Colorado Springs, Colo. (AP) – On a typical night out at Club Q, a bastion for LGBTQ people in the largely conservative city of Colorado Springs, Daniel Eston can be seen loosening up and sliding across the stage on his knees. Mullet to whoops and hollers.
The venue provided Aston, a 28-year-old transgender man and self-proclaimed “master of silly business”, with the free exposure he had long sought. But on Saturday it became the site of the latest mass shooting in the US when a gunman with a semiautomatic rifle opened fire and killed Aston and four others. Twenty-five others were injured.
His mother, Sabrina Aston, swung between past and present tenses as she discussed her son Sunday night at their Colorado Springs home. Aston’s father, Jeff Aston, sat nearby listening to his wife’s stories, alternately clutching her hands and stroking her forehead.
“We’re in shock, we cried a little bit, but then you go through this phase where you just go numb, and I’m sure it will hit us again,” she said. “I think it’s a mistake, they made a mistake, and he’s actually alive,” she said.
Her son’s penchant for making people laugh and please began as a child in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he wore strange costumes including the Beast from “Beauty and the Beast”, cycled through strange hats, and Used to write plays by the neighborhood kids.
Aston preferred to dress as a boy at an early age, until teasing from other children prompted her to try on girls’ clothing. While Sabrina Aston enjoyed helping her son style, she said fashion took a toll. “That was pathetic,” she said.
After coming out to his mother, he attended Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and became president of the LGBTQ club. They put on the fundraiser with more flashy appearances than ever (“They didn’t just stand and lip-sync,” Sabrina Aston clarified) and rocked ’80s hair bands.
Two years ago, Aston moved from Tulsa to Colorado Springs—where his parents had settled—and started as a bartender and entertainer at Club Q, where his parents would join Cheers at their shows.
“[Daniel’s shows]are great. Everyone should go see him,” his mother said. “She lit up a room, always smiling, always happy and goofy,” she said.
Members of Colorado Spring’s LGBTQ community say Club Q has been one of only a few havens where they can be completely authentic in one of the state’s more conservative metropolises. Sabrina Aston said that’s why her son went to the club; It gave his identity room to breathe and “he liked helping the LGBT community.”
She first heard about the attack and said her son had been shot when the phone rang at 2 a.m. on Sunday. It was one of her son’s friends who broke the news that there had been a shooting at Club Q and that her son was at Memorial Hospital.
Sabrina and Jeff Aston arrive at the hospital, where they are first told to wait outside, then in a waiting room and finally in a private room where detectives ask them questions as officers work to identify the bodies.
Sabrina Aston told the detective about her son’s tattoos, including a heart on his left arm, pierced by an arrow, and wrapped in a ribbon reading “Mom”.
The couple were sent home with no update and they sat in a daze, their minds cycling through hope, then the worst, then hope that it wasn’t the worst.
“We thought he just got hurt – you can heal an injury,” his mother said.
When a detective and a patient advocate knocked on her door later that morning, Sabrina Aston said she thought of soldiers marching to the homes of as-yet-unknown widows during the war. She knew what had happened.
The parents went into shock, tears flowed and they were numb.
“It’s just a nightmare you can’t wake up from,” she said.
Beden is a core member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.