Discover more from the Empathy List
the Empathy List #93: Another Shooting
Inside Club Q + the legacy of Focus on the Family
If you enjoy this newsletter, would you forward it to a friend?
Hello friend, Liz here.
Welp, if you read my last email, you know I was planning to talk about a new addition to my family today in the form of four hens we adopted—the Grant family’s first-ever pets. You know, something light ‘cause of Thanksgiving. (We’re not dog or cat people; turns out, we’re chicken people.)
But then, on Saturday night, a gunman walked into a gay/drag bar in Colorado Springs, Colorado where I lived for six years, met my husband and had my babies. The shooter killed five and injured 17 others. And I knew I had to shift today’s newsletter to cover this close-to-home story, as it affects many of my readers personally.
Note: Before I jump into this story, I want to clarify that I am open and affirming of LGBTQ folks at church in every way. At some point, I’ll write a longer essay about it, but in case you want to engage more deeply, many other folks have written great things about becoming affirming at church, including Sarah Bessey, Erin Moon, Jonathan Merritt and Jen Hatmaker. The Reformation project has great resources and following along with Denver Community Church’s LGBTQ learning group was influential in shifting my and my husband’s beliefs.
To be honest, it’s a miracle more weren’t murdered in the shooting at Club Q because the club is tiny. It’s located in strip mall land suburbia, and you had to know where you were going to find it. Because the presence of Club Q in Colorado Springs was always complicated.
Within the politics of Colorado, Colorado Springs is known for its conservatism.
Yet that’s not the whole story because actually, the Springs (as we call it) had been on track to become another liberal and arty outpost, similar to Santa Fe’s identity today.
Instead, in the 1980s, Colorado legislators passed tax reforms to incentive businesses to relocate to the state. The organizations that ended up taking advantage of the tax breaks were those Christian nonprofits that the city has become known for—the Navigators, Compassion International, David C. Cook and Waterbrook publishing, and of course, Focus on the Family.
My family had an up-close-and-personal take on this move of Christians into town… because we were the Christians who moved into town.
My in-laws relocated with Focus into the city, so my husband arrived in the Springs at age 6 with his parents. And he experienced the city’s transformation from art hub to conservative outpost firsthand.
Most formative on the city was the work of one man, James Dobson, whose teaching about sexuality and parenting would shape an entire generation of young evangelicals.
I’ve written before about my encounters with Dobson’s constraining take on sexuality in my essay, “A Cassette Tape Gave Me the Sex Talk,” though I do not mention the man by name (mostly because my editor urged me not to—Dobson has long arms and deep pockets within the tiny world of Christian publishing *eye roll*).
What I haven’t discussed before is the way his view of culture and LGBTQ rights shaped the evangelicalism in which I grew up.
I can imagine the back-room discussions of these patriarchs because they were the undercurrent of my childhood: What will happen if our children grow up disagreeing with us, even advocating for opposite policies in D.C.? What will happen if our children, influenced by an affirming culture, begin to doubt their own sexuality? What will happen if we have to choose between our own children and our structures of belief? Which will we choose?
Dobson and others like him feared the LGBTQ agenda. This agenda, by its very nature, was a threat.
This agenda would destroy families—not just gay and lesbian families, but yours and mine by the influence of such families existing in the world as a feasible model.
This agenda would encourage nontraditional roles in families between men and women… because pulling on the thread of gender can lead to feminism, too. And feminism would steal mothers away from their children while limiting opportunities for men.
This agenda would mean the end of homogeneous Christian “safe spaces,” like the cis, white middle class suburbs that made up Colorado Springs.
The LGBTQ advance might seem as harmless as “Will and Grace,” but Dobson’s contingent believed that humanizing and normalizing LGBTQ folks would hurt their own aims. The LGBTQ expression of love, family and community hurt ours. And ours was the only expression that counted.
I remember being taught to beware of progressive Christians, of public school teachers, of secular children’s books, of Nickelodeon, of NPR. Around every corner of American culture, the specter of LGBTQ agenda loomed and threatened. (It still does for Dobson and his donors, even today. Watch out for Disney, folks.)
Dobson and other organizations that teamed up with him offered a stand-in Christian state to direct our media consumption along with our daily decision-making. They’d tell us how to raise kids, how to vote, how to engage our neighbors, how to have sex and what to watch (or to boycott). Always, the agenda was control and power.
So the movement within Republicanism toward authoritarianism instead of democracy is an unsurprising outgrowth of an evangelicalism that decided not to allow disagreement of any variety. If you disagreed, you were out. No nuance allowed.
I can understand how fear makes us desperate to regain order. Yet within societies of people with drastically different belief systems, in order to keep any semblance of democracy, we must make space for “the other.” No matter how unfamiliar, uncomfortable or contrary another’s life or ideas might be, here in the U.S. of A, there is space for discussion.
Any new cultures must be learned, studied, engaged in order to develop comfort and empathy for distinctions. Every American alive knows cis white male culture, right? Because it’s the norm.
Yet understanding trans- or LGBTQ culture requires empathy and humility, traits so often missing from the dominant culture. And these, likewise, are traits missing from the words and teaching of evangelical leaders like Dobson, to say nothing of the abusive bending of Scripture that occurs when we lob verses like molotov cocktails at each other.
I have no doubt that this undercurrent of “othering” in the water of Colorado Springs politics affected the shooter who is being charged for five counts of murder and “bias motivated crime,” which is Colorado’s version of a “hate crime.”
In fact, the shooter’s grandfather is Randy Voepel, a California MAGA Republican representative “who supported the January 6 insurrection and compared it to the Revolutionary War.” :-(
However, up here in Denver, the thing that’s often missed about Colorado Springs is that the city is not a political monolith.
Though one founder might be vocal about his homophobic and transphobic beliefs, there exists within Colorado Springs a progressive minority. These are the folks who were PISSED (and then bitter) when the Christians took over their town. (Can you blame them?)
And a growing contingent of residents are working to make the place more welcoming for all, not just Christians. In recent years, the city has even hosted yearly pride parades to celebrate the queer community.
Which only makes this shooting more painful. Because the Springs was becoming a safer place for those who were unlike the majority. Club Q was a safe space for those who’d been marginalized within their own community. Until it wasn’t.
Below you’ll find the words of two Colorado Springs residents: one is a first-person account of the shooting, from a local business owner and ally.
The other is post from another business run by queer and trans folks who were also prominent members of the queer community in the springs.
Both business owners lost friends. Both are dismayed and grieving and organizing at the same time.
I’m including their stories because the antidote to “othering” is not to philosophize up in the clouds but to get low. Walking next to the grieving is the only way to understand the experience of another. We must hold hands with those in mourning. We must listen.
Because the big picture matters so much less than the lives lost and the people left behind. They are the reason that we who affirm the dignity and belonging of every person continue to advocate and fight and pray. God does not discriminate; God welcomes all. Do we?
If you want to show your support for the queer community of Colorado Springs, donate to this Go Fund Me. Or follow this vendor for ideas—they are directly helping the CS queer community.
Thanks for reading.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
Psst, did you know the Empathy List is supported by readers like you? If you like what I’m doing here, invest in my efforts to create a more curious & empathetic Christianity. A paid subscription is $21 per year, which is the lowest amount Substack allows me to set. ;-) Thank you!!