WARNING: Descriptions of the mass shooting at Club Q may be distressing to some readers.

(WASHINGTON) — Survivors of the recent mass shooting at a gay night club in Colorado Springs shared testimonials at a hearing on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Dec. 14, to discuss the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ extremism and rhetoric that is potentially fueling a rise in discriminatory violence across the nation.

Michael Anderson

The committee first heard from Michael Anderson, a survivor of the Club Q shooting who was bartending that evening when the nightclub was attacked.

My name is Michael Anderson. I am 25 years old. I am a proud gay man. And now I am a survivor of a mass shooting. I hope we can work together to end this carnage in our country.

Michael Anderson, Club Q shooting survivor

“When I stared down the barrel of that gun, I realized I stood no chance against a weapon of that power,” said Anderson. “While I prepared for my life to end in that moment, I prayed… I saw my friend lying on the floor, bleeding out… I had to tell him goodbye while I continued to fear for my life,” said Anderson.

The rapid firing of bullets is a sound Anderson said he can still hear today and one he hopes nobody ever has to hear – a sound he will never forget.

“The shooter entered our safe space in our home with the intention of killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible… and began to hunt us down as if our lives meant nothing,” Anderson stated.

Never feeling as terrified as he did that night, Anderson said what was more disturbing was the amount of hatred that compelled the Club Q shooter to ingrain another instance of domestic terrorism and violence against LGBTQ+ people into American history.

“I am embarrassed for our country’s international reputation of inaction on gun reform, but I am frankly disgusted,” Anderson stated, referencing the military-style weapon used in the mass shooting – a weapon he described as one that “exists solely for the intention of killing other human beings.”

“As leaders of our country, it is your obligation to represent all of us, not just the ones you happen to agree with,” he continued. “I beg you all to consider your words before you speak them for someone may use those words to justify action, action that may take someone’s life.”

To my fellow LGBTQ community, events like this are designed to discourage us from speaking and living our truth. They are designed to scare us from living openly, courageously and proudly. We must not succumb to fear. We must live prouder and louder than ever before. We must continue to be who we are, for who we are is exactly who we are meant to be. And to the children watching this feeling, you may not be like the other kids, I understand you and I see you. You deserve to be exactly who you are, no matter what anyone else has to say.

Michael Anderson, Club Q shooting survivor

Matthew Haynes

Next to speak was Matthew Haynes, founding owner of Club Q in Colorado Springs. Haynes said Club Q has been a home to the community for 20 years. He is proud to have remained in the city even when he and his peers did not feel welcome.

It will once again become our home,” Haynes stated. “One man full of hate will not destroy us… We need safe places like Club Q more than ever, and we need you, our leaders, to support and protect us.

Matthew Haynes, founding owner of Club Q

Haynes explained the hundreds of hate comments that quickly followed after the shooting. One comment read: “I woke up to the wonderful news that five mentally unstable fagots and lesbians and 18 injured. The only thing I’m mad about is that the faggots had courage to subdue the wonderful killer. I hope more shootings happen. Have a blessed day. The shooter was doing God’s work. Five less fagots not enough. Those that stopped him are the devil. All gays should die.”

The owner of Club Q was not the only individual to receive hate comments. Richard Fierro, an army veteran who tackled the shooter, told Haynes that he and his family have become victims of similar hate messages.

Haynes and his newlywed husband attended the White House ceremony for the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act on Dec. 14. While Haynes felt his “first joy and pride,” since the events at Club Q, he could not help but reflect on the state leaders who voted against his very own marriage.

“You do not respect my marriage and through your inaction and your vote, you as a leader send the clear message it is okay not to respect the basic human rights of loving who you love.” He continued, “we are being slaughtered and dehumanized across this country and communities you took oath to protect.”

LGBTQ issues are not political issues. They are not lifestyles. They are not beliefs. They are not choices. They are basic human rights.

Matthew Haynes, founding owner of Club Q

James Slaugh

James Slaugh, another survivor from the Club Q shooting shared his coming out story, which he described as beginning with homophobia and ending with understanding and acceptance.

In the end, after a long process of learning and understanding, our mother chose her children and accepted who we are… She chose love and love will win in the end.

James Slaugh, Club Q shooting survivor

For the past 15 years, Slaugh’s mother advocated for the LGBTQ community before recently passing away.

On the eve of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, one of Slaugh’s biggest fears came true. He was with his boyfriend and sister when the shooter walked in and began firing his weapon.

“I immediately felt a searing pain in my arm. I fell over on the ground knowing I had been shot in my right arm,” said Slaugh.

While on the ground in pain, Slaugh saw shattered glass panes and blood running down his arm and chest where he was hit with shrapnel. More frightening than the carnage unfolding before him was the sight of his boyfriend who had been shot in the leg and his sister bleeding out. Slaugh’s sister had been shot over five times.

“I called out to her and I heard no response,” said Slaugh. “I don’t want to imagine what may happen had the shooter not been taken down that night.”

Despite the bloodshed that shocked the community and nation, Slaugh told his peers, “We cannot be afraid. No bullets will stop us from being proud of who we are.”

Slaugh correlated violence against LGBTQ+ members and trans individuals to the “fear-based and hateful rhetoric” surrounding the community.

The hateful rhetoric you’ve heard from elected leaders is the direct cause of the horrific shooting at Club Q. We need elected leaders to demonstrate language that reflects love and understanding, not hate and fear.

James Slaugh, Club Q shooting survivor