A center for anti-trans vitriol, Colorado Springs was ripe for violence - Insider
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — You stand in line at the grocery store and notice a man, holding his child's hand, turn to glare at you with naked disgust.
You are riding the bus when a man shouts Bible verses at you, calling you an abomination while the other passengers look away.
You avoid public restrooms, afraid you'll be attacked if you use one.
You get asked to leave the close-knit congregation where you dedicated decades of your life. You are told your former church is changing its bylaws to discourage you and other transgender people from attending services.
You receive three death threats. Your home is ransacked.
Your family, including your mother, refuses to speak with you.
You are preached at, hissed at, sneered at, and spat at.
You are called a "groomer" and a "pedophile." You are compared to an animal. You get the shit beaten out of you.
To be transgender in Colorado Springs is to live under siege.
But in the middle of all of that was Club Q. Club Q was a refuge, an "island," several transgender and gender-nonconforming locals told Insider. Queer or straight, cisgender or transgender, fabulous or farmhand — everyone was welcome here and made to feel safe. Until that day in late November, just hours after a punk drag performance, on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance, when a shooter entered Club Q and opened fire.
Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, is accused of murdering five people that night — including two transgender people, Daniel Aston and Kelly Loving — and wounding 17 others. The shooting also robbed a community of its sanctuary.
"I feel numb," said Parker Grey, a transgender man who was once a regular at the LGBTQ nightclub. He had stopped going to the club after the intensity of transphobia in Colorado Springs led him to try to hide his transgender identity. But now he's back, helping to organize vigils. He said he is grieving deeply but feels too calloused to break down and cry.
"I've become accustomed to it," he said. "I just expect to be met with nothing but negativity."
The hate state
Colorado Springs wasn't always an epicenter of homophobic and transphobic vitriol.
But in 1984, Ted Haggard founded his New Life Church here, which grew to more than 10,000 congregants as he lobbied against same-sex marriage. Focus on the Family, the conservative ministry and media powerhouse, moved its headquarters to Colorado Springs in 1990, its 45-acre campus becoming a national base for an increasingly political Christian right. Soon, the city became home to more than a hundred Christian-right ministries, many of which have incubated anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and mobilized against LGBTQ rights in the decades since.
Shortly after Focus on the Family arrived, this growing conglomerate of Colorado Springs ministries galvanized its political will to block progressive cities, including Boulder and Denver, from protecting LGBTQ rights. They backed a state constitutional amendment, Amendment 2, that would bar Colorado's municipalities from prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Activists poured in from around the country to oppose the measure, but in 1992 it passed decisively, and Colorado earned the moniker "the hate state."
Amendment 2 was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, and Haggard was forced out by New Life for "sexually immoral conduct" with a male escort. But through its Washington, DC, lobbying arm the Family Research Council and its radio shows, podcasts, and newsletters, Focus on the Family has continued to set the agenda on sexuality and gender for tens of millions of US evangelicals.
Through widely circulated pamphlets, slide decks, and podcasts, Focus on the Family now provides resources for how to advocate for your "parental rights" in opposing protections for transgender kids at school, supports conversion therapy for transgender youth, and reinforces anti-transgender messaging to millions of followers and millions more congregants of aligned Evangelical churches nationwide.
Such messaging is familiar at local Christian-right ministries such as The Road at Chapel Hills and the Church at Briargate. At The Road, which is deeply involved in local politics and puts together Christian voter guides, the senior pastor Steve Holt has preached that transgender identity is "demonic," the result of "massive evil." Scott Bottoms, the pastor at Briargate, was elected as a state representative in November; he has called drag performers "pedophiles" and said the death penalty is "too nice for pedophiles."
Insider asked Bottoms if he was concerned about the impact of his rhetoric on transgender people. "People that try to push our children to be transgenders and bring transgender dancers into our schools are pedophiles," Bottoms responded. "People that are pushing hormone therapies and surgeries on our children are pedophiles and should be treated as such."
A harassment campaign
Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School who monitors anti-LGBTQ extremist content online, said transphobic hate is now so widespread — circulating among anti-trans feminists, the Christian right, and violent hate groups such as neo-Nazis and white nationalists — that it has become a "self-reinforcing cycle," producing ever more hateful, violent messaging.
This demonizing vitriol has done more than spark a wave of anti-trans legislation, according to Heron Greenesmith, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates who monitors anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. "It is a harassment campaign," Greenesmith told Insider, one that may embolden perpetrators to take action.
An Insider analysis of five years of homicides targeting transgender people found that killings doubled between 2019 and 2021 as anti-trans legislation and rhetoric spiked.
Investigators are still working to uncover what motivated the attack; Aldrich has been charged with multiple counts of murder in the wake of the shooting at Club Q. Available evidence, including court records unsealed after a motion by a coalition of media outlets including Insider, paints a portrait of a young person primed for radicalization and violence. A sheriff's affidavit said Aldrich took grandparents Pamela and Jonathan Pullen hostage last year, threatening them with a homemade explosive device and claiming to be "the next mass killer." The confrontation ended in a standoff with SWAT teams, though all criminal charges were eventually dropped. Officers later found the home was stockpiled with weapons, ammunition, and body armor.
In a Facebook Live video streamed during the standoff and obtained by the Colorado Springs Gazette, Aldrich wears a bulletproof vest and a tactical helmet while pacing from room to room. "They've got a bead on me," Aldrich says, referring to the officers outside. "They've got their fucking rifles out. If they breach, I'm going to fucking blow it to holy hell."
A video obtained by Colorado Fox affiliate KDVR showed Aldrich shouting racist slurs while disembarking a plane at a Denver airport in June. Aldrich's neighbor Xavier Kraus, who said the two had been friends, told The Daily Beast that Aldrich frequently used a common anti-gay slur.
Kraus told NBC News that the FBI had questioned him about a website that, according to Kraus, Aldrich created. The site, which was recently taken down, was branded as a free-speech forum, but an archived version from December 11 shows that users favored certain kinds of speech — frequently posting racist and homophobic memes and calling for violence. A video featured on the home page glorifies other mass shootings, saying "anything other than mass eradication is a waste of time."
This website linked out to a "brother site," which, in an archived version from May 2022, features videos of the 2022 mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and the 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, which are among the most horrific acts of mass racial violence in recent years.
This second site was later updated. All the previous content was taken down and four videos labeled "streamtest" were posted just minutes before the police say Aldrich entered Club Q. One video shows the interior of a Toyota vehicle at 11:44 p.m., according to a dashboard clock. The police have said Aldrich drove a Toyota Highlander to Club Q; the first 911 call reporting gunfire came in at 11:56 p.m.
"It looks like he was preparing to stream it," wrote one poster to the extremist website Kiwi Farms. "Maybe he was a Christchurch copycat."
The hate rhetoric, the paranoid relationship to law enforcement, the apparent obsession with live streamed mass attacks all indicate that Aldrich may have been spurred to violence through active participation in a culture of online extremism. Experts call the killings that result stochastic, or "scripted," violence, because perpetrators are acting in response to demonizing rhetoric rather than to the command-and-control structure of a radical militia or extremist cell.
Extremists and hate-mongers on television and social media are "essentially creating a boogeyman and then unleashing forces on that boogeyman," Greenesmith said. Then they say, "Well, I didn't think this would happen," Greenesmith said. "The lack of specificity is the point."
It seems unlikely that anyone with a platform in 2022 could fail to see that such rhetoric risked being heard by the angry and unhinged as a call to action. Yet no one ordered a violent attack on Club Q, so those who trafficked in anti-transgender rhetoric have absolved themselves of responsibility.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, for example, whose congressional district is to the south and west of Colorado Springs and who was endorsed by the Family Research Council, has repeatedly described providing gender-affirming healthcare for transgender children as "grooming them" for sexual abuse. But she refused to take responsibility for the impact of her anti-transgender statements in the wake of the Club Q shooting.
"It's absolutely disgusting to try to blame this on me and try to say that I've had bad rhetoric about the LGBT community," Boebert told a Colorado radio program. "That is completely false."
Just weeks later, Boebert was back on Twitter mocking chosen pronouns and gender identities. Boebert didn't respond to Insider's request for comment.
'If we flee, they win'
At Club Q, the cruelty of that rhetoric is painfully real. A community memorial now decorates the low-slung building. Photos of the five people who were killed hang across its stone facade: Daniel Aston, 28, a Club Q bartender, performer, and self-proclaimed "master of silly business"; Derrick Rump, 38, whose warmth behind the bar, regulars said, "made Club Q"; Kelly Loving, 40, described by friends as "authentic and unapologetic," and who, a witness said, shielded another patron from the shooter; Raymond Green Vance, 22, who was celebrating a birthday that night with his girlfriend and her family; and Ashley Paugh, 35, mother to an 11-year-old daughter, who came to Club Q that night with a friend. The pavement around the club's entrance is piled high with flowers, candles, and notes of support.
Mourners drift in loose groups here, hugging, leaning on one another, or crying quietly. One brings a rainbow flag, another a poster with "teach your children love" in rainbow lettering. People from the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where a 2016 shooting left 49 dead, arrive to hang a black banner with messages of solidarity from survivors of that shooting and friends and family of those who were killed. "You deserved safety and I am so sorry this happened," one note reads.
"We refuse to disappear," reads another.
In front of Aston's photo, a mourner has left a can of Coors and a pack of American Spirit cigarettes. Beneath Loving's photo, a note card reads, "You were absolute magic."
Just days after the Club Q shooting, a sign outside Focus on the Family's headquarters was graffitied in black spray paint. "Their blood is on your hands," it read. "Five lives taken."
Focus on the Family didn't respond to queries from Insider. But Jim Daly, the organization's president, issued a statement on November 25. "We recognize the community is hurting in the aftermath of the reckless and violent actions of a very disturbed individual," he said. "This is a time for prayer, grieving and healing, not vandalism and the spreading of hate."
In the days that followed, Focus on the Family was again publishing blog posts accusing transgender people of "gender madness" and distorting "God's clear, intended design."
Michelle Harding hoped the church that exiled her after she came out as transgender would say a prayer for the victims the day after the shooting. She learned Sunday's sermon didn't mention the tragedy at all.
Less than two weeks later, she joined her regular transgender support group, the Prismatic Project, which still gathers in one of the city's few LGBTQ-friendly bars.
The bar, often packed and boisterous, has been closed intermittently since the shooting and is nearly empty at 8 p.m. on a weeknight. Blue lights whirl across an empty dance floor to a soundtrack of Madonna and Lady Gaga as members of the support group cluster over a table in the back. Their eyes flick nervously toward the doors. They're anxious about being targeted for another attack, but they're here because their community — their chosen family — is everything.
Lucas, a transgender man, and others requested that Insider withhold their last names, fearing they could be targeted for harassment. Lucas says he feels so raw now that he startles at loud noises. "It's infuriating," he says. "It's not safe anywhere."
Lucas is among several in the group who have only recently transitioned. They are enraged that after surviving so much daily abuse, they now have to absorb the blow of this deadly attack. "I shouldn't have to fight so hard to be who I am," says Kassandra Ellis, who waited 30 long years to be herself.
Hayden M. is livid. He belonged to a church for 20 years, but he says that anyone who uses their Christian faith to degrade others "can go back under a rock."
Erin senses a new solidarity within the city's transgender community. "The shooting was a tragedy, but it strengthened their enemy," she says. "We still want to come together — come together despite adversity."
"If we flee, they win," Lucas responds.
When asked if she feels afraid in the wake of the shooting, Harding coolly unbuckles a 3-inch hunting blade from a leather pouch on her belt and lays it on the table. "I would never use it," she says, "except to protect myself and them."