COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Under the domed dome and dark wooden beams of a church in Colorado Springs, a gay male choir rehearsed for a concert that took on new meaning after an LGBTQ nightclub was the scene of a gruesome shooting that killed five and 17 wounded.
“There is no peace on earth, I said,” sang the choir. “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth.”
The ancient lyrics echoing through the halls of First Congregational Church were haunted by new memories of the November 21 violence at Club Q – the sound of screams over club music, the sight of gunshot wounds being stuffed with napkins and people , begging their friends to keep breathing.
In the 13 days since the shooting, Colorado Springs’ LGBTQ community has worked to rally and move forward. Club Q patrons – those who survived the shooting, as well as regulars who weren’t there last Saturday – have organized fundraisers for victims’ families, leaned on queer-affirmative clergy and their commitment to LGBTQ spaces and organizations, including Out Loud, renews Colorado Springs male choir.
Born out of the 1978 assassination of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, gay and lesbian choirs like Out Loud have been steadfast pillars of the LGBTQ community from the AIDS crisis to mass shootings like Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016 remained.
In Colorado Springs, members of Out Loud were preparing for three sold-out concerts, their first performances since the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing them to cancel shows. The rehearsals brought laughter and sometimes teary-eyed, chins up and heads held forward defiantly. They send a clear message: “We say we’re still here,” said Marius Nielsen, a transgender man, who sang from the front row at a rehearsal Wednesday night.
In a training session, Nielsen collapsed while singing. He said he felt the swelling power of the people around him through the music.
“Everyone has you, even when you falter,” he said.
The concert’s celebratory tones underscored a largely joyous event that saw talented singers belt out medleys of Christmas carols, some cornier than others. Members of the choir dressed like the Three Kings in robes – but with feather-light, neon-colored scarves – and struck go-go dancer poses. Another performer, wearing Claus-style shorts, gushed about Santa.
“We’re going to grieve, we’re going to feel anger and sadness, and in the midst of it we’re going to feel joy and hope,” said Bill Loper, the concert’s artistic director.
Standing three rows behind Nielsen, Rod Gilmore said the chorus keeps him going. With violent memories still fresh, Club-Q shooting survivor Gilmore said he would have re-entered the closet he left last year at the age of 55 if it weren’t for those at church next to him would have stood.
“It’s given me comfort and a comfortable feeling that relaxes me and makes me feel like I’m a whole of something, not just a part,” Gilmore said.
Colorado Springs residents are working to spread that sense of togetherness throughout their town. Matthew Haynes, co-owner of Club Q, wants to redesign and set up a garden and memorial to celebrate the lives lost. A friend cooked a vegan casserole for the owners. A Las Vegas resident drove to Colorado Springs to play a piano strapped to the back of his red Toyota pickup.
“There’s no playbook for that,” said Haynes, who has started a GoFundMe page dedicated to “bringing Club Q back as a safe place for Colorado Springs.” His first goal is to ensure that survivors and those who mourn are supported.
At a memorial service Wednesday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis paid his respects in front of a row of flowers and admired photos of the lost. In 2018, Polis became the first openly gay man to be elected governor of the United States
A retired teacher who worked near Columbine High School during the 1999 mass shooting dropped flowers next to a stuffed pink flamingo and said he was concerned these tragedies had become so commonplace that people were desensitized.
Amid vigils, marches and statements of support on social media, Aaron Cornelius is among those in Colorado Springs calling for the tragedy to be mourned and remembered.
“We’re not going away,” Cornelius told a large audience Tuesday night at Lulu’s Downstairs, a bar west of Colorado Springs that was holding a silent auction that featured poets, speakers and musicians. “This community is much stronger than you think. They think we are vulnerable; They think we are weak.”
On stage, they vacillated between fiery calls to challenge the status quo and gentler messages that called for love, not hate.
Candles lit the faces of the audience as they sang, “I am valid. I deserve to be safe. I may be afraid, but bravery is going out and living in the face of fear. I am brave. I am brave.”
During the auction, a pastor, who described himself as a “lesbian later in life,” perused custom wine bottles marked Club Q and the date of the massacre, along with haircut gift cards and a dog bandana that read, “I love my dads.” ”
Wyatt Kent, a drag queen who performed at Club Q on the night of the shooting, read poetry and anecdotes from her partner Daniel Aston, who was killed working behind the bar.
In an anecdote, Aston, a transgender man, wrote of moving from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Colorado Springs and how he’d grown into himself: “I’m less of a doormat, I’m more confident, I have a job as a bartender that I love. I don’t want to die anymore.”
Kent then read one of Aston’s poems, which Kent described as Aston’s help to the community: “Some things never make sense, like salmon down the river, like sweat rolling down your sleeve. That’s the way things work.”
“All of that is part of healing: laughing, crying, everything. And then just be together. After something like that, of course you want a human,” said event organizer Kittie Kilner.
This mix of pride and anger, laughter and tears is Out Loud’s goal for their upcoming Christmas concerts.
“Music is magic,” said choir member Josh Campbell. “We don’t talk to each other, but … we connect on an emotional level.”
The small audience felt the magic at rehearsal as the choir continued “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” a Christmas carol based on a Civil War-era poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about his wounded son.
Her despair eased as the music neared resolution: “Then the bells rang louder and deeper: God is not dead, nor sleeps.” Wrong will fail…right will triumph with peace on earth.”
AP writer Sam Metz contributed from Salt Lake City. Jesse Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics.
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