• Q&A

After Club Q, how do we stop the system from taking more trans lives?

Queer activist and movement lawyer Z Williams discusses what needs to be done to achieve queer and trans liberation.
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Right before midnight on Nov. 19, a gunman entered a Colorado Springs queer club called Club Q and began shooting before being disarmed by Richard Fierro, an army veteran who was there to watch a drag show with his family. Fierro called another club patron, a trans woman, to take off her high heels and hit the gunman with them. The first 911 call was made at 11:56 p.m. with the gunman being apprehended by police six minutes later. While the gunman was subdued quickly because of their immediate action, five people were killed and 17 others were shot and injured.

The queer community grieved on Nov. 20, which is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to memorialize those who have been murdered as a result of transphobia. The timing of the attack was intensely felt, especially as some of the victims of the shooting, including Daniel Davis Aston and Kelly Loving, were transgender.

In Denver, activist and movement lawyer Z Williams, who uses they/them pronouns, took some time to grieve and then went into organizing mode, planning a mutual aid and community event to benefit the Club Q survivors.

Z Williams (National Lawyers Guild)

The event, Queers for Q, was organized by the nonprofit legal center Bread & Roses Law, which Williams co-founded with activist defense attorney Erika Unger. With eight hours of programming and 100 artists and contributors, Queers for Q included a family space, sober adult space, an alter room, and a show with drag artists and other performers.

“We knew we needed to get people cash, and it needed to be unrestricted,” Z explained. “As we were making the event happen, we also started connecting with survivors and finding out about their needs. It was a wild process of parallel organizing an event and also trying to understand how many people needed support and what that should look like.”

Over 400 people, in addition to the more than 100 volunteers, attended Queers for Q. And over $30,000 was raised to provide direct aid to the survivors of the Club Q mass shooting. I spoke with Williams about their background and work with Bread & Roses, what may have led to the violence at Club Q, how queer communities are healing from this tragedy, and what needs to be done for us to achieve queer and trans liberation. 

What is your background in queer organizing in Colorado and your relationship to Club Q?

I grew up in a working-class suburb right outside of Denver during the time when Colorado was known as the Hate State. I knew that I was queer and that I didn’t fit what was expected of me. But we didn’t have words like “nonbinary” yet. My friend found this gender equality group that met once a week. We would eat dumpstered vegan food and discuss different topics. We would go to punk shows, protests and house parties. That space introduced me to queer people, radical politics and the idea of being genderqueer. I had this old fake ID from Oklahoma in someone else’s name and would go to all the queer clubs in Denver and the Springs.

Now I have chosen to center my work in the queer and trans community with folks who are on the frontlines of the prison industrial complex.

Some queer advocates have posited that the Club Q shooting was not an isolated event, but a response to increasingly anti-queer and anti-trans rhetoric and legislation. What do you believe created this violence?

We have to remember that homophobia and transphobia are directly connected to colonialism, genocide of Indigenous people, and the violence of chattel slavery against Black and African people. Those colonizers set the framework and the pace for these concepts. Their ideologies deliberately formed compulsory heterosexuality and the violence enforcement of binary gender. As organizers, we have to remember that. It is not just one political party or group. This is the foundation of our colonized nation.

That said, over the past few years there has been an intentional effort to use queer and trans, but especially trans, people as a point of agitation on the right. This has specifically zeroed in on trans people and symbols of gender nonconformity — pronouns, gender affirming care, drag queen story hour. We’ve seen increasing state repression of trans people such as the legislation prohibiting care for children and the Florida Medicaid Board refusing to cover trans medical care. Even in Colorado, a so called “liberal” state, our Board of Education approved the removal of LGBT2QIA+ people from curriculums for elementary students.

Just a few weeks ago we had an election where a candidate for governor was fanning this wave of trans panic claiming that schools are allowing children to “identify as cats” and sending transphobic mailers to these communities.

It’s also important to name that the left has failed to have a meaningful response to affirm trans people. Not that long ago, all the big LGB nonprofits decided to deliberately carve off trans issues to get marriage. I know plenty of people on the left who still mock trans people, goof off in pronoun go-arounds, and refuse to include us in their vision for change. Trans people are a small group of people in the context of the population, especially right now when coming out as trans means risking your life. If the broader left refuses to take up these issues, we will continue on this path.

How did the queer Colorado community respond to the shooting?

Whenever these things happen I think all queer people feel a deep connection because most of us grew up feeling like violence against us was inevitable. Also these queer institutions like night clubs are spaces that so many of us have a shared experience of relying on.

A lot of people discredit the Colorado Springs folks as being a small conservative town, but there are a lot of queers there and they can hold it down. Those of us in the cities have a lot to learn from organizers in the Springs when it comes to community building and creating queer spaces. The folks in the Springs, including people very close to the Club Q community or who were in the building for the shooting, have been holding community space in powerful ways.

That said, there isn’t really one “queer community.” There are a lot of different layers, especially when you look at intersecting identities. Some folks have responded by holding healing spaces. Others responded by providing self-defense classes. Some are organizing around policy change. We kicked off our mutual aid effort.

Can you explain what Bread & Roses is and how the Queers for Q event came about?

Bread and Roses is a social justice legal center that works to disrupt the harm the legal system inflicts on our communities. We do low and no cost legal services, anti-repression work, gender affirming legal services and support social movements.

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  • What New Orleans’ Common Ground Collective can teach us about surviving crisis together
  • One of the reasons Queers for Q came about is my own personal background. One slice of my background is doing mutual aid disaster relief. After Hurricane Katrina, we saw such a brazen example of how our racist policies and systems will leave the most vulnerable people to die. We also saw the rise of mutual aid from Common Ground. Many folks think of disaster response as something that requires a lot of technical skill, but really the biggest thing is that people need to show up.

    Last December, a white supremacist shooter murdered my friend and several other people. In the wake of everything, there was a small group of us that sat in another friend’s shop just a few doors down from where the shooting started and held space. I saw first-hand how every system exploits survivors to get investigations and prosecutions and then leaves them high and dry. I also saw the deep need that exists long after one of these horrific events. I think we all assume “those folks are going to be taken care of by someone.” But the truth is, they aren’t unless we make it so. A lot of the institutional funds go away after one or two months, and they really limit what resources can be used for. Especially when it comes to queer and trans community.

    Why did you feel like the survivors needed immediate direct care?

    I knew people would need immediate support because I have seen it in my own community. Our institutions are not designed to support survivors, they are designed to support prosecutions in the criminal legal system.

    The Colorado Healing Fund is a nonprofit institution that was funded with seed money from a Republican Attorney General. She seized it from a fraud case. The concept of the Healing Fund revolved entirely around “mass crime.” They position themselves as “accountable” and “transparent” and divert fundraising away from the direct asks of survivors, families and communities. Then the Healing Fund takes 10 percent from all donations and distributes them, primarily to the state’s victim’s assistance organization. That means that all funds are directly tied to law enforcement.

    Hundreds gathered for the Queers for Q event in Denver to benefit the Club Q survivors on Nov. 26. (WNV/Charlotte Piper)

    In this kind of situation, we have people who probably have never intentionally held community with a queer person positioning themselves as experts in the matter. Half their board are involved in the political parties that have been driving anti-trans legislation across the country. When we have called them out for being insensitive, lacking trauma informed practice, and endangering some people by getting them outed or putting them in direct contact with police, they have asked queer and trans people to provide free consulting to help them improve. They’ve asked us to explain really basic ideas like what deadnaming is, binders and family of choice.

    After a lot of years in a lot of fields of work intersecting with survivors, I have learned that survivors need autonomy. They need to make their own choices about what support looks like. One person may need to get dinner delivered every night. Another might need to get out of town. Someone else might just want a haircut. Supporting healing means honoring those individual asks and showing up for them.

    Some Colorado representatives responded to the attack by calling for harsher criminal law responses. Is the Colorado queer community calling for greater police involvement and harsher criminal penalties after this violence?

    Whenever something horrific happens, it is human to want an “easy” answer. Oftentimes that is jumping to laws, because we have this sense that laws will keep us safe.

    We have to remember that the legal system and the police have not been supportive of our queer communities and their safety. Sodomy laws, cross dressing laws, club raids, harassment, ignoring reports of safety concerns, profiling, targeting — that is the history of the criminal legal system and LGBT2QIA+ people. The fact that one in two Black trans folks have been to prison paints that picture very clearly.

    We also have to remember that the police and the legal systems typically do very little to prevent these types of attacks. When my friend was murdered, the shooter wrote a whole manifesto that named her as a target of violence. The police knew about it. But they don’t act because police and the criminal legal system exist to maintain the status quo and to enforce laws, not prevent violence.

    The alter room at the Queers for Q event in Denver on Nov. 26. (WNV/Charlotte Piper)

    The hard thing is that the solutions to mass shootings and queerphobic violence are not quick or easy fixes. These are deep cultural issues that will take generations to change. I understand why it is hard to sign up for that when we see the violence our communities face.

    That said, I think we have to remember that, during the AIDS crisis, the medical establishment deliberately allowed swaths of our community to die very difficult deaths. It was our own people, many lesbians specifically, who tended to the bedside of the dying and cared for them. Meanwhile ACT UP created the political pressure that forced those in power to do HIV/AIDS research. BIPOC trans women have held down mutual aid and harm reduction networks since before we called them those things. BIPOC trans women are the ones who fought police that were beating our people in gay clubs. Mainstream security and police often refused to secure our clubs, so it was our leather daddies, bears and their biker friends who would make the spaces safe. Our movements, our community groups, our chosen families, and our solidarity has always kept us safe.

    Where is the queer community going from here?

    Queer organizing has always centered cultural work. That’s why many people don’t see queer organizing as an equal to something like the labor movement. Queer organizing requires queer art, drag, music, dancing, expression and public existence. For a while, particularly after some Supreme Court decisions that affirmed a few rights for queer and trans people, the mainstream had this sense that this work wasn’t as necessary. But now it is clear that visible queer expression is still essential for those who feel safe enough to do so.

    There will always be a defense element to our work. We have to try to stop the system from taking more of our people. I think this is some of the most difficult work there is, because the folks fighting the anti-trans bills are really just trying to make arguments like “we don’t deserve to die.” But there is work happening, and it has been happening for a while, that is nothing short of revolutionary. When you look at the movements for abolition, transformative justice, disability justice, environmental justice and so many more there are QTBIPOC folks shepherding that change. Queer and trans people, particularly BIPOC, are creating visions and pathways to a future where we are all a little more free. I think that’s part of our future — seeing the queer and trans leadership that has always been steering out movements and seeing queer struggle as part of a broader vision for social justice.

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