The co-owner of the Colorado Springs gay nightclub that was the scene of a mass shooting believes the attack is a reflection of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment that has evolved from prejudice to incitement.

Authorities haven’t said why the suspect allegedly opened fired at the club on Saturday, killing five people and wounding 17 others. The suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, has not entered a plea or spoken about the incident but is facing possible hate crime charges.

Club Q co-owner Nic Grzecka said he believed the targeting of a drag event was connected to the art form being cast in a false light in recent months by rightwing activists and politicians who complain about the “sexualization” or “grooming” of children.

“It’s different to walk down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand and getting spit at, [as opposed to] a politician relating a drag queen to a groomer of their children,” Grzecka said. “I would rather be spit on in the street than the hate get as bad as where we are today.”

Earlier this year, Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a bill barring teachers from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation with younger students. A month later, references to “pedophiles” and “grooming” in relation to LGBTQ+ people rose 400%, according to a report by the Human Rights Campaign.

“Lying about our community, and making them into something they are not, creates a different type of hate,” said Grzecka.

Grzecka, who started mopping floors and bartending at Club Q in 2003, said he hoped to channel his grief and anger into figuring out how to rebuild the unique support system for the Colorado Springs’ LGBTQ+ community that the club, the only gay bar in the conservative town, provided.

Club Q co-owners Matthew Haynes, front, and Nic Grzecka, address a memorial to those who died in the shooting.
Club Q co-owners Matthew Haynes, front, and Nic Grzecka, addressed a memorial to those who died in the shooting. Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP

City and state officials have offered support, and Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden reached out to Grzecka and co-owner Matthew Haynes on Thursday to offer condolences and reiterate their support for the community, as well as their commitment to fighting back against hate and gun violence.

After he became co-owner in 2014, Grzecka helped mould Club Q into a community centre – a platform to create a “chosen family” for LGBTQ+ people, especially for those estranged from their birth families.

“When that system goes away, you realise how much more the bar was really providing,” said Justin Burn, an organiser with Pikes Peak Pride. “Those that may or may not have been a part of the Club Q family, where do they go?”

Burn said the shooting pulled back a curtain on a broader lack of resources for LGBTQ+ people in Colorado Springs. Burn, Grzecka and others are working with national organisations to do an assessment of the community’s need as they develop a blueprint to offer a robust support network.

Grzecka is looking to rebuild the “loving culture” and necessary support to “make sure that this tragedy is turned into the best thing it can be for the city”.

“Everybody needs community,” he said.

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