COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – On a typical night at Club Q, a bastion for LGBTQ people in the largely conservative city of Colorado Springs, Daniel Aston could be seen letting loose and sliding across the stage on his knees tailed by his mullet to whoops and hollers.
The venue provided Aston, a 28-year-old transgender man and the self-proclaimed “Master of Silly Business," with the liberating performances he had long sought. But on Saturday, it became the site of the latest mass shooting in the U.S. when a gunman with a semiautomatic rifle opened fire and killed Aston and four others. Twenty-five others were injured.
His mother, Sabrina Aston, vacillated between past and present tense as she discussed her son Sunday night in their Colorado Springs home. Aston’s father, Jeff Aston, sat nearby listening to his wife’s stories and alternating between tightly clasping his hands and cupping his forehead.
“We are in shock, we cried for a little bit, but then you go through this phase where you are just kind of numb, and I’m sure it will hit us again,” she said. “I keep thinking it’s a mistake, they made a mistake, and that he is really alive," she added.
Her son’s eagerness to make people laugh and cheer started as a child in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he would don elaborate costumes, including the beast from “Beauty and the Beast,” cycle through weird hats, and write plays acted out by neighborhood kids.
Aston preferred dressing as a boy at a young age until teasing from other kids pushed him to try girls clothing. While Sabrina Aston enjoyed helping style her son, she said the fashion led to weight loss. “He was miserable," she said.
After coming out to his mother, he attended Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and became president of its LGBTQ club. He put on fundraisers with ever-more flashy productions - “He didn’t just stand and lip-sync,” Sabrina Aston made clear - and fanned over '80s hair bands.
Two years ago, Aston moved from Tulsa to Colorado Springs — where his parents had settled — and started at Club Q as a bartender and entertainer, where his parents would join in the cheers at his shows.
"(Daniel’s shows) are great. Everybody needs to go see him,” his mother said. “He lit up a room, always smiling, always happy and silly,” she said.
Members of Colorado Springs' LGBTQ community say Club Q has been one of only a few havens where they could be fully authentic in one of the state's more conservative metros. Sabrina Aston said that's why her son took to the club; it gave his identity room to breathe and "he liked helping the LGBT community."
She first heard about the attack and that her son had been shot at 2 a.m. Sunday when the phone rang. It was one of her son's friends breaking the news that a shooting had occurred at Club Q and their son was in Memorial Hospital.
Sabrina and Jeff Aston rushed to the hospital, where they were first asked to wait outside, then in a waiting room and finally in a private room where detective asked them questions as authorities worked 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 was sent home without any update and sat in a stupor, their minds cycling through hope, then the worst, then hope that it wasn't the worst.
“We thought he had just gotten hurt — you can fix hurt,” his mother said.
When a detective and a patient advocate knocked on their door later that morning, Sabrina Aston said she thought of the soldiers walking towards the homes of yet-unaware widows during wartime. She knew what had happened.
The parents went into shock, the tears flowed and they went numb.
“It’s just a nightmare that you can’t wake up from,” she said.
Bedayn is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.