Are you alive?
My phone began blowing up with texts, emails and messages early Sunday morning.
Are you safe?
This is not the first time I’ve experienced this.
Are your people safe?
My body remembers; we’ve been here before.
Sunday morning, I awoke to the news that five people had been murdered and 25 more injured (17 of them with gunshot wounds) at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs. Colorado is no stranger to gun violence. From Columbine to New Life Church to the Aurora theater shooting, this is a tragedy that those who have lived in the state for an extended period of time know well.
But this time it wasn’t random — it was targeted. Like the Pulse shooting in Orlando in 2016, this was meant for the mass destruction of queer people. Of my people. Of me.
I grew up in this town. Colorado Springs became my home when I was 7 years old as part of the Focus on the Family transplant from California to Colorado. This city has strong ties to evangelicalism, to the military and has been an epicenter for numerous Christian ministries that claim that faith and family are everything.
But when I came out as gay in 2012, I was disowned by my family and almost everyone I knew. My father, who’d been in a very prominent position at Focus on the Family for more than 25 years at that time, chose his job and his reputation over his own daughter. My family chose what they thought God demanded of them, based on the teachings of people like James Dobson and similarly influential Christian leaders, rather than the daughter they’d raised and known and loved for 27 years. Suddenly, the family they claimed to focus on and that unconditional love they claimed to give so freely came with caveats of change.
We love you, but we don’t approve of your lifestyle.
Love the sinner, hate the sin.
We’d rather you be miserable in this life than miserable in the next.
How could you be so selfish?
The messages were so toxic that I moved away from Colorado Springs in an effort to survive the blatant and indoctrinated homophobia that was my upbringing. It took me to the brink of suicide. When I needed my family the most, they abandoned me — all in the name of God and love.
For far too long, we’ve allowed fear of what we don’t know or what makes us uncomfortable to become a free pass to “other” people. This happens in ways that are often passive aggressive, yet subtle — an intentionally misplaced pronoun, a dead name, a Bible verse attached to a birthday card with “hopes and prayers” for change.
Perhaps a joke takes place over Thanksgiving dinner. “It’s harmless,” they say. “There aren’t even any queer people at the table.” (That you know of.) But they are there, and they are listening, and it’s crushing them inside to know that when you make jokes about faggots and dykes (or stay silent when others do), you’re really degrading them. They now feel even less safe and turn inward.
Meanwhile, those who are straight/cisgender laugh and think it is funny. They try to one-up each other and see who can get the biggest laugh. The 12-year-old at the table hears it all and thinks, “Well if grandpa laughs, it must be OK.” He begins trying it out at school to see if he can mimic the same response from his friends. It works.
That boy is now 16. With a few years of practice “othering” people, he starts to believe those things are true — that there really is something disgusting and wrong with people who are different. “Othering” turns to bullying. That belief starts to grow. And take root. His white/straight/cis privilege leads him to believe he is entitled to act however he wants, with no regard for the impact of his actions on others. They are, after all, “less than.”
“The alleged shooter is the grandson of the MAGA Republican representative Randy Voepel.”
At age 20, this young man sees his grandfather supporting a president who will do anything for power. And when people with guns break into the Capitol, grandpa rallies in support and says it is good. Well, if grandpa approves of using guns to gain power and control against people we hate, and we hate queer people because they are different than us, well then it must be OK to use guns to control and erase queer people.
This is how you get a 22-year-old white male with a gun entering an LGBTQ nightclub at midnight on a Saturday with an AR-15 rifle and a handgun who manages to kill five people and injure 25 more in less than 5 minutes.
Anderson Lee Aldrich (the alleged shooter) is the grandson of the MAGA Republican representative Randy Voepel, who supported the January 6 insurrection and compared it to the Revolutionary War. Bigotry begets bigotry. Ignorance begets ignorance. Hate begets hate.
I moved back to Colorado Springs this past year, hopeful that things had changed. In some ways, they have. Yet innocent lives were lost this weekend. Again. All because of ignorant, fear-based messages of hatred. Now LGBTQ people who are already ladened with trauma each have been gifted yet another layer, five days before Thanksgiving. It doesn’t just affect those at Club Q that night. It affects all of us.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” according to Martin Luther King Jr.
Murder. Massacre. Genocide. Holocaust. Apartheid. Eugenics. Different names, same goal. To rid the world of the “other.”
“How do we begin to affect change? Preach love instead of hate.”
How do we begin to affect change? Preach love instead of hate. Practice inclusion instead of othering. Call out the bad joke, speak up for the marginalized, vote for the equal rights of all people, use your privilege to change the narrative. The survival of me and my queer siblings depend on it.
As someone who has dedicated my life to educating and advocating for the equality of LGBTQ people, especially in circles of faith, I daily see and experience the trauma and the damage these harmful messages cause. We have to continually fight for the right to exist every single day. And hope we stay safe. And alive.
It’s exhausting. We’re tired. We’re angry. We’re scared. And we’re grieving. Our friends are dead. And we could be next.
Amber Cantorna is a national speaker, a gatherer of outcasts and misfits, and the author of Unashamed: A Coming Out Guide for LGBTQ Christians and Refocusing My Family. As a gay woman living with Late-Stage Lyme Disease, Amber specializes in bringing messages of diversity, hope and self-acceptance to those who have been pushed to the margins. She is the host of the Unashamed Love Collective, a safe haven for LGBTQ people and allies to build supportive community. She also leads Cultivating Community Retreats — small, intimate group gatherings that build lasting relationships with like-minded people. Her third book will release October 2023. Follow her on social media at @AmberNCantorna and learn more about her work at AmberCantorna.com.