She told us about the gun she carries in her purse. She advised each of us — young queer college kids in a conservative southern city — to consider arming ourselves, just in case. I was an officer in my school’s LGBTQ organization. We had invited her, an older trans woman with a successful career and the respect of the community, to speak at one of our meetings. Along with sharing the hurdles of transitioning in the workplace and the importance of supportive networks, she explained why she carries a gun.
She’d had her life threatened before, she told us. In certain parts of town, she felt exposed and vulnerable. She was distrustful of the police, because often they were more concerned with her gender identity than her safety — a reality that many queer people experience.
As I’ve gotten to know my LGBTQ community in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I’ve met many queer people who own guns. Often they are survivors of violence. Plenty simply find a feeling of safety in their right to carry. Many are older, veterans of hard years, times far more hostile to our existence than 2016. (Though even in this more progressive era, at least 19 trans people have been murdered in the U.S. this year alone.)
I’ve never owned a gun, nor do I ever intend to. This is in spite of coming from a family of law enforcement and military veterans, in which almost everyone owns at least one firearm. I’ve handled them. I’ve been trained to shoot handguns and shotguns, though I’d rather leave my target practice to late-night sessions with the digital aliens of Destiny in my sights. But I understand why other queer people may be drawn to the sense of security a real gun might impart.
In any discussion of queer people and gun rights, it’s critical to remember that LGBTQ people — especially trans women of color — are more likely to be victims of violence than our straight and cisgender peers. We have organized in response to violence before, but our community had different goals in the past. After the assassination of Harvey Milk, for example, queer folks rioted against a justice system that gave his killer a lighter charge of manslaughter. Back then, the focus wasn’t necessarily on the assassin’s access to guns, but rather the legal system’s leniency.
Since the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, however, the debate over guns in particular has become more prominent in the LGBTQ community. On August 13, the coalition Disarm Hate held a rally in Washington, D.C. calling for sensible gun control. The organization, formed after the Orlando shooting, has gained the support of many LGBTQ groups across the country as well as an endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign. Founded by activist Jason Hayes, Disarm Hate centers its ambitions on creating a uniform system for background checks, researching gun violence, and addressing racial bias in the No-Fly List. It emphasizes that the reforms it seeks are reasonable — a reassurance to gun-owning queer folks and allies that this movement isn’t just coming for their guns. It does, however, intend to make all of us safer by keeping “the worst guns out of the hands of the most dangerous people with an assault weapons ban.”
After news of what happened in Orlando spread across the country, queer people didn’t only start organizing in favor of gun control. Pink Pistols, founded in 2000 and flaunting the slogan “pick on someone your own caliber,” is an international organization for LGBTQ gun owners. It advocates for LGBTQ rights — specifically, the right to bear arms. In the wake of Orlando, the group’s response has “been massive … We have had many requests for information on how to start a chapter,” Gwendolyn Patton, first speaker of Pink Pistols, said in a statement on the organization’s website. Pink Pistols currently boasts 50 chapters and counting.
That makes sense, of course, because we of the LGBTQ community are not a hive mind. It might be nice to paint a picture of a rainbow monolith rising in response to crush gun violence at any cost, but we don’t all share the same experiences and opinions. One thing that nearly all queer folks do agree on, though, is that the murders in Orlando have deeply affected us. Forty-nine lives were lost in a single night. Fifty more people were injured. A horror tore through all of us, the fear that Pulse could have been a bar in our own neighborhood, combined with the reality that it is now a shrine for our family in Orlando. We may be on all sides of the debate around gun violence, but we all know that we have to do something. Ultimately, that means addressing the homophobia and transphobia that fuel this violence, as well as calling out the political grandstanding that devalues us. But we have to discuss this as a community. Through our diversity of experiences, we have the potential to determine new and effective solutions that have eluded America’s gun debate for generations.
Years ago, when I sat in that room with fellow students, listening to a role model in our community suggest that owning a gun was our best option for safety, I was conflicted. I have always believed that violence solves nothing; to hold the power to end a life in my hand is a responsibility I have intentionally avoided. Guns are tools of death, plain and simple. But when someone tells me that owning a gun gives them a sense of safety that nothing else does, I can’t deny their experience, even if I can disagree with their logic. Back in school, I remember thinking, as that woman counted off the reasons queer people need guns, that something needed to change. We have to address the hatred toward us that fuels our fear. Let people legally, safely carry a gun, but let’s work to ensure they never have a reason to use it.