COLORADO SPRINGS — Luis Padillo has wanted to visit Club Q for months. Sometimes he would drive around nearby, trying to work up the courage to enter.
But two days after a gunman stormed Club Q, killing five and wounding 18, Padillo eventually came over to reflect on — and mourn with — Colorado’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community.
“I wanted to see the memorial,” said Padillo, standing in front of a cluster of flowers, candles and rainbow flags. “This is a wake-up call and a cry for change, and while it’s definitely sad, it’s inspirational at the same time.”
As the nation mourns three mass shootings in the past two weeks, makeshift memorials commemorate the nation’s relentless gun violence. But the tribute here has taken on a deeper meaning — it’s become a place where LGBTQ teens and young adults mourn, honor their community, and ask, “Now what?”
For the LGBTQ community, Colorado Springs shooting meant ‘safety betrayed’
Some even drove to Colorado Springs from Boulder, about 90 minutes north, just to stand in front of the monument a few minutes. Others came with their parents, reflecting a generational shift towards adults supporting their LGBTQ children. Some have stopped by several times over several days and said they can’t explain why they keep coming back.
“I’m trans and queer myself,” said a 15-year-old, who asked to be identified by her first name, Eliot, while touring the memorial with her 61-year-old grandmother. “As a high school kid, it scares me that this could happen because of someone’s identity. … But being here helps.”
Many young visitors had noticed that they were standing in front of a bar where they were not even legally allowed to drink. However, many said they knew what Club Q stood for in this conservative community.
As soon as he heard about the shooting, Wyatt Krob, 20, knew he had to travel here from Denver, about an hour north. In January, after months of “connecting all the pieces together,” Krob told his parents that he was bisexual. He had planned to visit his father, “but I couldn’t wait for him to get home from work,” he said.
Instead, Krob came alone. “I don’t quite get it,” he said. “I just felt called to go and experience it for myself.”
Krob, who attends Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, said the memorial’s combination of pain, fear and “love” helped him better understand that places like Club Q are “holy places” for LGBTQ be community.
It also allowed him to search deeper for information about himself. “I wanted to come here, find other people who are grieving, and maybe get a better understanding of myself, too,” he said. “I would say for anyone questioning or identifying as anything other than straight, this definitely hits their soul.”
Standing a few feet away, Amber Cantorna wore a sweatshirt that read “Free Mom Hugs.” Free Mom Hugs is a nationwide group of women whose members travel to LGBTQ events to support youth.
Cantorna, 38, said seeing so many young people shows how quickly younger adults — and many of their parents — have become more aware and supportive of issues related to sexual orientation and identity.
“You wouldn’t have seen that growing up in Colorado Springs or leaving a decade ago,” Cantorna said.
Still, she knows that in a part of the country where it can take an hour to travel between remote mountain and farming communities, many young adults still lack a supportive network.
Cantorna said she became suicidal and fled to Denver after her family ostracized her and even took her keys to her home when she told them she was gay in 2012. At the time, Cantorna’s father was a senior official at Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian advocacy group in Colorado Springs.
She returned to Colorado Springs last year but is not in touch with her family.
Even in the face of tragedy, Cantorna said, the Club Q memorial will become a place that helps members of the LGBTQ community feel less alone.
“A lot of queer people still live in quite rural and isolated places where they don’t have a community to support them,” she said. “These are people who may not have family or may not have a place to go on vacation this week.”
Barbara Poma, owner of Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where a gunman killed 49 people in 2016, said she is not surprised that so many younger Colorado Springs residents are choosing to mourn publicly at Club Q. The memorial in front of the Pulse still draws hundreds of people a day to the closed venue.
“It amazes me to see the families and young people there, but it happens every day,” said Pomo, whose onePULSE Foundation is building a permanent memorial to honor the Pulse nightclub victims. “We have families who come to Orlando on vacation but still bring their children to visit the memorial. … It is a place of pilgrimage and a place of testimony and mourning and good conversation.”
“I hope people come here”
The number of younger Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is higher than ever. In February, Gallup found that 7 percent of Americans now identify that way, including 21 percent of American adults born between 1997 and 2003.
Speaking ahead of Club Q this week, several parents of gay or transgender children said they saw a family visit to the memorial as a way to show their children that more people love them than hate them or want to harm them.
On Wednesday morning, Layla Aronow brought her 12-year-old transgender son Kai from her home in suburban Denver to the memorial. They placed flowers on the crosses to honor the victims, while Kai chalked the sidewalk with messages like “We don’t choose who we love – we choose who we hurt.”
“When that happened, especially so close to the holidays, it just broke my heart,” said Aronow, 42. “It was important to me, especially with a trans kid, to bring him here and show him that for every monster that.” could come, there are hundreds or thousands of others trying to do good.”
When Aronow and Kai photographed the candles and chalk writing that now line North Academy Boulevard, they have learned firsthand how a community can help fight atrocities. A passenger in an SUV driving past the memorial rolled down the window and shouted at the crowd of mourners wearing an anti-gay harness.
“This person clearly thinks that word will hurt us and wants the Force to hurt us,” Kai replied. “And it just doesn’t hurt us when we’re together.”
Aronow swelled with pride.
“That’s exactly what I want my son to say and believe,” she said.
Robin L., another transgender man who attended the memorial with his mother, said the collective grief outside Club Q inspired him, although he has never been to the venue.
Robin – who is 21 and has asked to be identified by the first initial of his last name only because he is concerned about online harassment – said seeing so many young LGBTQ colleagues standing together this week was prove that they are “living the dreams of their ancestors”.
“I hope people come here and see that even though it’s awful, there are people who love them everywhere,” said Robin. “We will be there for each other despite the fear.”
The memorial also attracted a steady stream of straight teens and young adults. Many of them also believe that the memorial symbolizes how solidarity can emerge from the sadness of the community.
Ayden Derby, who is straight and attends a sixth form at a local high school, said it’s still common for some LGBTQ students to experience bullying or harassment. But as Derby, 18, viewed the memorial, he vowed to be a lifelong ally of the LGBTQ community.
“Things like that speak to people and definitely make them reconsider the actions and words they say,” said Derby, who watched his 17-year-old friend scrawl “You’re wonderful” on a concrete barrier marking the Monument from the highway separates traffic.
But despite the support, Robin’s mother, Kathy L., still worries that the nightclub shooting represents a new, more dangerous time for Robin and other LGBTQ Americans. Especially outside of the country’s largest cities, “it’s getting worse for gay people because it’s gotten better for gay people,” she said.
“Gay people have a few rights now, and sometimes you might see a same-sex couple walking downtown where you never would have been 20 years ago,” said Kathy, who visited the memorial several times this week to deliver origami paper to butterflies make. “So someone who is hateful and afraid sees that and then decides to commit a hate crime.”
Ash Lowrance, a 23-year-old transgender man, echoed those concerns when they visited the memorial with her partner Alexis Mullins, who is 26 and identifies as queer.
Lowrance and Mullins moved to Colorado Springs two years ago from their conservative hometown in rural Illinois. Lowrance, who started testosterone treatment about six months ago, said the attack on Club Q made her question whether they should continue with their transition.
“It kind of scares me. I’m still very early in my transition and just knowing that this has happened is really hard to process,” Lowrance said. “A lot of young people come here because they realize how messed up it all is.”
Padillo, the 21-year-old, who told his parents he will choose his sexual orientation if he falls in love, said he also remains “scared” despite finding solace at the memorial. He believes the shooting will make it even more difficult for some young men to take their first steps in a gay bar.
“It makes it seem like somewhere you don’t want to be, and that can be scary for a lot of people,” said Padillo, who added he was grateful to have a supportive family.
But after Krob watched the memorial in silence for about 30 minutes, the 20-year-old left with a good feeling. He knew exactly what he would do when he returned to Denver.
“I’m going to go home and hug my mother tightly,” he said. “I didn’t take any pictures here to show her, but what I saw will definitely stick in my mind and stay with me for a long time.”