A little over a year had passed since the Pulse nightclub shooting in my hometown of Orlando when I stumbled upon the group on Meetup.com. Its profile picture stood out among the book clubs and amateur sports leagues using generic clip art to advertise themselves. This one featured a silver bullet, the tip of it fire blue, next to the words “Gays with Guns.”
It sounded like an oxymoron. How could any self-respecting gay person support guns? The names of the 49 queer, predominantly Latinx people I used to spend nights dancing with were still fresh in my mind. So was the fact that the shooter, a man who’d previously been on an FBI watch list, was able to buy a semiautomatic rifle as easily as if it were a Snickers bar. Even before the attack, LGBTQ people were already the most likely targets of hate crimes in America. Gays with Guns simply didn’t make sense. I clicked on the group’s profile and discovered that their next meeting was being held in Los Angeles, a short drive away from where I was living in Southern California, and decided that I had to go see them for myself.
A few weeks later, a friend dropped me off at the LAX Firing Range. From the outside, the plain white building could have easily passed for a CVS, though once I stepped through the front door I found myself face-to-face with a booth surrounded by bulletproof glass. I’d prepared for the Gays with Guns practice shooting session more than I do for most dates, worried that if I dressed in my typical uniform of hoop earrings and a bandana, the group members — who, if they were serious, had to be the type to write “masc for masc” on their Grindr profiles — wouldn’t let me hang with them. Or worse, that I’d piss off one of the shooting range regulars. I ended up going with a plain T-shirt, blue jeans and combat boots, and felt certain I’d made the correct choice as I stared at a plaque beside the check-in booth that read: “Kung-fu my ass. Try to karate chop a bullet.” I read it twice, four times, before it finally dawned on me that no one was coming. Of course anyone could simply walk right into the gun shop. So I did.
Inside, it immediately became apparent how unprepared I was. Aside from never firing anything deadlier than a Super Soaker, I had no clue what any of the Gays with Guns group members looked like. The avatars they used on Meetup were pictures of guns, cartoon characters holding guns, and a pretty watercolor of a daisy, which next to the weapons seemed most menacing of all. I wandered through the racks of hunting gear, searching for my gay posse. Behind a rack stocked with camouflage sunglasses, I stopped to observe a man leaning over a glass counter idly rolling the metal stud in his left earlobe between his fingers. Was he in the group? I wondered. How were we supposed to recognize each other? I was trying to remember which one was the “gay ear” when I felt a tap on my shoulder and spun around.
“You here for Gays with Guns?” a short, troll-like man asked me. I don’t mean that as an insult. He had neon blue hair spiked straight up, and his name, he said, was Tron.
“Maybe,” I demurred, reluctant to give myself away in a room full of armed strangers. “Do I … look like I am?”
Tron stared at me, as if unsure whether there was more to the question. “Oh sweetie … ” he laughed after an awkward moment of silence. “Oh girl. Let’s just go.” I guess I wasn’t as well-camouflaged as I’d thought.
Behind him trailed a line of ducklings I would soon find out were Spencer, who’d rode an hour by bus from his college dorm to be there; Lydia, a jittery woman inexplicably carrying a powdered donut in a napkin; and Pat and Helen, a lesbian couple who had a lot of eerily specific questions for Tron, like, “Do we have to conceal our Glocks in Utah?” (No, you do not.)
I sat next to Lydia in the orientation room because she knew where to get donuts. Koi, a transgender Asian woman, and her boyfriend G-Breezy, whose nickname only accentuated his whiteness, were already there. Tron stood at the head of the room with Huck, the co-organizer of today’s meetup, though it was evident Huck thought of himself as in charge by the way he thrust a stack of papers into Tron’s chest to pass out. He was the only person in the room who seemed like the “masc for masc” type. Even G-Breezy double-kissed me on the cheeks.
“Apologies for the heat,” Huck began, patting his forehead with a napkin. “We couldn’t figure out how to work the A/C.”
“Should we try shooting it?” I suggested.
He ignored me. I buried my face in the pamphlet Tron placed on my desk, titled “The Ten Most Important Gun Rules,” and didn’t dare look up until everyone had forgotten I existed.
The rules were common sense:
- Treat Every Gun as if It’s Loaded.
- Know What You Are Shooting at and What’s Behind It.
- Never Point a Gun at Anything You Aren’t Prepared to Shoot.
As I skimmed the rest, Huck continued his opening remarks.
“This is not a place to discuss personal politics,” he said, as he roamed between our seats, his leather boots rapping against the concrete floor. This man had the personality of a buzz cut. Each word he spoke was carefully selected and rehearsed, making it all the more jarring when he segued into his theory about arming the gays by saying, “Fact is: If Hitler hadn’t taken the weapons away from the Jews, he would not have won the war.” Next to me, Lydia licked donut powder from her fingers. A gold Star of David emblem dangled from her neck. Was she buying this? Was anyone?
“After the attack at Pulse,” Huck kept going, “I’ve never been more certain that we need guns to protect ourselves from all the freaks out there. We can’t let something like that happen again.”
My stomach turned. It does every time someone mentions Pulse. I shouldn’t, but I feel possessive of it. Pulse is where I first learned to celebrate my femininity, drink martinis, smile at other boys without fear. Every ear there was the gay ear. After the shooting, my friends and I consoled ourselves by insisting that at least the victims did not die in vain. Surely their deaths would lead to change, to gun reform. No one, we wept, will ever have to experience a loss like this again. We know now that countless other people have. To hear Huck bring up the club as an argument for more guns reminded me of the promise we’d made that no one would hurt us again, how differently those words can be interpreted.
The group’s reasons for joining Gays with Guns varied.
Koi and G-Breezy signed up because G thought Koi should know how to defend herself when he wasn’t around. Koi worked as an actress, and her conventional good looks attracted a lot of attention from creepy dudes.
Pat and Helen were road-tripping across the country. They already had a gun but wanted to practice with it before setting off. “You never know,” Pat sighed heavily. Helen asked, “When we’re driving, can I just keep my Glock in my purse if I have the safety on, or do I have to put it in the trunk?” Pat shook her head. “The trunk is gonna be full, hun.”
Lydia was also nervous about who might be out there. A robber had recently broken into her home, and she worried they would come back.
Spencer thought guns were fun. He’d hunted all his life and lamented not being able to keep one in his dorm.
Of the seven new members in the group, four were women, in line with a study conducted by the Williams Institute, a research center associated with the UCLA School of Law, which found that lesbian and bisexual women are slightly more likely to have a gun in their home than gay or bisexual men (19.9 percent versus 17.3 percent, respectively). On the other hand, among heterosexuals, men report having a gun in the home much more often than women do (40.2 percent versus 30.8 percent, respectively). The role reversal among queer people could have a number of possible explanations: stereotypes in the community about butch lesbians and meek gay men, or higher rates of death by homicide among transgender women compared to other LGBTQ people, especially among Black trans women, which might lead them to arm themselves in higher numbers.
Aside from Tron (who was Asian), Koi and me, the Gays with Guns were by and large white. There were no Black people in the group, and I was the only Latinx member. This struck me as odd, considering that we were in Los Angeles, where nearly 50 percent of the population is Latinx. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised though. Contrary to violent media portrayals of people of color, whites are more likely to own guns than Black and/or Latinx folk. If these were the demographics in Los Angeles, I could only imagine how many Black or brown people would attend a Gays with Guns meeting somewhere with a less diverse population.
Given how high tensions are between Black and brown queer people and the police, perhaps the question flashing through my mind shouldn’t have been “Why aren’t there more of us here?” but “Why am I?”
“I’m Edgar,” I introduced myself to the group. “And I feel weird about guns.”
Huck grinned. “Well, let’s see what we can do about that.”
Half an hour later, I stood in a shooting booth, staring through the scope of a gun pointed at a poster of a blue man. I pressed the trigger. The gun barked out a bullet somewhere ahead, but nowhere near my target. Huck and Lydia gathered behind me next to Tron to watch my second attempt. In the booth beside me, Koi, with a smile plastered on her face, unloaded an entire magazine of bullets into her target’s chest. A bullet casing fell to the floor with each shot. When she finished, she kicked the shells behind her like a cat covering her feces with litter.
I focused my aim between Blue Man’s eyes, remembering the rule from my handout: Know What You Are Shooting at and What’s Behind It. So I thought of the Pulse shooter. Of the man who’d sexually assaulted my best friend at a gay bar in college. After calling the police (the last time I ever did), the officers who arrived giggled at our surroundings and threatened to arrest me for “creating a scene.”
I fired. The shot clipped Blue Man’s chin. The next one got his nose, then his right ear. Then four in a row right into his heart.
Lydia gave me a thumbs-up as Huck approached the booth and pressed a button that brought the target forward. We couldn’t hear each other because of our noise-canceling headphones, so we kept our words short and emphatic.
“First time?” he mouthed. “Wow!”
I shrugged, feigning modesty, though inside I was buzzing. I loved it. Loved holding the heavy gun, pregnant with bullets, how my finger teased the trigger while I aimed through the scope, the feeling that my body was in control of something so powerful.
I didn’t want it to, but the thought crept into my mind: What if you were there that night at Pulse? Or Vegas? Or Sandy Hook? And you had a clear shot of the shooter? Would you have been able to save them? Isn’t that the argument gun rights activists consistently make? That if there were more armed civilians, we’d have less shootings? Yes, I thought. Absolutely. For the first time in a long time, I knew exactly what to do if a man attacked me.
It suddenly made sense to me why, days after the Pulse shooting, gun sales in Florida doubled. As my friend Ashanti Anderson, a Black lesbian poet, put it to me when I mentioned I was writing this story: “I have a gun because the people who want to kill me have guns.”
At the top of the Gays with Guns website, in red italic font, there is a line that reads: “Had any one of the Orlando victims been carrying a concealed weapon … ” There is a version of this line on the Pink Pistols website, another queer gun rights group that, just one day after the shooting, saw its membership numbers jump from 1,500 to more than 4,000, and double again within a month: “Armed queers don’t get bashed.”
Clearly I was not alone in questioning my long held anti-gun beliefs. I was part of a larger movement of queer people and people of color who are sick of being vulnerable and are searching for ways to defend ourselves, a movement I first became aware of with the fictional Pink Posse on the TV show Queer as Folk. The armed vigilante group, which one of the main characters joins after being gay-bashed, patrols the streets of Pittsburgh protecting queer people from harassers. In retrospect, it’s likely the writers of the show borrowed the premise from the Pink Pistols, who were inspired by an article by Jonathan Rauch that ran in Salon magazine 20 years ago amid a rise in hate crimes against queer people that continues to this day. (Of the more than 28 hate crimes involving firearms that are committed in the United States each day, 19 percent target queer people.) The article called for queer folks to become comfortable with guns, obtain firearms licenses, and do it in such a manner that attracted as much publicity as possible, so as to put an end to the idea that we are easy targets.
“If it became widely known that homosexuals carry guns and know how to use them, not many bullets would need to be fired,” Rauch wrote. “In fact, not all that many gay people would need to carry guns, as long as gay-bashers couldn’t tell which ones did.”
This logic, however well-intentioned, places an undue burden on LGBTQ people. Instead of insisting that heterosexuals do the work of unlearning homophobia, the article suggests that queer folk should … scare them into not killing us? The argument is even more complicated when applied to Black and brown members of the community whom racists already see as threatening. A Black or brown gay man attempting to project the image of a strong, not-to-be-messed-with queer could quickly cross the line into “thug,” putting their lives further in danger.
Still, firearms at the very least offer a short-term solution and the possibility of protecting ourselves rather than remaining sitting ducks, and more LGBTQ-oriented gun groups are being founded each year. Newer ones include Trigger Warning Queer & Trans Gun Club, Operation Blazing Sword, Armed Equality, and the “LGBT for Gun Rights” Facebook page, which currently boasts nearly 22,000 likes.
Erin Palette, founder of Operation Blazing Sword and national coordinator for the Pink Pistols, explains her decision to own a gun thusly: “If I need to defend myself, I need that defense immediately, not when the police arrive. … I carry a tourniquet. That doesn’t make me a paramedic; it simply gives me another tool in my toolbox that I can use to prevent someone from bleeding to death until the professionals arrive. For the same reason, I carry a pistol. That doesn’t make me a police officer; it simply gives me another tool in my toolbox that I can use to prevent someone from killing me until the professionals arrive. Owning a firearm gives me agency. My body, my choice, including how I defend it.”
Palette says that many queer people join the Pink Pistols because they aren’t comfortable getting instruction from heterosexual and cisgender gun owners, or because they want to talk about firearms and/or gun rights without the social stigma present in their peer groups.
“There is a powerful anti-gun sentiment within the queer community,” Palette says. “So many queer gun owners are ‘in the gun closet’ about their ownership. They don’t wish to be named, shamed and blamed for ‘contributing to gun violence’ just because they lawfully exercise their right to keep and bear arms.”
Huck continued admiring my target, pointing at all the places where my bullets had made contact with Blue Man. After letting me bask triumphantly for a few minutes, he pointed at two heads I hadn’t paid attention to before, straddling each side of my target’s face. I’d been so preoccupied with aiming for him, I hadn’t noticed that there were other people in the picture.
“Next time,” he mouthed, using his palm to cover Blue Man’s disfigured face. “Try to aim for the kidnappers.” He patted me on the shoulder and walked away.
My chest deflated. Who was I kidding? I wouldn’t have heroically intervened at Pulse. Not with a gun. In fact, most likely, no one would have. Among 62 major mass shootings in the United States from 1982 to 2012, zero were stopped by a civilian wielding a firearm. Standing in the shooting booth, I felt torn by all the complicated angles that exist when it comes to gun rights and safety, particularly for queer people. While the group’s members made strong cases that arming ourselves would help put an end to our victimization, adding more guns to the problem of gun violence still seems counterintuitive to me.
There are, of course, others who believe that a very different response is in order. One alternative can be found in organizations like Gays Against Guns, a nonviolent direct action group formed several days after the Pulse shooting, committed to creating a safer future for queer people. Their fight against gun violence extends beyond mass shootings to also address the fact that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth, while 40 percent of transgender adults have attempted suicide. Though guns are not the most commonly used method, they are particularly deadly: About 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm end in death, making guns an irrevocable “solution” to a problem many queer people face.
With chapters in seven cities across the U.S., Gays Against Guns has a mission to nonviolently break the gun industry’s “chain of death — investors, manufacturers, the NRA and politicians who block safer gun laws.” Their direct actions have included staging a “die-in” at the 2016 New York City Pride March, in which 49 people dressed all in white laid on the pavement along the parade route, representing the victims slain at Pulse. The group also held a rally outside of Trump Tower in February of this year. Protesters held signs displaying the president’s infamous “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody … ” quote, along with the hashtag #GunViolencePresident.
Despite the group’s name, they claim that they do not believe in the complete eradication of firearms. Their aim is gun reform, “such as a reinstatement of a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, universal background checks on ALL gun sales and no-buy lists with constitutional protections built in so that people of color, Muslims and activists are not discriminated against.” Because they are not gun abolitionists, it’s theoretically possible for someone like me to learn to defend himself at a firearm at a Gays with Guns meeting one weekend and fight for stricter gun control legislation at a Gays Against Guns meeting the next.
Outside the firing range, Lydia and I sat on a concrete bench like kids waiting to be picked up after school. The rest of the group had disbanded after many promises to add each other on social media and make this a regular thing. Lydia looked beat, her curly hair splayed across her forehead in the sweltering California heat.
“So, do you think you’ll get a gun?” I asked her.
“Maybe someday,” she replied, propping her left foot on her knee. It was swollen and pink from standing up all day. “Shooting kind of hurt my hands.” She showed me her thumb. It was swollen too.
We had a few minutes before our rides would pick us up, and there was something I really wanted to know.
“You’re Jewish, right?” I drew my eyes to her necklace.
“How’d you feel about that whole ‘Hitler only won the war because he disarmed the Jews stuff?’ That was super weird, right?”
She stared blankly at me.
“Wasn’t it?” I tried again, starting to regret I’d brought it up at all.
Just as I was about to change the subject, she smiled and bent over laughing, holding her ribs and coughing so much that I began to get genuinely worried. She was defenseless. Walking hurt her. Holding a gun hurt her. She could barely take a question. “Yes! I know! Yeah!” she gasped, collecting herself. “But I knew Huck would be like that. He gave me that speech when I talked to him on the phone.”
“And you came anyway?” I asked.
She scrunched her eyebrows. “Well, what was I gonna do? Not come because of some idiot?” She said this like it was the most obvious thing in the world, as if every place was going to have some idiot standing in her way. “He’s a dumbass, but I wanted to shoot a gun. I mean, what did you think this meeting was going to be like?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged.
Lydia rubbed her foot, breathing hard. I hoped that she wouldn’t buy a gun, and that she would never need one. But she was not unreasonable for wanting protection should the burglar who broke into her house return — and neither are the women, queers, people of color, and those who exist at the intersection of all three, for wanting to feel safe.
There are so many reasons queer people don’t feel safe, Erin Palette tells me. In addition to the attack at Pulse, there was the Trump election, “when many queer people genuinely felt their marriages would be invalidated and [that they might] possibly [even] be shipped off [to] detainment camps.” This fear of an oppressive government has only increased during the Covid-19 pandemic and in the most recent unrest triggered partly by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Lydia and I sat quietly as cars passed us by. I still didn’t like the idea of anyone owning an assault rifle, but I supposed that the next time I read about the thousands of AR-15s made annually for sale to the public, I could think of G-Breezy, Koi, Lydia — a handful of friendly faces that make those bleak numbers seem, if not comforting, at least human. There might always be straight white men armed with guns and hate, but there would also be Pat and Helen, two lesbians simply trying to go on a road trip. Perhaps the long stretches of highway they’re a little less afraid of driving on after that day’s gun training could pass for a silver lining.