Long before a shooter walked through its doors one week ago and opened fire, Club Q on Colorado Springs’ busy North Academy Boulevard held a special place in the heart of the city’s LGBTQ community.
The club now sits at the center of a national conversation surrounding hate-motivated crimes, fueled by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from politicians and public figures — and the community is grappling with the violence aimed at some of its most vulnerable citizens.
Colorado’s latest mass shooting, which unfolded over the course of a few minutes late on Nov. 19, took the lives of five people — Daniel Davis Aston, Kelly Loving, Ashley Paugh, Derrick Rump and Raymond Green Vance — left 18 injured and countless others scarred.
People up and down the Front Range recall Club Q before last weekend’s bloodshed. They remember it as a sanctuary within a city that can often castigate those who dare to be different.
They tell stories of their first visit to the club, how the people inside lifted them up and helped them find themselves. They think back to the moment when they first waded into a new community, one that accepted them unconditionally with bright colors and costumes, cocktails and music to which you couldn’t help but dance.
Club Q meant something different to everybody who set foot inside, but the underlying thread connecting those different stories is a sense of belonging.
These are a few of those stories:
“Some of the best moments of my entire life”
She remembers donning a red dress with tights underneath because it was cold that night. She remembers her high-heeled furry boots and Derrick Rump behind the bar.
Ashlynn Mcatee, 25, remembers her first night at Club Q well, the welcoming and accepting atmosphere for a young woman first understanding and exploring her gender identity. That was the first time she had worn a dress, the first time she ventured into a public place as the person she is now.
“I didn’t understand women’s fashion back then but now I realize it was a statement,” Mcatee said. “It was the first dress I ever bought. I thought it was so pretty.
“I just wanted to look pretty and hoped that people got the message and they absolutely did,” she added.
REMEMBERING CLUB Q VICTIMS
- Daniel Davis Aston, 28
- Kelly Loving, 40
- Ashley Paugh, 35
- Derrick Rump, 38
- Raymond Green Vance, 22
Mcatee, who grew up in Falcon, northeast of Colorado Springs, said she had been nervous to head to the club. A few of her friends knew the scene well and encouraged her to go. She quickly made new friends as patrons barraged her with compliments about how pretty she looked that night.
Saturday night quickly turned into early Sunday morning, especially with bottomless drinks for just $20, Mcatee said.
“So dangerous,” she said, laughing. “I remember Derrick after, like, my seventh drink of the night, he said, ‘Alright, girl, you need to watch yourself with the drinks.’ I said, ‘And you’re doing a fabulous job making them.’”
For years to come, Mcatee said Rump made a point to recognize her every time she walked into the club, a detail often repeated about the well-loved bartender.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Mcatee said. “I remember it being 1:30 a.m. and knowing that they closed at 2. I was so sad because this had been the best moment of my life. I never wanted it to end.”
That was either late 2018 or early 2019, Mcatee said, and Club Q became a safe space for her to visit often, a home where she knew she’d be accepted and welcomed no matter what.
“At first it was a little much because I come from a conservative family,” Mcatee said. “But after I demolished the walls of the Christianity I grew up in, I realized that the people I met there were more loving… than anyone I ever met.”
Laughter, smiles, compliments and — of course — music filled the club every night, Mcatee said. Bartenders, regulars and even one-time visitors became her family. Everybody dressed however they wanted, spent time with whomever they wanted. All without fear of judgment.
Mcatee moved briefly to Arizona, and while there were clubs there as well, she never forgot the way Club Q made her feel. After moving back to Colorado Springs in 2020, she immediately went back to the club and it was as though she had never left.
“Those were some of the best moments of my entire life,” Mcatee said.
“The beacon for… where you could go be yourself”
Tony Kichton typically went to Club Q alone. No need to bring friends. He already had so many there.
And if he didn’t recognize anybody, which was unlikely, he’d surely meet new friends.
Kichton, 30, originally from New Jersey, a self-described military brat and an Air Force veteran, has moved around a lot. He lives in Colorado Springs once more, and no other place can quite compete with the home that Club Q turned out to be.
“The best and closest friends I’ve made here are all the people I met at Q,” he said. “It really was the gay place, the beacon for Colorado Springs where you could go be yourself.”
Kichton, 30, said he first checked out Club Q about a decade ago. Derrick Rump, a bartender killed in the shooting, was one of the first people to take him aside and say, “I’ll take care of you.”
Daniel Aston, another bartender killed that night, was also a friendly face Kichton saw often.
Many nights Kichton said he’d arrive at Club Q and sit at the bar with his sketchbook, just drawing and sipping on drinks.
Other times someone would pull him onto the floor for karaoke. On those occasions, he’d typically sing Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.”
And once, the crowd even got Kichton into boots and a wig for his first-ever drag performance.
The memory’s a little fuzzy, Kichton said. A bit of alcohol had been involved. But there was no judgment, only encouragement and fun as he danced to P!nk’s “U + Ur Hand.”
“It was sloppy but I had a lot of fun,” Kichton said. “I sure hope no videos exist.”
“Good, innocent people trying to have a safe place”
Club Q isn’t exactly the easiest place to find or visit. It sits six or seven miles from downtown Colorado Springs, on the west side of the city’s busy North Academy Boulevard.
And the first time Jayde Melgosa drove down from Denver to perform there — as Victoria Mykels-Sexton — she wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I felt so confused,” Melgosa said. “I was like, ‘This looks like a little strip mall. Is this the place?’”
But outside looks can be deceiving, Melgosa, 42, said, and, once inside, Club Q opened up to one big space. Head downstairs to the bathhouse if you want, or look to your right, past the runway and a huge stage to the bar along the wall.
The place holds a special place in Melgosa’s heart. She said she’s performed all around, been stiffed or underpaid by bars, and had a variety of unpleasant experiences. But not at Club Q.
“Club Q never did me that way, they always gave me what they promised me,” Melgosa said.
Colorado Springs has always had few clubs for the LGBTQ community. Melgosa recalls the now-defunct Bubbles and Hide ‘n’ Seek as unique and welcoming places to those who feel oppressed or judged by a heavily Evangelical community or members of the military still living in the closet.
After those bars closed, Club Q replaced them as a beacon for anyone looking for a place to fit in, Melgosa said.
“Good, innocent people trying to have a safe place, trying to have fun and be themselves,” Melgosa said.
The thought of Club Q brings back plenty of happy memories, some of them perhaps a little hazy, Melgosa said. She recalled dancing often and grabbing food at a nearby Denny’s afterward.
Once she fell off the stage.
“I don’t know what I was doing but I slipped and fell into the lap of this lesbian. She grabbed me and everybody thought it was part of the performance,” Melgosa said. “She said, ‘I’m gonna pick you up and twirl you,’ and she did. And I just kissed everyone and went backstage.”
Another time, a winter storm hit and snow trapped everybody inside the bar.
The staff took care of everybody inside and fed them, Melgosa said.
“Lucky I had my big, poofy dress,” she said with a laugh. “Me and my drag son used it like a sleeping bag.”
“It was a place where people evolved”
When Valentino Ortiz’s close friend dragged him back to Club Q, where he’d come of age in his 20s, he didn’t know how vital it would be for the next chapter of his life.
He felt like he was on shaky ground when he returned to Colorado Springs about seven years ago, after leaving what felt like everything — a broken relationship, friends, a close community — behind in Utah. He was grappling with a new bipolar disorder diagnosis. And he was early in his transition to living as a man, unsure how he’d fit in.
“Club Q became a safe space for me to remember that I’m truly never alone,” he said, a place where he was always welcomed “by the workers, by the drag queens and whoever was there.”
The nightclub gave Ortiz, now 39, room to blossom twice.
His family had moved from Englewood to Colorado Springs when he was 14. He recalls finding Club Q for the first time as he was finishing up college at Adams State University in Alamosa, more than two hours away, and as he got settled back in the city.
The nightclub embraced Ortiz, his partner and their friends.
“It was just a place to find ourselves in our coming-out process,” said Ortiz, who identified as a lesbian at the time. “It wasn’t just about going out and getting drunk and being wild. We were there because it was a tremendous support for one another.”
Years later, after a detour to the Salt Lake City area, he was coming out again. And Colorado Springs hasn’t been an easy place for a gender transition.
“I deal with that every day — with people staring and questioning, with people misgendering me,” Ortiz said. “I deal with having to explain myself. … That’s all right, that’s what I chose. But some days, you want to escape that.”
So at the urging of his friend, Kenny Lovato, he went to Club Q. And he kept going — for the drag performances, for the karaoke nights, for the dance floor, for the DJ who would play the favorite Chris Brown songs he requested.
He was often there Saturday nights with friends, but not last weekend. The texts and Facebook messages that poured in the next morning came as a shock.
“It’s a difficult thing for me, because the LGBTQ community isn’t invisible,” he said. “We’re here. We live our lives. We go to work. We have children. I don’t understand what it is that keeps people from acceptance.”
Though Ortiz says he has a supportive family, he savors the close-knit LGBTQ community he found inside Club Q, something that can be elusive in a city that is short on resources geared toward their needs.
“So often, people think of Club Q as this bar,” he said, but it was where people forged new bearings. “It was a place where people evolved — and I think people need to understand and know that.”
“At Club Q, they just embrace you. We’re all we have.”
Club Q was home to Jesse Lopez’s first date with his husband. Home to his first on-stage performance as a male performer. Home to his husband’s first reading during a “Drag Queen Story Hour.”
Club Q was, in a word, home.
“When we lived (in Colorado Springs), we had to pick and choose where we held hands in public,” said Lopez, who recently moved back to Denver. “We had to decide where we were safe or not safe. On Sundays, we would go out to dinner and we would see churchgoers. We always tried to be mindful of where we were at.
“But the one place we could be who we were without ignorance, without fear, was Club Q. For that reason, it is home.”
Lopez comes from a conservative family in New Mexico, where he wasn’t exposed to LGBTQ culture. He had won awards singing gospel and grew up performing on TV, but, until about six years ago, had never done something ostentatious as being a male entertainer at an LGBTQ club. He likened it to a drag queen-like performance, with big elaborate costumes and dance numbers, but without the gender flipping.
He remembers donning a white button-down shirt with beads glued to it and some black slacks for his first performance — a muted affair compared to the red sequined robe he danced in just before the pandemic. He called himself “dry at the time. I hadn’t embraced this performance in the gay community.”
But Club Q embraced him. Club Q’s humble stage launched him to bigger ones, with brighter lights, across the country, and, eventually as Mr. Gay World Colorado.
He never entirely left Club Q, even as he moved away and traveled around. A group date over fried appetizers last summer led to a whirlwind romance and marriage to his husband. They would still visit every week or, usually during quieter times, to enjoy a cocktail and talk with the staff that’s become family.
His husband, who served in the Army, even invited his platoon’s leaders to one of his “Drag Queen Story Hour” performances.
Colorado Springs fits a niche in the state as the closest, biggest city for many in the southern part of Colorado. While Club Q isn’t the only place there that’s LGBTQ-friendly in the city, it’s one of the few, if not only, places explicitly for that community, Lopez said.
That makes it a beacon for LGBTQ people, and Club Q a “haven” that’s not found in bigger cities with more and varied venues, Lopez said. That made it all the more important for Lopez to have kept going to Club Q to show new performers the same support that boosted him not long ago.
“I see these new queens and these new male entertainers, they’re just starting and they’re so unseasoned,” Lopez said. “At locations all across the country, they might be laughed at, people might ask what’s up with their makeup. But at Club Q, they just embrace you. We’re all we have.”
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