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When a safe haven for the LGBTQ community is no longer safe

After a mass shooting, LGBTQ patrons at a Colorado nightclub lost friends, co-workers, and a place to call home.

Je-Zeravon Swisher, center, cried as he stood next to his partner Jonathon Willis while paying their respects to the victims of the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Nov. 20.JASON CONNOLLY/AFP via Getty Images

At the end of our work week each Friday, my friend Jo would walk by my desk and whisper, “See you in church.”

She wasn’t referring to a house of worship nor was she being blasphemous. “Church” was the nickname we gave Shangri-La, our favorite LGBTQ nightclub in Fort Lauderdale because, for us, it was a sacred space.

That’s how it is with LGBTQ nightspots. There’s music, dancing, alcohol, maybe even a buffet if you were lucky and arrived early. But also true is what many patrons of a Colorado Springs, Colo., nightclub have said since a mass shooting there Saturday — Club Q is where they built community and found a home.


In a TV interview, Joshua Thurman called Club Q “one of the first places that I felt accepted to be who I am. It’s supposed to be our safe place.” He was dancing when the shooting began. At least five people were killed and 25 injured.

“This is our home. This is our space,” Thurman said. “We come here to enjoy ourselves, and this happens?”

We live in a time when “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is an Emmy perennial. Out LGBTQ characters exist in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). Governor Jared Polis of Colorado is the nation’s first out gay governor, and in January, there will be two lesbian governors — Maura Healey of Massachusetts and Tina Kotek of Oregon.

Support for same-sex marriage reached a record 71 percent this year. And while it stops short of codifying the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act means states and the federal government can’t reject legal marriages based on a couple’s “sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.” A repeal of 1996’s odious Defense of Marriage Act, it could receive final passage this week.


Of course, progress has never meant expanded LGBTQ acceptance goes unchallenged. In mostly Republican-led state legislatures, more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced this year. Books by queer authors have been banned in schools and states are restricting gender-affirming health care for trans youth. Suicidal ideation remains alarmingly high for LGBTQ youth, especially among trans and nonbinary people.

This is why LGBTQ spaces like Club Q aren’t just favorite watering holes where everyone knows your name. For many of us, stepping into a queer club marks the first time we can say our own names with the fullness of who we are. We find communion. If only for a few hours a week, we can exhale — our souls unshackled, our tongues untied.

As a young adult not yet out to friends and family, it took me weeks to work up the nerve to go to a lesbian bar. I was so anxious I asked the cab driver to drop me off several blocks away. Only when he drove off, his taxi’s taillights fading into pinpoints, did I sprint to the club’s back door.

That’s how it was in those days. Patrons usually entered through rear doors where they were less likely to be seen. Signs and addresses weren’t always prominently displayed. None donned rainbow logos. Going out sometimes meant traveling to the sketchiest parts of town. But once I walked inside, I’d found a home.


That’s not to say I didn’t keep an eye on the door. Even before mass shootings became too common, I always worried about the potential for violence wrought by hate-filled outsiders.

But those worries never deterred me from heading to my favorite clubs. Shangri-La was 45 miles away from my apartment and I rarely missed ending my Saturday nights and starting my Sunday mornings there dancing under the lights.

Like many other LGBTQ clubs, Shangri-La closed. Either through customer attrition or gentrification, it’s a similar story in cities and towns nationwide. That includes the Boston area, which long ago lost some of its most legendary clubs such as Haymarket, The 1270, Chaps, and Indigo.

Yet efforts to revive the LGBTQ club scene are a testament to the need for spaces to call our own. After a gunman massacred 49 people and injured dozens at Pulse in 2016, the popular Orlando nightclub did not reopen. Last year President Biden designated it as a national memorial. A museum and memorial are now planned for the site.

With funerals being planned and some victims still in the hospital, it’s too soon to know if Club Q will reopen. But its wounded community needs a place to cry and mourn and, someday, to laugh and dance together. A sense of safety shattered is hard to repair. But whether it’s Club Q or elsewhere, I hope they again find the strength to gather, create communion, and make their sacred queer space a home.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.