COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Perceptions can fuel misconceptions. In Colorado Springs, stereotypes are changing.
The city has long been stereotyped as one of the most conservative places in America. In the 1990s it was the center of a movement to prohibit Colorado from enacting protections for LGBTQ people.
The spotlight is on Colorado Springs in light of recent tragedy, where a shooter at an LGBTQ nightclub killed five people and injured at least 18.
Even so, LGBTQ advocates say the culture of that community is changing.
"Previously I was like a unicorn," said Justin Burns, a co-organizer with Pikes Peak Pride. "You’re gay and you live in Colorado Springs? That’s weird. Like I said though, in the past few years, Colorado Springs has become cool."
Burns sees it every year as the pride festival he organizes grows.
Thousands of people showed up this year. He knows his city isn’t the same as the Colorado Springs of the 90s that attempted to change the state constitution making it illegal to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"I think the whole Amendment Two thing of the 90s really put Colorado Springs on the map of hate. It’s been 30 years of us working to advance out of that," Burns said.
On Tuesday, the MOSAIC and LGBTQ+ Resources Center Whitney Hadley runs at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs made cards for the victims at Club Q. It’s part of the change she hopes to see.
"What I aspire and what I hope is that this community of students feels equipped and empowered with the knowledge and skills to continue creating that change that they deem as fit," Hadley said. "To be able to create a stronger, safer campus climate that involves everybody. Everybody has to be a part of the education."
Hadley grew up in Colorado Springs. She's seen the community change.
"When I went to graduate school and I shared that I was from Colorado Springs, often folks would say, 'Oh, what is that like? What was it like growing up in Colorado Springs?'" said Hadley. "They wanted to know, what is it like? Do LGBTQ people exist in Colorado Springs? Do black people exist in Colorado Springs? That was typically they first two things."
Colorado Springs recently elected Stephanie Vigil to represent part of the city in the state house. Voters chose her to represent the district where Club Q is located.
"I think I might be the first out, queer person in the county who has been elected to state office," Vigil said. "I’ve been elected to House District 16, which is central Colorado Springs. Club Q is located in the central part of the district."
Vigil is a queer person fighting hate in a town where perceptions show there’s still work left to do.
"Yeah, it’s happening here. But no community is just the sum of its worst news stories," she said. "We have a problem with bigotry all over this country. We also have in this city a really proud, vibrant, loving resistance to that bigotry. And it’s always been here."
It’s been just a couple of days since the shooting at Club Q, but the organizers of the pride festival in Colorado Springs say next year’s event will be one of the most important they’ve ever held.
In the face of such an awful tragedy, they say pride fest next June will be an opportunity for their community to heal and grow.
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