After Ron Legler learned about the mass shooting in a Colorado Springs gay nightclub that left five people dead, he wasn’t able to stop crying.
For Legler, the president of the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, the most recent tragedy was a reminder of Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that was the site of the deadliest mass shooting at an LGBTQ establishment in American history. On June 12, 2016, more than 50 people were killed and 53 were injured by a lone gunman. It still haunts Legler, who was a founding co-owner of Pulse.
“It brought a lot of things up to the surface that I had been pushing down,” the 53-year-old Canton resident said by phone Tuesday, as his voice trailed off.
In addition to the five deaths, at least 19 others were injured late Saturday when 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich began shooting inside Club Q, a longtime, iconic venue for the LGBTQ community in Colorado Springs, which is located about 70 miles south of Denver. Two people in the club — Richard Fierro and Thomas James — are credited with subduing the shooter.
News of the killings in Colorado Springs sent chilling ripples this week throughout Baltimore’s LGBTQ community. Members said they immediately felt attacked because the crime occurred in an area that many hold sacred: an LGBTQ nightclub, which along with bars have historically offered a semi-reprieve from discrimination faced elsewhere.
“Gay bars are the only place that we can feel safe. We have been pushed so far to the extreme of where we can be safe. There is a separate violation between the physical harm that can happen,” said Kyle Bukowski, a 35-year-old South Baltimore resident.
Bukowski said he broke down and cried on a work call this week while discussing the shooting.
“I thought it was important for other queer people who work for us to know that it’s not OK. And we’re not OK,” he said.
Bukowski said he and his friends checked in on one another following the news of the shootings.
“I saw it first thing on Sunday morning when I first woke up,” he recalled. “It was definitely reliving Pulse and all of these intersecting issues: the devastation of gun violence, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, issues highlighted around the election.”
Fighting back tears, Legler echoed Bukowski’s sentiments.
“It was obviously triggering for me,” he said. “I can’t say that I don’t expect things to happen like this in America since nothing has changed since the Pulse shootings.”
Legler explained that lax gun laws combined with anti-LGBTQ rhetoric spewed by religious leaders and right-wing politicians have made the country ripe for expressions of violence such as the one that occurred in Colorado Springs.
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “Whether it’s pastors, evangelical leaders, or politicians, words can hurt. These messages are giving people permission to say hateful things and do these hateful acts. … That is why voting matters.”
Londyn Smith de-Richelieu, director of the Baltimore Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, joined with the Pride Center of Maryland to hold a candlelight vigil in remembrance of the Colorado Springs victims Wednesday evening in Mount Vernon.
“We are resilient. The community is resilient. You matter,” she said in reference to the LGBTQ community.
“People have to be really careful about this type of language where hate speech fuels hate crimes. This dangerous LGBTQ discourse helps to fuel these domestic acts of terrorisms,” she said, while also raising concerns about the lack of stronger gun laws.
Smith de-Richelieu wants Baltimore’s LGBTQ community to know that her office is not taking the recent tragedies lightly.
“Our office is here to support you in any way. We are working with our state, local and federal partners [in law enforcement] so that everyone is able to report violent crimes efficiently and in a safe way,” she said. “Our partners are working to make sure we get the word out about bias-based crimes. Maryland has some of the strongest hate crime legislation in the country. If you see something, say something.”
Legler, the former president of the Florida Theatrical Association, opened Pulse with co-founder Barbara Poma as a memorial to Poma’s brother. He gave up ownership in the club in 2014 when he moved to Baltimore for the Hippodrome job.
Legler said he has made it a mission to ensure that spaces like the Hippodrome are welcoming to all people.
In recent years, the theater has brought audiences a myriad of LGBTQ-themed entertainment, including: “AC2: An Intimate Evening with Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen,” “Rent” and “Cabaret.”
Tuesday night, the theater hosted “A Drag Queen Christmas” for the eighth consecutive year. The show features an assortment of fan favorites from Trinity The Tuck, formerly Trinity Taylor, a headliner on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” program. Legler attended.
“Theaters are like our sanctuary,” Legler said. In addition to always having at least eight law enforcement officers at theater events, the type of programing, combined with gender-neutral bathrooms, are meant to let people to know that the venue is a safe space. “We have a zero tolerance for any intolerance. Our goal is to tell every story. That’s what we hope to do. … We’re not backing down and we are continuing to do it.”
The owners of Sweet Spot, a recurring LGBTQ dance party based in Baltimore, said they were donating a portion of sales from their Britney Spears-themed show Wednesday to the victims of the Colorado Springs shootings.
“I’m truly heartbroken for this senseless loss of life. Queer spaces are sacred — places where we should be able to feel safe and be our true selves,” said Christopher Uhl, who co-owns Sweet Spot with his husband, Andre Cawley. “I met my husband at Grand Central, a gay club, in 2010 at Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. It was my first night out. I was curious, and Grand Central was the first of several spaces I found where I could be me. I’ve made lifelong friendships in queer spaces, and now years into our marriage, my husband and I produce a queer party in Baltimore.”
Uhl said it’s “unsettling” to think that something like what happened in Colorado Springs could happen at any time.
“Once again, we are reminded of the inherent risk of being our true selves,” he said.
Many of the LGBTQ members interviewed for this story said that the shootings in Colorado Springs will not deter them from going out and supporting LGBTQ spaces.
“I’m an abortion provider, I already deal with the existential threat from domestic terrorists,” Bukowski said. “I don’t think it will make me look over my shoulder. But it makes me sad for the people who will. And it will prevent them from being with the community that supports them because they feel scared.”
The fact that some LGBTQ members may go into hiding, combined with the intersection of issues that he feels create danger for sexual minorities, makes Bukowski want to support his community even more.
“It makes me want to go to a drag brunch,” he said.
Uhl added: “If there’s one thing I know, it’s that our community is resilient, we’ll always have each other’s backs, and we’ll always fight back. I’ve reached out to friends in Baltimore’s queer community to check on them and they’re all processing this tragedy differently — but they’re all fired up and want to take action.”
Legler said he wants to celebrate the two people who helped subdue the shooter in Colorado Springs.
“I’m very thankful for Richard Fierro and Thomas James who were in the club. I wish they were in Pulse that night. If that kid, who was heavily armed with military equipment, had gone unchecked, it could have been much worse,” he said.
Legler said something needs to be done to prevent future “cowardly acts” from happening, calling Saturday’s shooting a “wake-up call.”
And he added: “We can’t let hate win. People are going to keep dancing in Colorado Springs. They have continued to keep dancing in Orlando. They are going to keep dancing in Baltimore.”