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Colorado Springs Prepares For Its First Pride Parade Since the Club Q Shooting

When Jessica Laney, the executive director of the Pikes Peak Pride committee, first heard about the shooting at Club Q, one of Colorado Springs’ only LGBTQ+ nightclubs, she and the all-volunteer committee had just begun planning for the city’s next Pride Month celebration. Seven months ahead of the annual parade, which will take place on Saturday, the theme had been selected: “Power in Pride.” Then, on the night of Nov. 19, Laney’s phone was suddenly bombarded with notifications.

“I started getting text messages asking if I was okay. And I heard there was a shooting probably 20 minutes after it happened. And then I just immediately started sending out notices to everyone that we knew, asking if they’re okay,” Laney recalls.

In the community that once pioneered the rise of an anti-LGBTQ+ movement that earned Colorado the nickname of the “Hate State,” five people were killed and another 25 injured after a gunman opened fire at a gay club. The shooting devastated residents, who say the community is still healing as it prepares for its first pride since the shooting.

“We’re all in trauma and we’ve been hurt,” says Liss Smith, the communications and advocacy director at local LGBTQ+ organization Inside Out Youth Services. “Even talking about it now, I shake a little because it just hits so close to home… I know that many of [the staff at Inside Out] have been feeling deep-seated anxiety and dread ever since. And I don’t know when or if it’ll ever go away.”

Read more: One Year After Pulse

This year’s pride comes at a time when states across the country are passing record rates of anti-LGBTQ legislation, causing the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ+ organization, to declare a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. on Wednesday. President Joe Biden also announced on Thursday a new LGBTQI+ Community Safety Partnership dedicated to providing safety resources for the community’s most vulnerable members.

Many of the new laws seek to minimize discussions about queer individuals in schools and among youth, while others affect freedom of expression through drag or individuals’ abilities to access gender-affirming care. Such legislation has prompted several Floridian cities—like Tampa and St. Cloud— to cancel their annual pride parades, citing a “climate of fear.” Other communities have struggled with being granted permits for pride, or with the withdrawal of their typical sponsors for the annual event.

But in Colorado Springs, says Gretchen Pressley, the marketing and communications director of the Pikes Peak Pride committee, the biggest obstacle in preparing for pride has to do with the emotional toll of planning an event for a community still in mourning.

Tens of thousands are expected to gather at pride on Saturday—not just to see the drag queens, burlesque performers, bands, and more than 120 exhibitors, but also to be in community and commemorate the victims. Richard Fierro, the Army veteran who disarmed the shooter that night, will be the grand marshal of the parade, leading the way in his El Camino. And hosts have also been ardently preparing for a memorial that they say has been planned with input from the families of the victims and survivors.

“There are so many emotions involved, you know, like we can’t screw this up,” Pressley says. “It’s really making sure we’re checking in with the survivors, checking in with the families, making sure that what we’re doing is honoring and not in any way invalidating or in any way using the tragedy for other means—because even though we have the best intentions we weren’t at Club Q that night. We were not members of the families that lost people that night.”

A community rebuilds

In the aftermath of the shooting, local organizers say residents were struggling to find adequate support and resources to meet their needs. Part of the problem, Laney says, has to do with the loss of the Colorado Springs Pride Center, which shut down in 2015 after nearly 40 years of service. The LGBTQ+ hub ran the city’s pride parade prior to its closure, after which Nic Grzecka, owner of Club Q, temporarily took over the event before the pandemic hit. Many had also come to rely on the center for referrals to other nonprofits or agencies that could provide resources and general advice or aid—all of which were necessary in the weeks after the tragedy.

And because of Colorado Springs’ layout, residents say the queer community in Colorado Springs was (and is still) not very united. “We do not build up, we build out, and so geographically our community has been really disconnected for a really long time,” she adds. Other residents concur, calling the LGBTQ+ community in the city of 470,000 people “transient” and not “well connected.”

“We have a lot of turnover in Colorado Springs, and because of our conservative history, it feels like any queer folks move to Denver or out of state the second they turn 18,” Jonathan Tippetts, a 28-year-old financial advisor based in Colorado Springs, tells TIME.

Column: No One Should Be Surprised by the Mass Shooting at Club Q

Laney says the tragedy has created new connections as people look to build a sense of community again. “It brought a lot of groups that didn’t know about each other together, so we are able to support each other more in a more robust way,” Laney says.

Still, local leaders like newly-elected Colorado Springs Mayor Yemi Mobolade tell TIME that the city’s heart “is still heavy” from the “devastating and senseless act that happened at Club Q.” That is evident in the changes being made at organizations like Inside Out, which Smith says was closed for three months until staff was able to hire security guards for the center to ease parents’ and youth concerns about safety.

While the weight of the tragedy sits heavy on their shoulders, many residents have dedicated themselves to using that experience as motivation to live with joy. “I think it’s vital to show people we’re not going to go underground just because some people want us to. We have support and we have love and we have resilience,” Smith says.

“We have to shift our focus and understanding of the world we’re living in and make joy the thing that overshadows the fear or overshadows the negativity that we’re seeing,” she adds. “I’m holding that real close to my heart, to make joy the reality.”

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