Growing up queer in Colorado Springs

In the wake of the Club Q mass shooting, reflections on an adolescence in the ‘Evangelical Vatican.’

After I came out as gay at age 15, my family’s home was vandalized. No note was left, but the safe-sex poster taped to the front door made it clear that I was the target. My parents said that I was putting my younger sisters at risk with my “lifestyle choices.” Years later, my mom told me how many friends she’d lost because of my coming out, as though expecting an apology or thanks. 

In 2004, the country looked much different. Marriage equality was yet to come, and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was still in effect. Gay representation in popular culture ranged from the coiffed whiteness of Will and Grace to the satyric whiteness of Queer as Folk. Some things have not changed; LGBTQ people everywhere still face ostracism and violence. And Club Q was the only LGBTQ club I knew of in my hometown of Colorado Springs, a city of almost half a million.


At 15, I was very sad and very alone. I understood the concept of gayness, but I didn’t know any gay people. My coming out was a reaching out, a bid for understanding, although one therapist told my parents that I was just “going through a phase.” My parents, who didn’t have any gay friends, treated me like a stranger; I spent an entire summer under virtual house arrest. 

I felt as if I’d done something horribly wrong, and in a sense I had. From my house, I could see both the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy and the headquarters of Focus on the Family, one of the most virulently anti-LGBTQ organizations in the United States. Colorado Springs, which has been called the “Evangelical Vatican,” is home to no fewer than five military bases and 81 religious organizations. 

My coming out was a reaching out, a bid for understanding, although one therapist told my parents that I was just “going through a phase.” 

The influence of these twin forces on my town, and on my adolescence, was unmistakable. After 9/11, the advent of the War on Terror kicked patriotism into overdrive, triggering a concurrent war on difference that was magnified by the intense military presence in the city. Same-sex couples were banned from my prom. The school’s theater department faced opposition to its production of The Crucible because of the play’s examination of witchcraft. Students argued with librarians about the categorization of religious texts; some LDS students, for example, wanted the Book of Mormon separated from the other “false” Christianities. My almost completely white choir once performed an African American spiritual about picking cotton.

I hung out with the bad kids, the only ones who seemed aware of the absurdity of it all, the ones who circled the mall like a watering hole. They smoked on the hill before class, had sex in public restrooms, and couldn’t have cared less about my nascent sexuality. I grasped for any means of control: I wore all black and stopped eating, until, at 5 foot 9, I weighed just 111 pounds. I slept less and less and began to spend my nights wandering my neighborhood’s streets. Eventually, I ended up in a psychiatric institution, where my fellow patients included a girl in withdrawal from crystal meth and a small boy who said a red fox had told him to kill his mother.

I only went to Club Q once. That was in the summer of 2007. I was 18 years old, just out of high school, working at Old Navy to earn some money before leaving for college. That evening, I met up with one of my managers, who was bisexual. I turned into the Club Q parking lot, which is shielded from the street by a wall of trees. I wasn’t sure I was in the right place, but then I saw the club’s multicolored sign glowing softly in the nighttime haze.

It was my first time at a gay club — probably my first time at any club — and the novelty of each experience crashed gracelessly into the next. After the bouncer checked my ID, I entered a shadowy hallway that opened into a single large room dimly illuminated by reddish lights. T-Pain’s “Bartender” blared over the speakers: I like the bartender … I’m at the bar with her. … The clientele was mostly young, male, thin. I found my manager and her friends, and we danced in a loose semicircle, shuffling slowly from right foot to left. I tried to focus but was distracted by the proximity of the bodies of strangers. Strangers, but not really strangers.

I’d been out for three years by then, but the only other queers I’d met were through school — a severely limited pool. That night at Club Q, a world opened to me. I didn’t talk to any of the gently swaying dancers, but the air between us crackled with electricity. The shift from long-held fantasy to flesh-and-blood potential was almost too much to bear, its erotic jolt as powerful and unexpected as the flash of a Victorian woman’s bare ankles. In the semi-darkness, the differences between us melted away, holding out the possibility that, together, we could be whole.

Note: This story was updated to correct that Club Q was the only LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs. It was the only gay club the author knew about.

Brandon Sward is an artist, writer and doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. 

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