Imagine Colorado Springs as a “queer destination” — a city where queer folks feel safe, supported, empowered and visible.
Where they have a space to gather for events and educational workshops, obtain sexual-health services, meet other like-minded residents, advocate for certain causes and hang out without feeling threatened.
Such a vision came out of a grant-funded study released Friday by Southern Colorado Health Network and Hey719.
Organizers surveyed 64 respondents in focus groups and interviews to gauge what lesbians, gays, bisexual, transsexual and non-binary people in Colorado Springs want and need.
The local queer community is lacking physical, mental and sexual health services, which leaves them at greater risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, said survey leaders Melissa Chizmar and Rebecca Willey, who work in the health network’s prevention department.
The city does not have anywhere that provides “free and affirming testing” they said, and while Inside Out Youth Services in Colorado Springs operates a community center and related services for youths ages 13-24, there is no community center for LGBTQ+ adults to receive support.
“Spaces that do exist don’t meet the needs of the community’s vastness and diversity,” Chizmar said.
Many LGBTQ+ outlets and venues have come and gone over the years, she noted, including three clubs: The Underground, the Hide-and-Seek and the Upside-Down Bar.
Two organizations, The Pride Center and Springs Equality, closed in recent years, and Mountain Fold, a popup bookstore, also shut its doors.
The lack of a cohesive queer community and LGBTQ-affirming healthcare services have led to low visibility, which impedes the queer community’s ability to survive and thrive, according to the survey findings.
The top priority is to find a space to establish a community center, Willey said.
No location has been identified, she said, but survey participants prefer one to be downtown or along the Nevada Avenue corridor so it’s more accessible.
Organizers are waiting to hear back on several grant applications that would help pay for an office and staff to establish such a center, said Jessica Kobylinski of Southern Colorado Health Network.
“We’re waiting and seeing, prioritizing and moving forward,” she said.
Donations from individuals, groups and businesses also are being accepted, Chizmar said.
The Hey719 group, which works to improve the sexual health and well-being of underserved and oppressed communities in Colorado Springs, is based on the HeyDenver model that Kobylinski said has been successful in providing sexual health services for LGBTQ+ people in Denver.
Southern Colorado Health Network, which focuses on prevention, care and advocacy for people in 25 counties affected by HIV and other conditions, recently started a pilot program offering free testing for sexually transmitted infections, Chizmar said.
Free tests are available for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV, she said.
The program will run through this year under a contract with the state health department, she said.
“It’s definitely a huge win, and we’re celebrating,” Chizmar said. “The next phase is nailing down a physical space.”
One study participant said, “Where there is a center, there is power and there is voice.”
Several respondents noted Colorado Springs’ reputation as a conservative Christian city, as the headquarters of many high-profile Christian-based organizations, Republican dominance in voting and an attempt by Colorado voters in 1992 to amend the state constitution to prevent protected status based on homosexuality or bisexuality. The approved ballot measure was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and never became law.
Many who took part in the survey said they believe Colorado Springs’ queer population has grown to the point of needing to have a larger voice in the community and be recognized for who they are.
“As a trans woman, I am constantly asked why I don’t move to Denver. I always have the same answer: Because Colorado Springs is my home," commented one survey respondent.
“I have the ability to be my loud and proud self, for those who can’t or aren’t ready to. And this city needs to know we’re here. People’s lives depend on that.”