Content warning: This story contains references to hate crimes.
I first met Dina Simone last December, at the west-side house venue VCR, where they were playing bass in Starter Wife, the perfect name for “a band of homosexuals in Chicago” who came of age in the 90s. (When I saw their band name printed in Starter jacket logo font, I had a powerful flashback to 1997, watching someone write “D.A.R.E. is shit” on a dumpster while I shivered and wiped my nose on my own Detroit Lions Starter jacket during recess.) Besides Dina, the band is composed of Amy Ramelli on vocals and guitar, and Tricia Scully on drums. It was the band’s first show, but you wouldn’t know it: under bisexual mood lighting, the trio played confidently and easily, their breezy rock and good-natured jokes between songs stirring up within me a reckless, midwinter longing for porch beers and sunny windows flung open wide.
Dina is also an independent act: they make “pussy-popping booty music for the soul,” live-looping keyboards and other instruments to create an electronic sound that’s slouchy, sticky, and makes you wanna bop. Currently, they’re on month three of a half-year artist residency at Montrose Saloon, where they curate shows as well as perform monthly on first Tuesdays. It’s an opportunity for them to return to their solo set—they push themselves to unveil one or two new pieces each time. “It’s also a chance to showcase people who are getting new projects together,” they said, “[I’ve been] kind of pitching them, ‘Are you ready to come play my show? You should come play my show.’”
I can imagine the tone this invitation is offered in—friendly, confident, direct—because it’s how Dina talked to me the second time I met them, singing karaoke, when they invited me to join them at a gun range sometime. In between songs, Dina spoke passionately about how trans, queer, and other marginalized people—especially Black and Brown folks—have the right to defend themselves, and of their desire to teach marginalized people in particular gun safety. When I asked if they conceal and carry, Dina took my hand and carefully pressed it against their hoodie, where I could feel their holstered handgun. “Every damn day.”
I grew up in Michigan around guns. My dad is a hunter, and I remember the musky whiff, faintly sweet, of the oil he used to clean his rifle after coming back from the woods. Under the yellow light of our small dining room, the table like a surgeon’s theater, he’d dismantle the gun into discrete pieces, using a wire to shove greased rags ripped from old T-shirts down the empty barrel, naming the parts while I watched.
I don’t know when I became afraid of guns, or when I began to associate their ownership with being a bad person—not bad as in criminal, but bad as in foolish, selfish, disregarding of statistics, and uninterested in the greater good. As a child, I felt cautious around guns—my dad respected them, and I respected my dad—but there wasn’t fear, perhaps because, in childhood, I was only familiar with gun violence from old Westerns and Die Hard. That seemed a far difference from my dad and my grandpa’s hunting rifles.
But in college, I was a research assistant for a book on intimate partner violence—a murder-suicide that took place in my dorm. Then there was Sandy Hook, Isla Vista, Charleston, Pulse. Men, almost universally white, murdering women, children, elderly Black churchgoers, and queers. Men, almost universally white, braying on television about their right to defend themselves to the death while open carrying in grocery stores. This wasn’t the kind of gun ownership I’d grown up with, but as I grew into my own political and cultural awareness, it seemed like there was no room for individual gun use in the paradigm of my values.
And yet, if I’m being honest, I’ve grown gun-curious again. In Iowa, I met and briefly dated a queer woman, a high femme who went hunting every deer season and butchered what she shot. Then, beyond using guns as tools when hunting and farming, there’s my own family history, in which a great- or two back was a gunrunner for the early Irish Republican Army, smuggling arms into the homeland in the fight to free ourselves from centuries of cruel British rule.
“You know what I actually do feel like forming a well regulated militia,” tweeted one woman after Roe v. Wade was overturned. I felt that. I’m a queer, borderline-vegetarian woman who is on the abolition train, but I’ve never claimed to be nonviolent, not if I needed to defend myself or the people I love. I’ve been shoved on the street by a man who got angry when he catcalled me and I told him to fuck off, and I shoved him back. Leaving a sexual health clinic, I was followed a block by antiabortion freaks, men whose keen interest in telling me I was going to hell as they looked me up and down felt sexual and violent. If needed, I know I’ll throw a rock. I’d swing a fist. I also know that having a gun in your home statistically increases your chances of accidental injury, homicide, and suicide. I understand this intellectually, but if the police have guns, if 75 percent of murders by far-right or anti-Semitic extremists are shootings, what about the rest of us? In a country where there are more guns than people, why shouldn’t I at least know how to use one?
“My name is Dina Simone. I’m a gay-they. I was born in Oak Park, spent some time in Bartlett, and now reside in Chicago.” A month after the show, we met for our first interview. It was snowing heavily, and we both wore as many layers as possible. They carried a small piece, comfortable to wear under all the bulk: a Sig Sauer P365X pistol, which, a few weeks later, I would hold in my hands and shoot.
What is the connection between pussy-popping booty music and the Second Amendment? I asked Dina in the coffee shop, halfway through our first interview. I was worried the question would come off as flippant or jokey, but Dina nodded their head. Their stage persona gives them a way to “juggle vulnerability, empowerment, truth, and play.” The connection between that persona and their work as a firearms instructor is freedom, they told me, “the freedom to embody both personas.”
“The more I think about that question—I’m American as fuck,” they continued. “Like, there’s so many different iterations of what it means to be American, and I’m an out, fucking queer, trans person who wears a gun on my waist. I’m American as fuck. I have the freedom to marry who the fuck I want. I am fucking here. I didn’t choose to be here, but I am fucking here.”
Dina’s own perception of guns has changed over time. Growing up, it was a “no guns in the house, not even a paintball gun” situation. But there was music. “I was legitimately in the womb while my mom was performing regularly onstage,” they told me, “so I feel like there was some epigenetic imprinting that happened . . . [Music fuels] my soul in a different way than anything else.”
In the early 2000s, when Dina was taking criminal justice classes in college and playing bass for someone who was a contender on American Idol (“We booked a lot of gigs because of that time in the spotlight”), they became friends with a classmate who used to teach firearm safety in the military. Dina was curious about firearms, and told him so. In their late teens, Dina worked in electrical discharge machining, a metal fabrication process. “You make a lot of small components,” they explained, “that would end up completing, making something bigger.” That’s not a far cry from gunsmithing, Dina realized: “I’m very, very interested in how all these tiny parts work together to make something happen.”
Soon, the friend invited Dina over to his house, where they went over his PowerPoint safety slides. “Come to think of it, that’s the exact same way I introduce new shooters!” they said during our first interview. “It was very sweet; his wife cooked us lunch.”
After the safety lessons, it was time for the real thing. Their friend took them to a gun range. The first gun Dina shot was a .22 pistol, at a range and under their friend’s supervision. Pleased and invigorated, they moved onto the .357 Magnum. (The decimal numbers refer to bullet diameter: the first gun Dina shot used bullets .22 inches in diameter; the second, .357 inches.)
“First time shooting, and I got some pretty good groupings,” referring to clusters of bullets in one small area of a target—which means their aim really wasn’t bad. How do you feel? their friend asked. “Great,” Dina remembered saying. “Empowered. I wish I could do it more often.”
Dina fascinated me. So much of the national conversation around gun use and control depicts gun owners as white, conservative, heterosexual men, but here in Chicago was a trans, nonbinary musician and performer who makes songs about pussy, money, weed, and pizza, and who also conceals and carries. They believe so deeply that firearm training should be accessible and inclusive to other marginalized people that in 2020 they became a certified NRA Pistol Instructor and a certified Concealed Carry Firearms Instructor through the Illinois State Police.
Since then, Dina has carried a gun every day. “I think it’s important to practice what I preach as an instructor,” they said, to have real-life knowledge of how to safely carry a firearm while navigating aspects of everyday, ordinary life. Walking the dog, using a public restroom. “But more importantly—and I wish I remembered more hate crime victims’ names—Matthew Shepard comes to mind,” they continued. “And there’s no fucking way I’m gonna become Matthew Shepard.”
In 1998, around the time when Dina and a crew of other high school metalheads in the Chicago suburbs were making some hardcore noise, feeling themselves and finding community via their band Self Inflicted Nightmare (SIN), a 21-year-old gay college student named Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured, tied to a barbed wire fence, and left to die under the open skies of Laramie, Wyoming. During trial, a lawyer for one of the men who murdered Matthew argued that his client was driven to “temporary insanity” by his victim’s alleged “sexual advances.” Basically, if a gay man hit on you, the argument went, and your homophobia and internalized fear of being seen as effeminate or queer made you panic, you were justified in blotting out his life.
In 2020, when Dina noticed “a shift in people’s mental energy” at the start of the pandemic that “made me want to protect my family and my home,” at least 44 trans and gender nonconforming people were murdered by guns or other violent means. Seventy-nine percent of those who died were people of color, with Black trans women facing particularly high rates of violence. In 2021, that number jumped to at least 57 fatalities; in 2022, it fell to at least 38. “We say ‘at least’ because too often these stories go unreported—or misreported,” said the Human Rights Campaign, who has been tracking violent deaths of trans and gender nonconforming people in the U.S. since 2015.
“Since 2020, more trans people have been killed in Chicago than any other U.S. city,” reported ABC7 Chicago in November 2022. The judge presiding over the murder trial of the men who killed Matthew rejected this “gay panic” defense (and effective in 2018, Illinois became the second state in the country to ban its use in court), but the ethos behind the reasoning of defense has splintered and metastasized into a full moral panic about the very existence of queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people in American life. That panic presents in different ways across different states—on March 2, Tennessee governor Bill Lee banned public drag shows and gender-affirming health care for youth on the same day. Here in Illinois, Chicago mayoral candidate Paul Vallas spoke at a fundraiser for Awake Illinois, a group opposed to LGBTQ+-inclusive education in public schools and who has used transphobic and homophobic rhetoric in the past.
And yet, queers are here, and some of them own guns. As years passed and Dina continued going to Chicago area ranges, they noticed there were no other visibly queer people. “I think I’d only seen one at the range.” And even beyond that, there were very few women there alone—the majority of women seemed to be with husbands or boyfriends, many reluctant to be there at all. “That’s the reason why I started the business,” they said, “to create a safe space where people would be honored for their background, and feel comfortable to learn about something that might be uncomfortable.”
In 2020, Dina founded Intuitive Tactical Solutions, with the mission to serve anyone interested in firearms safety, regardless of their experience or demographic. “We understand the nuances and assumptions involved [in gun use], as well as the fluid nature of inclusivity, and we adapt by continually updating our courses in response to world events, state and federal regulations, student feedback, and instructor introspection,” reads their website. Courses offered include Introduction to Firearms and Firearms Safety (two hours), Illinois Concealed Carry Course (16 hours) and Renewal (three hours), and Private Instruction at a range (time varies). Safety courses take place in the privacy of clients’ homes, where students practice handling and “firing” a Shot Indicating Resetting Trigger (SIRT), a laser-simulated firearm that allows students to practice shooting fundamentals without using a potentially deadly weapon first.
It’d been a long time since I’d held a gun, and I’d never been to the range. I wanted to learn more. And with Dina, I wanted to shoot.
A few weeks later, when I arrived early in the morning to Dina’s apartment, drenched by the kind of bleak February rain that makes you want to kill God, Dina had already made green smoothies for myself and Tricia, their friend and Starter Wife drummer, and offered us both hot tea. Later, they made us cheesy grits and eggs before we packed up for the range.
After two hours of Intuitive Tactical Solutions safety training in Dina’s apartment, Tricia and I knew the four fundamentals of gun safety—treat all guns as though they are fully loaded, keep your finger off the trigger until you’ve decided to shoot, be sure of what’s your target as well as what’s behind it, and never, ever point your gun at something you are not willing to destroy. We practiced how to safely pick up a gun, never touching the trigger, never pointing the muzzle at anything unsafe. We practiced aiming the SIRT at a grocery bag hung up in Dina’s kitchen, finding our posture, conscious of our breaths. There was more—so much more—and throughout it all, Dina was attentive and alert to our bodies, our questions, our apprehension and excitement. Like me, Tricia—a thoughtful white woman in her 30s with glasses and a good, thick braid—came from a family of gun owners, at least on her dad’s side, but that gene seemed to have skipped her. This trip to the gun range would also be her first.
Ladies get in half-off on Women Wednesday at Eagle Sports Range in Oak Forest. We arrived midmorning, when the range would have less people (the emptier a range, the fewer opportunities for accidents). Inside, Destiny’s Child sang “Say My Name” via speakers overhead while a young woman wearing a cream-colored hijab polished a case of ammunition. Dina and a middle-aged white man using a cane greeted each other enthusiastically, then briefly mourned together the loss of another range friend, a Black woman who’d recently passed from cancer. Then, while Tricia and I perused safety goggles, Dina caught up with a tall Black man in his 60s they called Mr. P.
This was James Perkins, I’d later learn, a Navy veteran, firearms instructor, and professional jazz saxophonist and woodwind player who’d just finished closing as one of the orchestra musicians for The Factotum, the groundbreaking world premiere opera set in a present-day Black barber shop on Chicago’s south side and produced by Lyric Opera. This month, Mr. P. will be the principal saxophone soloist in Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, playing at the James M. Nederlander Theatre from March 14-April 2.
“I carry wherever and whenever I’m legally allowed,” Mr. P. told me in an interview after my trip to the range. “Most people will see me in the middle of some of the largest stages in the country with a firearm on my hip.” As a musician, he views owning a gun as part of protecting tens of thousands of dollars of instruments and other musical equipment; as the grandson of farmers, he views firearms as sometimes necessary for obtaining food; and as a Black man born in Chicago, “I understand the usage of them in defending my personal freedom, because I have not as of yet seen a law written that will put my life back into my body if I am aggressed upon. For me, it is a necessary staple and part of everyday living.”
Mr. P. believes that “900 percent of the [gun control] laws that exist now only came into being when people such as myself gained access to those firearms.” Over the phone, he reminded me that when the Constitution was written, Black Americans were not considered citizens but rather property, and were only considered to be three-fifths human to a white person. Later, in the post-Civil War south, the so-called Black Codes intended to terrorize and control newly-freed Black people by prohibiting them from owning firearms. And in 1967, Republicans in California embraced gun control when it was Black Panthers who were open carrying.
As the gun control debate continues today, many people advocate for mandatory prison sentences as a way of regulating firearms and thereby improving public safety, but in 2021, a decade after such a sentencing law was enacted in Illinois, Loyola University evaluated its effects and reported out. Convicting more people for firearm possession leads to a substantial and disproportionate increase of incarceration of young Black men, and the report found no evidence that it reduces gun violence or improves safety overall.
Like Dina, Mr. P. also sees a relationship between his work as a musician and his work as a firearms instructor. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s playing a horn and being able to deliver the correct emotional or intellectual intent to our audience,” he told me. “It’s the same thing when I put a firearm in my hands: it’s to deliver precision—the effective and safe delivery of what it is I’m trying to do. I wouldn’t expect a poor musician to be a great shot, because the elements of discipline are not there.”
I am not a musician. I am a writer, given to winding sentences and multiple hyphens. Discipline I know, but precision and I are frenemies at best. And yet, at the range, Dina’s .22 in my hand, I found myself badly wanting the prodigal daughter homecoming, to discover, latent in my blood, that I am a crack shot. Adrenaline lit me up like a match. I breathed and felt Dina at my side, watching my form, the position of my hands. I aimed, and fired.
My shots were fine. Not great, but not bad either. My groupings were mostly around the rubber duckie printed on the target paper, nothing human to aim at on it, nothing that, in real life, could really bleed. Tricia, however, was a star.
“Oh no,” she repeated to herself. “Oh no.” (When I later asked Tricia about her response, she said she was having difficulty separating good marksmanship from the lethality of firearms, regardless of how safely they’re handled or stored. “It’s terrifying to realize you’re naturally good at something you’ve spent years trying to separate yourself from, physically and ideologically.”) Despite Tricia’s involuntary protestations, Dina’s eyes gleamed. They hit the button that brought the target back in. There was proof: Tricia’s grouping was far tighter, a fist to my melon, and targets had one entry hole for multiple bullets, meaning her aim was very sharp indeed. Perhaps Mr. P’s theory on musicians was right.
The range began to fill up, and for a while, we were the only white people there. Black women, in pairs and alone, ages early 20s to 70s, aimed and fired. Latina women with long black ponytails yelled as they chatted above the sound of gunfire. Latino men took turns on targets that seemed impossibly far away, and geeked out with Dina over the firearms they’d brought to the range today. In the corner, an elderly Latina in a black bejewled hat and a faux-fur infinity scarf held the paper target her husband had just shot, studying the holes in it like a map.
Every time I held one at the range, I never forgot there was a gun in my hand. Sometimes, the enormity of the responsibility in my hands made me shake, so I’d set it down for a bit until my body was calmer. “It’s a huge responsibility,” Dina told me during our first interview on the subject of owning a firearm. “If you’re a responsible gun owner, you never stop training: situationally, socially, in a multitude of ways.” I didn’t leave the range ready to purchase my own gun. Still, the day after my trip to the range, I went running. This is not unusual: I run every other day. It’s when I feel most myself, my strongest physically and mentally, even as some men who see me do it—men in cars, on the sidewalks, alone and together—like to catcall and stare and remind me I’m vulnerable. What was new was how I found my hands curling around an imaginary gun, practicing their muscle memory without me: left thumb under right, finger definitely not on the trigger, left hand pushing forward while the right hand pulled back. Ready, steady, aim.
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