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 where 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 were ‘backing me’ so to speak.”
After spending the past few days in Colorado Springs offering spiritual guidance and grief support to the community following last weekend’s Club Q shooting, Garcia says she and those she comforts share similar concerns.
“The fear now is: where is safe?”
Local LGBTQ community members and allies have described Club Q as one of the few spaces in the area where queer residents can find a safe haven to express their identity. But its importance is no out-and-out: The location’s role for Colorado Springs is a demonstration of the greater importance of LGBTQ bar and club spaces to the gay community across the country.
Gay, lesbian and LGBTQ bars have long served not only as arenas for gender and sexuality, but also as mourning circles, wedding venues, spaces for political organization and stages to let loose during drag shows. The spaces are also simply places where queer patrons can 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 reduced fear of harassment.
“These aren’t just watering holes or drinking places, in some ways these are our community centers, in some ways these are our temples where we gather to worship, where we gather to communicate,” LGBTQ podcast personality Dan Savage told USA TODAY . “It’s not just the people in that space that have been harmed, anyone who could have been in that space is threatened and then feels less safe than before.”
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‘You’re with your people’: the history of LGBTQ clubs in the US
According to Eric Marcus, founder and host of the Making Gay History podcast, it’s important not to romanticize the history of gay and lesbian bars in the US, many of which were first opened by organized crime and with unsafe and unsanitary circumstances.
But despite the risks, those spaces were some of the few where gays and lesbians could come together and openly be themselves without fear of danger, he said.
“If you were a young single person and you didn’t have intercourse yet, it 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 safe haven spaces has also changed. Early gay and lesbian bars often used passwords for entry, or had bouncers holding patrons’ driver’s licenses to prevent harassment from outsiders in the bar and protect others from law enforcement, said Cathy Renna, communications director with the National LGBTQ Task Force.
“It wasn’t that long ago that these were literally the only safe places for queer people to congregate,” she said.
From past to present, the spaces have provided not only a sense of security, but also a sense of freedom for members of the LGBTQ community by reducing the need for hypervigilance often required to be 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’re with your people.”
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After Club Q, the sense of safe haven is further shattered
In conservative Colorado Springs, Club Q has been a remarkably important gathering place: While the city’s population has exploded in recent decades and the LGBTQ community has followed suit, queer spaces have struggled to keep pace.
Club Q was also a venue frequented and appreciated by LGBTQ allies. On the night of the shooting, Richard Fierro, whose heroic handling of the gunman at Club Q saved the lives of other patrons, was at the club with his family to watch a friend of the family perform in a drag show.
“Gay, straight, doesn’t matter. I’m straight, and my kids are straight, but we go out there and patronize them because it’s about the community,” he told reporters.
The attack on Club Q is far from the first of its kind on LGBTQ spaces, like the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse Club in Orlando that killed 49 people, and the 1973 arson attack 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 and 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 sparked alarm in a queer community already on edge from an increase in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric over the past year, including legislation targeting the discussion of LGBTQ topics in elementary schools, to legal debates on access to gender-affirming care for transgender and gender-nonconforming young people.
An increase 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 biggest fear is the consequences of losing the safety and support of 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 youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of trans and non-binary youth.
“All of these kids who are suffering are trying to figure out their sexual orientation or gender identity — they won’t have a safe space to really explore themselves and it will result in negative behavior, self-harming behavior,” Garcia said.
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While security concerns are resurfacing, bars already have post-Pulse precautions in place
Concerns about safety in LGBTQ bars have increased since Club Q — as happens after most mass shootings at any location. The tragedy at the Pulse nightclub led many venues to introduce tighter security measures.
Jo McDaniel, co-owner of the LGBTQ bar As You Are in Washington D.C., said the space has always had security measures in place, including baggage checks and “constant behavior monitoring.” They also said that their co-founder is trained in active shooting and that As You Are staff’s training included multiple discussions about 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 people who need us know we’re here,” they said.
In San Diego, Moe Girton, owner of LGBTQ bar Gossip Grill, said her location 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 clientele, and according to Girton was shot or stabbed to the staff.
“It’s something we deal with constantly,” she said. “So we don’t have the luxury of letting go of our structures.”
Audrey Corley, owner of the Boycott Bar lesbian nightclub in Phoenix, said at least one customer has told her they would be taking a break from LGBTQ nightlife in the wake of Club Q.
Others visiting these types of spaces have focused on individual security 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 halls to McDonalds — aware of the exits and highly alert to how to escape if a gunman enters.
Garcia, who has felt the power LGBTQ bars and clubs have to affirm personal identity and build community, said the answer lies in creating precautions to reassure customers so they can enjoy this safe havens.
“If we increase our security and are vigilant about what’s going on around us, we won’t be able to experience the present, but we need to make sure people are safe,” she said. “The way forward is figuring out how to recognize the fear, but not let fear guide us.”