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July 08, 2020 News » Cover Story

Colorado Springs’ last remaining gay bar, Club Q changes with the times 

KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON

click to enlarge DUSTIN GLATZ WITH ASSETS FROM SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Dustin Glatz with assets from Shutterstock.com

As a gay man who grew up in Colorado Springs, I still remember my first time at Club Q. I think most queer people in this city do. Mine included a pride of lesbians judging me and my then-boyfriend as we played billiards to seem as “straight” as possible while drinking the gayest drinks on the menu made by a bartender in nothing but a jockstrap who asked if my boyfriend and I were brothers. My boyfriend was less than amused.

But whether my first night at Q sounds like your cup of tea or not, this venue is your only option if you’re looking for a queer space in town. Otherwise, you’re driving up to Denver, which is the worst drive in history after drinking and dancing till 2 a.m.

All that said, it didn’t used to be this way.

click to enlarge MERMAID JADE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Mermaid Jade Photography

When he was going through some old Out Front magazines, Nic Grzecka, who owns Club Q with his business partner Matthew Haynes, discovered that in the ’70s, people from Denver and Pueblo made the drive to the Springs for gay bars. The city was centrally located and had a denser population than Denver at the time because of the Air Force Academy and other military bases.

Dense population aside, it had Hide and Seek — the largest and longest-standing gay complex in the Western states till its closing in 2005, due to a simple fire code violation. It would be one of the most high-profile queer spaces and organizations to shut down in Colorado Springs, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, which was founded in Colorado Springs, would move to Denver in 2011. The Pride Center would close its doors in 2015, and Springs Equality — which referred to itself as a virtual pride center — would rise in its place, only to cease operations in 2018. Mountain Fold Books, a safe place for queer folks to gather, closed in 2016, and the Underground Pub shut its doors in 2018. All that’s left is Q.

How did it get like this? What happened? Are queer spaces getting forced out of town? Is some queer-hating millionaire buying them all out? Is there an undercover conspiracy against LGBTQ people happening amongst us?

Unfortunately, for this writer who loves a dramatic and sinister story, the answer is actually much simpler — and far more positive.

“It’s a testament to the time that we’re in,” Grzecka says. “Just with social media, and the way people meet people is completely different. They don’t need a bar to meet people because they can be out. When I grew up, you weren’t out at work. You didn’t talk about that because you didn’t want it to be talked about by your co-workers.” 

click to enlarge MERMAID JADE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Mermaid Jade Photography

Grzecka was born in 1980 and grew up during one of the hardest times to be a gay kid in Colorado Springs — the ’90s.

Amendment 2, which legalized discrimination against LGBTQ people, was passed in Colorado; Colorado for Family Values, a Springs-based organization with disproportionate influence, advocated for a good, Christian state; and Focus on the Family moved from Southern California to its own ZIP code (yes, Focus is big enough to have its own ZIP code) in Colorado Springs.

How did the city change from Colorado’s gay hub in the ’70s to this hostile place just two decades later? One word: Money.

I’m chatting with Mary Lou Makepeace, Colorado Springs’ mayor in the late ’90s. I called her to learn more about what Colorado Springs looked like during that dark decade. While she wasn’t the mayor during the passage of Amendment 2, she has some insight into what it looked like locally.

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo

“That was a tough time, and we needed to develop jobs,” she says, referring to the savings and loan crisis of the ’80s. Colorado Springs suffered terribly, with some of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation.

A strategy was created: Find and attract a large organization to move to the city and act as a hub for other like-minded and supportive businesses that would follow it.

The hub they found was Focus on the Family. The attraction was a $4 million grant from El Pomar Foundation.

“After they moved here,” Makepeace says, “that’s when Colorado Springs became more political.”

Focus on the Family moved here in 1990; two years later Amendment 2 passed, which gave Colorado the cute name “Hate State.” One would think that this type of climate would kill queer movements and jobs. But it did just the opposite.

Makepeace shares that immediately after the passage of Amendment 2, LGBTQ people intentionally moved to Colorado Springs as a form of protest. Within that same time frame, Ground Zero, an LGBTQ advocacy group, was launched locally. In 1996 the Gay and Lesbian Fund was established, and shortly after that, Makepeace, a staunch ally to the community, was voted into office.

During her tenure, she became the first mayor to sign a proclamation in support of Colorado Springs’ Pride march, politically endorsing the event. Later in her term, she made it illegal for LGBTQ city employees to be discriminated against. This was years before the state passed anti-discrimination legislation. For once, we were more progressive than Denver.

Like cacti in the desert, LGBTQ people were thriving in a hostile environment back then — a contrast to today, when the climate is far more hospitable, but LGBTQ spaces have dwindled down to one.

It seems as though queer people respond well when they know there’s a fight to be fought. And maybe it goes back to the roots of our advocacy. I mean, after all, the first Pride was a riot, fighting against police oppression. Gay bars and night clubs doubled as headquarters for political movements, movements that often centered on civil disobedience like Act Up, a coalition protesting the nation’s mishandling of the AIDS crisis.

Our history has been one of rebellion, and as a result, we know how to show up to knock a bitch out. In the ’90s, that bitch was Amendment 2. But what happens when we don’t have to fight as hard? What happens when the political climate finally protects us? What happens when the Supreme Court rules in our favor?

click to enlarge MERMAID JADE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Mermaid Jade Photography

If queer spaces like Club Q are going to continue, they need something more going for them than simply being “queer-friendly.” We now enjoy lots of places throughout the community that are “queer-friendly” — bars, restaurants, community centers — what we need is a place that is explicitly, unashamedly LGBTQ, by the queer community for the queer community, not just a safe place for a gay date.

“That’s the whole reason the Underground closed down,” Grzecka, who used to work at the Underground, says. “When people would call us asking if we were a gay bar, I was instructed to say we’re a gay-friendly bar. Not an explicitly gay bar. But that’s not enough.”

The Underground, along with its adjoining Tremors Nightclub, closed in 2016 when Jeff Haigh, who had been subletting the spaces, along with Brewer’s Republic, shut the doors of all three businesses and handed the property back to its original owners. 

Haynes, Grzecka’s business partner, decided he wouldn’t rent from anyone when he purchased the land Club Q stands on 17 years ago. Remember, this was before Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws, enacted in 2008, prevented discriminating against LGBTQ renters, so they easily could have been forced out.

“The whole idea of this place [Club Q] is to have a safe place — to get a permanent one in the city,” Grzecka says.  

When LGBTQ spaces started closing around the country, Grzecka and Haynes toured the states, taking notes on clubs and bars that were surviving. There was one common denominator: “They were gay as hell,” Grzecka says. “They had go-go dancers and drag queens and bartenders in jockstraps. We knew we had to be gay as hell [to survive].” And they have been. 

Throughout the years, it’s been Club Q that has lasted through these local and national changes. They have become a part of our history as a community and have endured the test of time. But can they endure a pandemic?

COVID-19 has made it so that bars and clubs are still not allowed to function as they normally would. But in resilient Q fashion, Grzecka is viewing this moment as an opportunity to work on a scheme he’s been contemplating for years.

“For the whole time we just took one day off, when it [the lockdown] first started,” says Grzecka. “And then went into takeout. … We did enough business to at least pay the utilities and minimal bills.”

I’m sitting in what is now Club Q’s dining room, across the table from Grzecka. Classic red booths, acquired from a closed restaurant, cover what used to be a dance floor, and the once-large stage has been downsized and placed in a corner. While the bathroom and dance-floor-now-seating-area are getting a long-overdue facelift, the rest of the bar feels the same: black walls, black floor, black stage — but there’s a change in the atmosphere… or maybe I’m just smelling the epoxy fumes.

click to enlarge MERMAID JADE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Mermaid Jade Photography

“We’ve always wanted more than just a bar and nightclub, but to train your customers is hard,” Grzecka says. He says the virus presents an opportunity to change people’s ideas of what this place could be, a place that’s more than a dance floor for the young and nimble. He wants to put aside drunk gyrating bodies and replace them with entertainment, hospitality and good food… at least replace them up until 10 p.m. After that, you can get all the drunk, gyrating bodies you want.

“The whole experience encompasses drag and food and friends,” Grzecka says. “[With a club], people from 18 to 24 are your main audience. But then there’s all this other part of the community.” 

Grzecka wants people who are older, who are partnered and who don’t like to dance to come to Club Q for a really good meal and a great drag show every day for dinner or for brunch on Sundays.

“The city doesn’t just need a bar; it needs a community,” Grzecka says. It’s one of the reasons that he joined the board of PrideFest  and it’s also the reason PrideFest refuses to simply be canceled due to COVID-19. Instead, the event moved online this year (see a list of events at cospridefest.com, through July 12). 

Through a cultural climate that has seen queer spaces close their doors, challenged further by the pandemic (see “Down and Out"), Club Q continues to be determined to survive. And in a city like Colorado Springs, where we still have work to do regarding LGBTQ acceptance, we need a space.

In the end, Grzecka isn’t out to make money. His ultimate goal is to do his part cultivating a queer culture the city can be proud of. 

“We could make this money with any other investment, and we’d be making more,” he says. “But it’s more rewarding with what we’re doing with giving people this space” — a space that has endured while others haven’t, and its longevity is due to much more than just a changing business model. 

Club Q endures because it’s gay as hell, and being gay as hell means being resilient. For if there’s something that is more gay than drag queens and go-go dancers and all those other stereotypes, it’s our grit, our endurance, our willingness to fight for equality. It’s what transcends all our sexual and gender identities, all our clichés and tropes. It’s what unites us in our diversity, and our pride. 

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