figuring out the damage done from being shot. Others spoke about their experience in the aftermath -- not having access to their cell phones, or waiting at the hospital for surgery.

On Saturday night’s memorial at Triple Nickle, a queer burlesque show called Stripped honored the victims and survivors. The show began at Club Q in 2020.

The emcee and creator Alex Valdez — known as Mr. Valdez — remembered Aston and Romp as always welcoming him during the show nights in button-up shirts, only to unbutton the professional attire to show off jockstraps and harnesses, in line with that night’s show.

Their families were in the crowd cheering and crying throughout the show, along with the friends of those who were killed. Survivors and friends hugged each other as some performances celebrated life and others honored the dead.

Survivors Continue On

Ashtin Gamblin, who was working the front door, was shot nine times last year. She tells The Advocate that it was a quiet night when the havoc broke out. Gamblin remembers just wanting to go home.

Aston had come up to speak with her. Minutes later the shooting began. Aston covered Gamblin’s body.

The past year has been difficult, she says. “You don’t really think about all the stuff that you do on a daily basis,” that’s now been made challenging, Gamblin explains. “It’s definitely been trying, aggravating when you can't do something that you want to do.”

Gamblin says the boys made the bar what it was.

“It was an atmosphere; it was its own force,” Gamblin remembers. One thing she recalls is Aston’s signature way of kicking people out of the bar when it closed.

“Daniel [would] just yell ‘If you don't work here, or you're not fucking someone who works here, get the fuck out,” she says with a laugh.

One of the bullets hit a tattoo on her arm. She’s not sure if she’ll be fixing it, she says. Emergency workers put her and another victim in the same ambulance with the shooter.

“I can tell you it's nothing we ever anticipated on happening,” Gamblin says.

Since Club Q opened, Ed Sanders had been a frequent patron. He says he’d go there at least once a week. It was a home, he explains.

“That was my safe space,” Sanders tells The Advocate.

Sanders and a friend visited Club Q that night. The friend left, Sanders says, shortly before the shooting began. Sanders had just gone to the bar and was with Potted Plant, who was there celebrating their birthday and performing, and Loving ordering drinks when he felt the bullet in his back.

“I felt spray on my back and turned around and I looked, and I can see the muzzle of the gun and the flashes and then I went down and Kelly Loving and Potted Plant went down with me,” he says. “And we all kind of landed in a heap.”

Loving was barely breathing then, Sanders says.

“It was pretty traumatic,” he continues. “A lot of screaming and calling for tourniquets, and I really didn't know what happened. All I knew is that we were shot and that we were going to play dead basically until things calmed down a little.”

Sanders was in the hospital for 18 days. He was shot in the back and also in the leg. Another bullet ricocheted off his walking cane, he says.

“We've got that cane with the bullet hole on it, and can I hold on to that because it did save me from worse pain.”

For Brianna Willingham, the one-year anniversary is bringing up questions on survival. She was at the bar that night and wasn’t injured physically in the attack.

“Every day is a day you wake up and wonder, 'why me?' You then spend the day trying to find any kind of answer. It’s like having a hole punched in your chest and then trying to learn how to breathe around it,” she says in an email.

She’d been a devoted patron at Club Q since 2017 and became a Saturday regular. She worked the bar at Friday’s memorial. She’ll be spending Sunday at the memorial clean-up.

“We call each other family because that’s exactly what we were. We fought like family, but we loved like family just the same,” she says. “I think Derrick and Daniel would want every one of us to be proud of who we are, and who I am is more than the trauma I carry, I will not let it define me.”

She adds: “I think they would be proud.”

What Survivors Want Club Q to Be

Survivors of the shooting have mixed opinions on what should happen to Club Q, which has been closed since the shooting. The plan is to reopen a quieter venue at a different location under the name The Q. The current owner Matthew Haynes also wants to reopen Club Q at the same location as more of a club than it once was. Right now, the club isn't open due to renovations that need to take place.

Sanders says he’s disappointed that the bar hasn't reopened. However, he says that he’ll be returning to Q in whatever incarnation takes once it’s open.

However, Gamblin says she and others want a memorial to honor the victims in a place that isn’t tied to the site of the tragedy.

“We never wanted to party where our friends died, where our blood was spilled,” she says. “That's all we asked for and we were consistently told no."

She adds: “It's a problem when you have something like that on commercialized property there's never a guarantee it's going to be there. We never wanted to have a memorial next to a bathhouse.”

“I don’t like going there because I can’t mourn in peace,” she says, adding that the gay bathhouse connected to the same building as Club Q would have patrons coming in and out. “It's so hard to mourn when you have men walking in and out of the bathhouse that just got done doing what they do. And they're now staring at you while you're outside trying to cope.”

For now, the survivors and LGBTQ+ community in Colorado Springs are looking for a safe space to gather without fear.

“I still watch my back and I don't like being in crowds,” says Sanders. “I haven't found anywhere that equals Club Q. So, we're going to be going back there when they open.”

Survivors say that even without a physical space, they are still connected. They’ve become close in the last year.

“We’ve become a little family,” Sanders says. He explains they go out to the same bars now and they’ve come to know each other through the tragedy. It’s helped in the healing process.

“It has because they understand what I'm going through and they don't judge and they don't try to give unrealistic expectations about how we're supposed to be feeling,” Sanders explains.

On Sunday, several memorial services were planned, including a clean-up of the Club Q site. On Monday, another memorial will be held on Trans Day of Remembrance for Ashton and Loving, who were both transgender.

Gamblin says that the tragedy has made the local community stronger.

“I can say absolutely [it’s] made us closer as a community. You know, there's more reliability, there's more openness. We’re a little bit more vulnerable I think with each other than we might have been before,” Gamblin says.

“I'm grateful for that because in the aftermath you need that.”

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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