Colorado Springs shooting stokes fear in red California LGBTQ community

After five people were shot dead at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Matthew Grigsby thought of Club 501.

It was the only gay bar in Redding, a Northern California city of 93,000 that, like Colorado Springs, is deeply religious and conservative.

There, Grigsby felt comfortable holding hands or dancing with another man.

Club 501 closed this summer, leaving Grigsby and other LGBTQ people without a place to be themselves. The news of Club Q in Colorado Springs was another gut punch.

“There’s no safe place anywhere,” said Grigsby, 53, in a trembling voice. “It doesn’t matter where we are or what we do. People will come for us.”

In politically red areas of California — from the old logging towns of the north to the dusty farmlands of the Central Valley — the Colorado Springs massacre was another devastating reminder of how difficult and lonely it can be to be queer in conservative America.

A person holds a rainbow flag in front of a theater

Ronnie Cassis raises a gay pride flag in front of the Tower Theater in Fresno.

(Tomas Ovalle / For the Time)

There are few, if any, gay bars or other LGBTQ-friendly hangouts in this state’s more rural counties, where queer people say they live with a growing sense of foreboding.

“Redding is predominantly conservative. So of course it sharpens our senses,” said Roberta Mayberry, spokeswoman for the Wolfpack Clubhouse, a nonprofit for LGBTQ women in Shasta County.

The Colorado Springs attack comes at a time when hateful rhetoric against LGBTQ people — particularly from Republican politicians and conservative pundits — is on the rise.

Like Club 501, Club Q was a haven for LGBTQ people. Colorado Springs is home to megachurches and influential Christian right-wing groups like Focus on the Family, which have popularized the term “family values” and opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Officials have not given a possible motive for the shooting, but it is being investigated as a hate crime.

Lawyers said the suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, is non-binary and uses she/them pronouns. Aldrich is the grandson of California Rep. Randy Voepel (R-Santee).

During the 12 years that Archer Lombardi owned the Chico pub The Maltese, known for its drag shows and burlesque performances, he was always afraid of violence.

“There has never been a time when I haven’t had nightmares of someone walking in and opening fire on us,” said Lombardi, a transgender man.

Sometimes when he was sweeping the sidewalk in front of the bar, people would yell out anti-gay slurs from pickup trucks, he said.

Lombardi closed the Maltese in February after two years of economic troubles during the COVID-19 pandemic. He and his partner bought a farm. Other venues have started hosting drag shows, but there are no other gay bars in or around Chico, home of Cal State Chico.

“Chico is a pretty cool town and usually pretty supportive of the LGBTQ+ community for the most part,” Lombardi said. “It’s just that things get a little too red and a little less gay-friendly once you start getting out of Chico.”

A person takes a selfie with a rainbow flag in front of a crowd

Susan Thornton Zahn takes a selfie with others attending a Pride potluck in rural Susanville, California in June 2022.

(Susan ThorntonZahn)

In rural California, being openly gay is an act of defiance, said Jacob Hibbitts, a board member of the young Lassen Pride Network, who lives in Susanville with his husband Richard Colvin.

“We live a pretty quiet life here,” said Hibbitts, 36. “Our home is our space to be ourselves, but when you walk out the door, you never know.”

The nearest gay bars are 85 miles away in Reno or a 3½ hour drive south of Sacramento.

Hibbitts said his husband is “more feminine” than he is – he prefers fancy hats, slightly heeled shoes and handbags – but is toning down his appearance in Susanville for his own safety.

Still, Hibbitts couldn’t resist gifting him a cherry red Dooney & Bourke handbag last year. Colvin proudly shows it.

Two men are smiling and holding a mini rainbow flag

Jacob Hibbitts and his husband Richard Colvin at the Pride Potluck in rural Susanville, California in June 2022.

(Susan ThorntonZahn)

“He still carries his Dooney to Walmart just to throw it at her” — the haters — “and I love him for it,” Hibbitts said.

Hibbitts helped organize a Pride potluck at a Susanville park this summer, days after a rainbow flag was stolen outside a local domestic violence center. Undercover and uniformed police officers were present.

After the Colorado shooting, organizers are nervous because they could have another potluck. But now it’s more important than ever to be visible, Hibbitts said.

“We will plan drag queens. We will not remain silent,” he said. “This is the queer community. If you come to us, we will come back to you.”

Brian Poth — a retired gay actor who has starred in CSI: Miami, True Blood, and other shows — recalled the culture shock of moving back to his hometown of Visalia in rural Tulare County in 2014.

Poth had lived for years behind Hamburger Mary’s, a drag-themed burger joint in West Hollywood.

There were no LGBTQ bars in Visalia. He couldn’t find a therapist or doctor he trusted. There were queer-owned businesses, but they didn’t put up rainbow flags.

“I would go to Starbucks and Target because at least I would find queer people working there,” Poth said.

In 2016, he and a friend opened an LGBTQ resource center called Source in Visalia. A month later, a gunman killed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Such was the need for a physical space of LGBTQ service in the San Joaquin Valley that The Source grew rapidly. It opened with a budget of $20,000. This year it had a $2 million budget, 12 full-time employees, and services for HIV patients, transgender people, and youth.

At the local level, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric typically spikes around election season, Poth said.

This fall, an event for teenagers organized by The Source — a film screening followed by a drag show — was moved from a Visalia theater to a less visible location after school board candidates blasted it on social media and anti-LGBTQ comments became threatening.

But for the most part, Poth said, the city has been supportive.

A memorial with flowers and photos of people

Noah Reich (left) and David Maldonado erected a memorial with photos of the five victims of a shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

(David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

Tulare County Chairperson Amy Shuklian, the first lesbian on the board, said when she first ran for Visalia City Council in 2005, her mother worried about her safety.

She has received a few comments about having “a gay agenda”. But she is just as rural as everyone else and feels comfortable in Visalia, she said.

Shuklian grew up on her family’s farm on the border of Tulare and Kings counties. She has a concealed carry weapon license. She and her partner Mary have been together for more than two decades.

She said she has lived her life authentically and hopes this will set an example for others.

When she saw the news from Colorado, she thought, “Oh god, not again.”

In Shasta County, Carlos Zapata said he, too, “had a hole in his stomach” when he found out about Club Q.

Zapata – a controversial figure in Northern California – is a vocal member of a local militia. He helped lead this year’s successful recall campaign against a Republican district leader who was ousted in part for complying with state-mandated COVID-19 guidelines.

Zapata, a Marine Corps veteran, also owns the Palomino Room, a bar and restaurant in Red Bluff. He said people would probably be surprised he’s pro-LGBTQ rights. If anyone ever made a gay customer “feel uncomfortable about loving,” they would kick them out, he said.

“That’s the problem in rural America: there are so many good things about it, but when it comes to gay views, we’re so far behind,” he said.

Grigsby, a Shasta County government worker born and raised in Redding, said he’s never felt accepted in his hometown for being gay — except at Club 501, a tiny dive bar on a quiet side street.

“Once you cross the threshold, you could hold hands, you could kiss your date, you could dance together, you could hug your friends,” he said. “You could breathe out and kind of shut out everything from the outside.”

Grigsby recently went on a date at a bowling alley.

“We didn’t hold hands. We didn’t sit too close together,” he said. “You don’t invite for verification in this town. It may look good inside, but outside there might be someone waiting next to your car and you need to be aware of that.”

In this climate, many LGBTQ people are leaving rural and conservative areas, he said.

“But I’ll be damned if I get kicked out of my town,” he said. “I’m not what’s wrong with this place. I’m not broken.”

Redding is home to Bethel Church, which preaches that homosexuality is sinful and opposes California bills to crack down on so-called conversion therapy, which is said to “cure” people of same-sex attraction.

Members of the megachurch would sometimes show up at Club 501, buy guests drinks — and then start talking to them about God, Grigsby said.

Club 501, the owner of which could not be reached for comment, closed in June.

A few days later, a motion to recognize LGBTQ Pride Month went before the Shasta County Board of Supervisors.

Citing scripture, some public speakers said LGBTQ people are looking for special privileges that are not afforded to straight people.

A friend of a local gay couple murdered by two white supremacist brothers in 1999 asked supervisors to “change this image of Shasta County as a hateful place.”

The application failed. Colorado Springs shooting stokes fear in red California LGBTQ community

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