Enge had been procrastinating about buying a gun. The soft-spoken 69-year-old grew up around firearms, and always wanted one to protect her household. But in her highly conservative region of inland California, most training courses were linked to the National Rifle Association (NRA), whose politics she hated.
Then, in early 2021, she realised that she was transgender, and suddenly the situation was different. Not only did she feel unsafe presenting as a woman in her community, but she could see conservative rhetoric about trans people growing increasingly hostile across the US.
“Transgender women like myself are currently considered by the right wing to be dangerous, so I have a heightened sense of insecurity, and feel I should be better able to deal with a situation if it came up,” she tells The Independent as she slots bullets into a semi-automatic pistol magazine at a shooting range in Sacramento.
“A chill went down my spine when I heard that QAnon was asserting [falsely] that the Texas shooter was a transgender paedophilic groomer… I really don’t know where the threat to me will come from.”
It was only a few months after her revelation that Enge, who asked for her last name not to be used because she does not yet feel safe coming out publicly, discovered Pink Pistols, an LGBT+ gun group formed in the year 2000. Once alongside other queer people, she felt confident training regularly and eventually bought her own handgun. “The acceptance has been wonderful,” she says.
Over the past few years, the rising tide of attacks on LGBT+ people has sparked discussion in American queer communities about how they should defend themselves, and pushed some people to acquire or learn how to use firearms.
Yet anyone attempting to persuade LGBT+ people to exercise their Second Amendment rights faces distinct barriers, including elevated rates of suicide among some LGBT groups and a widespread progressive suspicion of guns and gun culture, which traditionally leans towards the right.
Erin Palette, Pink Pistols’s national coordinator and the head of its parent group Operation Blazing Sword, says she has seen a steady increase in membership and inquiries since 2016, when 49 people were shot dead and 53 wounded at a gay nightclub called Pulse in Orlando, Florida.
“That was in many ways our 9/11 moment,” she tells The Independent. “We were in just as much danger on 10 September as we were on the 11th; the big difference was that on the 11th we now knew it.
“That was the first growth spurt. And then in the fall of that year, Trump was elected… so yes, there has been an increase, not specifically only in the last two years – just the past two years were basically pressing the nitrous oxide button on the racing car.”
’Our enemies have guns, so we’d better’
The pandemic and its aftermath have seen a sharp escalation in political, legal, and physical attacks on LGBT+ people in America.
In 2020, murders of trans and gender non-conforming people reached their highest point in record. That same year was marked by a surge in far right movements and conspiracy theories hostile to LGBT+ people alongside then-president Donald Trump’s increasingly aggressive attempts to stay in office.
This year, extremist groups have stormed or shut down Pride Month events, while Republican politicians have declared homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice”, sought to ban gender transition treatments for under-18s, and embraced the idea that teaching children about LGBT+ life is a form of “grooming”.
These events galvanised an ongoing and sometimes contentious discussion in queer communities about whether it is necessary or wise for LGBT+ people to take up arms.
“If you are able to afford it, and if it is safe for you to do so, you should consider arming yourselves, then finding others to train with in teams and learn how to defend your community – we may need these skills in the very near future,” tweeted Chelsea Manning, the former US government whistleblower and a trans woman, on the day after news broke that the US Supreme Court was preparing to abolish the nationwide right to abortion.
Mutual aid groups such as Defence Fund ATL in Atlanta, Secure the Bag Safety in New York City, and Trans Defence Fund Los Angeles have sprung up to teach self-defence skills to LGBT+ people of colour and distribute free non-lethal weapons.
One group called Arm the Girls, founded in the San Francisco Bay Area, sent out designer bags holding stun guns, pocket knives, and pepper spray, as well as holding a photoshoot of trans people wielding firearms.
“[Guns] are so normalized in our culture, but when you see a Black person with a gun, automatically they’re a criminal, and when you see a queer or trans person with a gun – oh wait, you never see that,” Arm the Girls co-founder Guerilla Davis told Mic last June, though the outlet noted that they do not advocate gun ownership.
There has even been a swell of trans social media influencers devoted to teaching firearm skills, showing off modified assault rifles or explaining cleaning and camouflage procedures on Instagram and YouTube.
Chloe Corrupt, a 36-year-old porn actor and trans woman who lives in the Bay Area but grew up in inner-city Cleveland, told The Independent that she will probably buy a revolver later this year due to fear of planned or opportunistic attacks by right-wing extremists.
Despite having carried a gun daily in her youth, she has not done so since 2009, largely because she felt it unnecessary in the Bay Area. She asked to be identified by her stage name due to previous harassment and doxxing.
“Cleveland is a place with a lot of gun violence,” she says. “I grew up in extreme proximity to gang life; a close friend was murdered in front of me when I was 16.
“Unlike a lot of transgender individuals who are speaking about this, I am not suburban. I did not grow up in some cul-de-sac, I grew up where gun violence is not an abstraction. So I do understand very well what some of the negative outcomes are when you’ve got a marginalised population with a lot of guns and a lot of desperation.
“But much like [that] neighbourhood, I think the reality for trans people has gotten to the point where people want to kill us for who we are and where we’re from. They’ve got guns, they know how to use them, so we’d better… we have the ability to protect ourselves. We’re fools for not doing it.”
Indeed, gun sales in general skyrocketed during the pandemic, and not just among conservatives. Whereas previous election year spikes in sales were thought to be driven by gun enthusiasts concerned about new restrictions from Democratic presidents, gun shop owners and trade groups told The Los Angeles Times that large numbers of liberals, women, and Black Americans were buying their first firearms. Most said they wanted a gun for self-defence.
The Trace, a non-partisan gun tracking group, estimated that sales had jumped 64 per cent in 2020 after staying flat for most of Trump’s presidency. One Los Angeles councilman told The New York Times: “There was just as much a run on guns as on toilet paper in the beginning of the pandemic.”
While they cannot be certain of the reasons, LGBT+ gun groups likewise have seen increased interest from LGBT+ people. Three Pink Pistols chapter heads said they had had upticks in membership inquiries over the past year, though most new joiners did not mention anti-queer sentiment.
Palette also says the average number of people reporting that they were trained by Operation Blazing Sword, which connects LGBT+ people with queer-friendly volunteer gun instructors, rose from one per week in 2018 to two per week in 2019 and 2021 – probably an under-estimate, since not everyone reports their training session.
Lucas Hubbard, national press secretary for the Socialist Rifle Association (SRA), which has a large number of LGBT+ people among its roughly 9,000 members and in its leadership, says: “More than ever marginalised groups are arming themselves, LGBTQ+ communities included. We see mass acceptance for getting armed nowadays far more than we have in the past.”
‘Putting the phobia back in homophobia’
At a Pink Pistols meet-up in Sacramento, California last month, Enge and a small group of other LGBT+ people gathered in protective earmuffs and glasses to fire off short salvos of ammunition at paper targets and compare techniques.
“The detonation of the first round is always shocking, so I keep doing this to try and desensitise myself a bit,” says Enge, who still feels she has to re-learn to shoot every time she visits.
“But I want to remain somewhat sensitised, because these are dangerous objects… I don’t want a goofball with a gun. To me they’re strictly tools, like a black and decker drill – a little more dangerous.”
Deanna Sykes, 59, a gay research scientist who founded and leads the Pistols’ Sacramento chapter around 2002, gives an opening safety briefing, then explains how to efficiently pull back the slide on a Springfield 1911 pistol and fire off multiple shots without reducing their accuracy by flinching.
“I have absolutely hated guns my entire life,” says Aileen Lauer, a 59-year-old orthopaedic therapist and lesbian. “I thought, you know, I need to make friends with this thing that I dislike so much. So I came to a Pink pistols meeting… I realised that it’s really nothing to be afraid of, and it turned into this sport that I love.”
During the pandemic she turned her van into a mobile home and travelled the country with just her dog, making her nervous about her safety, both as a gay woman and as a human being roaming the US almost alone.
“It has been dangerous in my lifetime to be identified as anything in the LGBTQ community,” she says. “I’ve walked out of a gay bar, minding my own business, and had a car drive by and throw rocks and eggs at me. I’ve been in a bar where guys came in with firearms – scary…
“People have strong feelings about who we are, and believe us to be wrong, and there’s a certain amount of those people that want to take action towards our community. I want to be able to stand in the middle of who I am and meet the moment, if it ever comes.”
Joseph Giambo, a 32-year-old bisexual man from Rancho Cordova, California, says his goal is to convert as many LGBT+ people and allies to gun ownership as possible. “The LGBTQ community shifts a little left, and there’s a lot more hesitancy,” he says. “I like to joke that I want to put the ‘phobia’ back in homophobia.”
That echoes the original purpose of Pink Pistols, whose motto is “armed queers don’t get bashed”. The idea came from gay journalist Jonathan Rauch, inspired by a 1987 incident in which a gay teenager in Arkansas who was saved from potential murder by four armed homophobes when his companion fired a pistol shot over their heads.
“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 Salon in 2000. Libertarian activist Douglas Krick took up on idea and founded Pink Pistols, which by 2018 was estimated to have about 30,000 members.
Palette, a longtime gun rights advocate and disaster prepper who started Blazing Sword the day after the Pulse shooting and immediately got an “avalanche” of inquiries, feels vindicated by the recent anti-LGBT+ backlash.
“I am frequently asked if gun ownership is more important to me than queer rights,” she says. “They’re both very important to me, but if I had to pick one, I would pick gun ownership.
“Queer rights are enforced by the government, and if the government suddenly decides that I no longer have those rights, there’s nothing I can do about that. But if I have a firearm, and I genuinely fear that the government wants to kill me – and I am not advocating for the overthrow of the US government or anything like that – then I’ve still got a firearm, and I can use that to defend myself and to protect my queer life.”
As a trans woman, she also remembers how carrying a gun made her feel more confident the first time she went out in public as herself. More importantly, she found it forced her to calm her emotional response to verbal abuse and disrespect, since she was conscious that escalating any argument might lead to someone’s death.
“When you become a gun owner you have to set aside a lot of your ego and you have to let a lot of things slide,” she says. “We catch a lot of crap over the way we live our lives… and I still get offended by that. But in most instances, I have to just take a deep breath and let it slide.”
However, she warns: “So many people think that the gun is a talisman – ‘I have the gun, and the gun makes everything better.’ And that’s not true. The gun is the tool, and tools do not operate by themselves. You have to have a will to use them.
“This is why I do not believe that guns are right for everyone – because there are a lot of people who, for whatever reason, believe that they are incapable of taking a life even in self-defence. I respect that, that’s a personal choice, but in that case they should not have a firearm.
“If you carry, you have to believe deep within yourself that if the situation calls for it, you can shoot another human being to defend yourself… I know that I have, deep within me, this core that will fight to the death to defend itself.”
LGBT+ gun advocates have an uphill climb
Many LGBT+ gun owners talk about a widespread cultural cringe in queer communities that makes firearms sometimes feel taboo. LGBT+ Americans overwhelmingly lean towards Democrats, and left-leaning Americans are overwhelmingly more likely to support tighter gun laws.
A 2018 report by the Williams Institute, part of the University of California Los Angeles, found that only 19 per cent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) adults have a gun at home versus 35 per cent of straight adults. LGBT+ people were also more likely to support gun control proposals and oppose making it easier to get a concealed carry permit. Another study in 2020 found a similar effect for queer men, but not queer women.
The Pink Pistols meet-up in May came just four days after the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, underscoring why many LGBT+ people are uncomfortable with guns and leading Sykes to emphasise how to carry a weapon that is not in use without making bystanders “jumpy”.
Do such events make her question her stance? “It’s tough, it’s really tough,” she says. “This last one in particular, I find myself thinking about it sand saying, ‘oh my God, are they right? Do we need to just try to get rid of guns?'”
She recalls how her father, who grew up “quite poor”, had been taught to shoot around the age of 11 and taken a .22 rifle to school so he could shoot squirrels and woodchucks for his family’s dinner. “Something’s changed in the world that is causing the things that we’re dealing with, and what’s changed is not the accessibility of guns,” says Sykes. “There might be more of them out there, but this country has had guns since its founding.
“Is restricting them part of the solution? Maybe it is, but I hate to see that solution pursued to the exclusion of all these other things we probably need… and figuring out what the heck is the source of all of the divisiveness we have in our world right now.”
LGBT+ people disagree on these questions. Enge believes the Second Amendment has been “badly misinterpreted” and supports stricter background checks, saying: “It was even too easy for me to get this weapon.”
Ari Drennen, a trans woman who monitors anti-LGBT+ hate movements at the progressive non-profit Media Matters for America, told The Independent she understands why some trans people are jumping into gun culture, but sounds a note of caution: “There are lots of ways to think about helping your community. Getting trained as an EMT is always valuable. We don’t have to match the aesthetics of the fascists to be a resilient community that looks after and takes care of each other.”
Chloe Corrupt, meanwhile, is firmly against gun control, arguing that it has historically been enforced disproportionately on marginalised people. She recounts how her Black friends in Cleveland were regularly harassed by police in the name of, in one officer’s words, “gun suppression”.
“The people who want to kill us for who we are are overwhelmingly white and suburban… and if gun control measures were taken and enforced against white suburban men more than other groups, it would be the first time in this country’s history,” she says.
Some LGBT+ people have expressed concern that arming up, and stridently advocating gun use, will inspire backlash at a time of rising fears about political violence and even civil war. Others in the community have raised the issue of suicide, which is two to eight times more common among young LGBT+ people than their straight peers, according to the aforementioned Williams Institute report.
Corrupt says the answer is to know oneself, and that people who think they might be at risk of suicide might be better off unarmed. She is more concerned about the possibility that the law will not protect trans people who kill in self-defence – so much so that she advocates buying guns “off the books” instead of submitting to the mercy of the courts.
After the Pink Pistols shoot, Enge spends a while chatting with the staff behind the desk at the range’s gun shop, stocking up on ammunition and considering various weapon models for her wife. For now, she doesn’t carry her weapon around, but might do in future if she begins facing street harassment.
“I want people to know that trans people may be armed, you know?” she says. “Be aware! Be aware that we’re not all a bunch of marshmallows.”
The Independent is the official publishing partner of Pride in London 2022 and a proud sponsor of NYC Pride