COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — When officers unfurled a 25-foot rainbow flag in front of Colorado Springs City Hall this week, people gathered to mourn the victims a mass shooting at a popular gay club couldn’t help but think how such a show of support would have been unthinkable just days before.
With a growing and diversified population, the city in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains is a patchwork of diverse social and cultural fabrics. It’s a place full of art shops and breweries; megachurches and military bases; a liberal arts college and the Air Force Academy. For years it’s marketed itself as an outdoor boomtown with a population that will surpass Denver by 2050.
But last weekend’s shooting has raised uncomfortable questions about the lingering legacy of cultural conflicts that caught fire decades ago and earned Colorado Springs a reputation as a cauldron of religious conservatism, where LGBTQ people didn’t sit well with the most vocal community leaders. idea of family values.
For some, just seeing police taking care to refer to victims with their correct pronouns this week was a seismic shift. For others, the shocking act of violence in a place designated as an LGBTQ haven shattered a sense of optimism that permeated everywhere from the city’s revitalized downtown to the sprawling suburbs.
“It feels like the city is at this tipping point,” said Candace Woods, a queer pastor and minister who has called Colorado Springs her home for 18 years. “It feels interesting and weird, like there’s this tension: How are we going to decide how we want to move forward as a community?”
In recent decades, the population has almost doubled to 480,000 people. More than a third of the population is non-white – twice as many as in 1980. The median age is 35 years. Politics here is more conservative than in cities of comparable size. City council debates revolve around issues familiar throughout Mountain West, such as water, housing and the threat of wildfires.
Residents are proud to describe Colorado Springs as a place defined by reinvention. In the early 20th century, newcomers attempted to establish a resort town in the shadow of Pikes Peak. Military bases were added in the 1940s. In the 1990s it rose to prominence as a home base for evangelical nonprofits and Christian ministries, including the Focus on the Family Broadcasting Department and the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys.
“I’ve reflected for years that we’re in the midst of a transition about what Colorado Springs is, who we are, and what we’ve become,” said Matt Mayberry, a historian who directs the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.
The idea of settling down in a town with a bright future is part of what drew Michael Anderson, a bartender at Club Q who survived last weekend’s shooting, here.
Two friends, Derrick Rump and Daniel AstonShe helped him land the job at Club Q and find his “queer family” in his new hometown. It was more welcoming than rural Florida where he grew up.
Still, he noted signs that the city was more culturally conservative than others of a similar size and much of Colorado: “Colorado Springs is kind of an outlier,” he said.
He is now mourning the loss of Rump and Aston, both of whom were killed while club shooting.
Leslie Herod followed an opposite trajectory. After growing up in Colorado Springs in a military family — like many others in the city — she left the country to attend the University of Colorado in the liberal city of Boulder. In 2016, she was elected to the Colorado General Assembly as the first openly LGBTQ and Black person, representing a portion of Denver. Now she’s running for mayor of Denver.
“Colorado Springs is a community of love. But I will also acknowledge that I made the decision to leave Springs because I felt when it came down to it…the elected leadership, the vocal leadership in this community, didn’t support all people, didn’t support black people, did not support immigrants or LGBTQ people,” Herod said at a downtown memorial service.
She said she found community at Club Q when she returned from college, but that sense of belonging kept her from forgetting that people and groups with a history of anti-LGBTQ attitudes and rhetoric continued to influence city politics.
“This community, like any other community in the country, is complex,” she said.
Herod and others who have been around long enough recall this week how in the 1990s, at the height of the influence of the religious right, the Colorado Springs-based group Colorado for Family Values led a nationwide push to change Pass Amendment 2 and make it illegal for municipalities to enact regulations to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.
Colorado Springs voted 3-1 for Amendment 2 and helped facilitate their narrow statewide victory. Though later ruled unconstitutional, the campaign cemented the city’s reputation, attracted more like-minded groups, and mobilized progressive activists in response.
The influx of evangelical groups decades ago was fueled, at least in part, by city business development efforts to provide financial incentives to attract nonprofit organizations. Newcomers began lobbying for policies such as the abolition of Halloween celebrations in schools, suspecting the holiday’s pagan origins.
Yemi Mobolade, an entrepreneur running for mayor as an independent, didn’t understand the strong stigma of Colorado Springs as a “hate town” until he moved here 12 years ago. But since he’s been here, he said, it’s recovered from the struggles of the recession and has come alive culturally and economically for all kinds of people.
There was a concerted effort to shed the city’s reputation as “Jesus Springs” and redecorate it once more, emphasizing its elite Olympic training center and branding itself as Olympic City USA.
Much like the 1990s, the Focus on the Family and New Life Church remains prominent in the city. After the shooting, Focus on the Family President Jim Daly said he shared the rest of the community in mourning the tragedy. With the city in the national spotlight, the organization wants to make it clear that it stands against hate, he said.
Daly noted a generational shift among Christian leaders away from the rhetorical style of his predecessor, Dr. James Dobson. While Focus on the Family has published literature debating the so-called “homosexual agenda” for the past few decades, its message now emphasizes tolerance and ensures that those who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman have the right to act accordingly.
“I think in a pluralistic culture the idea now is: how do we all live without kicking each other?” Daly said.
This week’s memorials drew a wave of visitors: crowds of mourners with flowers, crowds of TV crews, and also a church group whose volunteers set up a tent and distributed biscuits, coffee and water. For some in the LGBTQ community, the scene was less a matter of solidarity and more a cause for dismay.
Colorado Springs native Ashlyn May, who grew up in a Christian church but left when she didn’t accept her queer identity, said a woman from the group in the tent asked to pray for her and a friend, who accompanied her to the memorial.
She said yes. It reminded May of her beloved great-grandparents, who were religious. But as the prayers continued, and the woman urged May and her friend to turn to God, she felt as if prayer had been turned into booty. It brought back memories of hearing things about LGBTQ people that she found hateful and inflammatory.
“It felt very contradictory,” May said.
Metz reported from Salt Lake City. AP writers Brittany Peterson and Jesse Bedayn in Colorado Springs contributed.