Grappling with a loaded issue
Pink Pistols gun club motto: ‘Armed Gays don’t get bashed’

by Will O’Bryan

Gay people are no strangers to violence. There’s Matthew Shepard, a Gay Wyoming college student; Brandon Teena, a young transgender from Nebraska; and Arthur "J.R." Warren Jr., a Gay African American man from West Virginia — all well-publicized examples of fatal hate crimes aimed at the sexual minority community. Webster’s dictionary may not contain an entry for "Gay-bashing," but its definition is common knowledge.

Jonathan Rauch, an openly Gay senior writer at National Journal magazine, has examined this aspect of contemporary culture in his writing. While he has criticized attempts to use hate crimes laws to curb anti-Gay violence, he has offered another solution.

"Thirty-one states allow all qualified citizens to carry concealed weapons," Rauch wrote for Salon.com in March 2000. "In those states, homosexuals should embark on organized efforts to become comfortable with guns, learn to use them safely and carry them. They should set up Pink Pistols task forces, sponsor shooting courses and help homosexuals get licensed to carry."

Rauch’s advice did not fall on deaf ears. Within months, the first chapter of Pink Pistols had formed. Little more than a year after Rauch coined the term, there are 13 chapters across the country using it. According to Colleen Reed, one of the grassroots group’s unofficial coordinators at the national level, the chapters are composed of about 150 members.

During her weekly shoots with the Northern Virginia chapter at the National Rifle Association’s range in Fairfax, Va., Reed, is a stand-out in her Pink Pistols T-shirt. The shirt is not subtle: A silhouette of a shooter sits inside a large pink triangle, while the logo warns, "Pick on someone your own caliber." Another motto greets visitors to the www.pinkpistols.org Web site: "Armed Gays Don’t Get Bashed."

Reed’s shirt offers a fairly obvious statement that she, in line with the Pink Pistols mission, is either Gay or Gay friendly. The Pistols specifically use the phrase "alternative sexualities" and Reed herself does not identify as Gay, per se, but as bisexual and polyamorous, the latter being a term used by several Pink Pistols to denote non-monogamous. Regardless of the shirt’s implied or perceived message, it does not seem to raise any eyebrows at the NRA range.

Reed said the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Virginia Citizen’s Defense League treated her courteously in February when she conducted a Pink Pistols orientation for the group, outlining the Pistols’ position as pro-gun and pro-Gay. She even recruited some new members.

"We picked up half our membership from VCDL," Reed said. "Everyone was very respectful, very interested. … [The meeting] was not accusatory or derogatory. I was encouraged by a number of folks to emphasize the common ground." About five new members from VCDL, none of whom are Gay, was all it took to double the Northern Virginia Pink Pistols, said Reed.

That "common ground" Reed referred to seems to have given Pink Pistols a niche among gun enthusiasts. While Rauch’s initial idea focused on Gays defending themselves, the gun clubs themselves are offering non-Gays an alternative atmosphere to more traditional gun clubs. Gun clubs, said Reed, generally offer a fairly conservative environment, while not everyone interested in guns shares a conservative sensibility. Many non-Gays, Reed explained, look to the Pink Pistols as filling a niche by offering a less socially conservative environment for shooters.

"The real draw is that you get a more diverse group of people," said Reed, explaining that the group — at least the Northern Virginia chapter — offers more in the way of acceptance and non-discrimination, rather that a specifically pro-Gay mission.

"The reason that I personally appreciate the Pink Pistols logo is because it insists on an acceptance of the issue [‘alternative sexualities’] before anyone gets started," said Reed, positing that, while members may not be Gay, they must be fairly Gay-friendly if they see the logo, hear the motto, and understand the group’s commitment to diversity. "None of the 11 of us are Gay. However, by starting at the far end and working back, people know where we stand before they get here."

The Northern Virginia chapter, Reed clarified, has the distinction of being the most proportionately heterosexual of the 13 Pink Pistols chapters across the country.

Rauch said he finds some humor in the idea that Pink Pistols are attracting people who do not identify as Gay.

"All I can do is chuckle," Rauch laughed. "That’s amazing to me. The idea of Pink Pistols is a very Gay thing."

Robey Newsom agrees that Pink Pistols is a very Gay thing, but that did not stop him, as a heterosexual, from founding the New York City group. Newsom’s group, one of two in the state, is about two months old and has five members. The other members identify as Lesbian, Gay male, or transgender.

"I saw Pink Pistols and thought, ‘These are the people I’d like to shoot with,’" Newsom said, referring to the group’s Web site. "I hope to become just a member, as opposed to an organizer. In the meantime, I’m happy to represent the organization. I have no qualms about being associated with Pink Pistols; I’m honored to be."

Newsom explained his reasons for starting the New York City chapter as stemming from his political views. He said he is conservative on gun issues, while "liberal with respect to just about everything else."

Nora Deret, also a member of the New York City group, is a "trans woman who identifies as Lesbian." She is aware that transgendered people are especially frequent victims of hate crimes. According to Gender Education and Advocacy, a national transgender group, 18 transgendered people were killed between November 1999 and November 2000.

Though Deret said she has found many in the transgender community who enjoy target-shooting and are concerned about self-defense, she also finds the Gay community at large is more ambivalent.

"I’ve spoken to a couple of people I know in my building [about firearms for self-defense], at a Gay and Lesbian-owned business," Deret said. "The response was like, ‘You’re joking, right?’ Hello?? Do you want to get beaten to death with a stick? … When you read reports of people being beaten … if they were able to defend themselves properly, they might still be here."

In what she describes as a very informal poll, e-mailed to everyone on the Pink Pistols mailing list, Reed attempted to retrieve a statistical view of the membership, including members’ sexual orientation. Those polled were asked to rate their "pinkness" in whatever terms they deemed appropriate.

Of the 48 who responded, eight men identified as Gay, while 10 respondents identified as Lesbians. Fourteen of those polled answered that they are bisexual; four identified as transgender; eight labeled themselves heterosexual. Many combined the aforementioned terms, and several respondents also described themselves as polyamorous or as members of the bondage community.

Steven Smith, of the Boston chapter, is one of the shooters who is simply Gay. As his sexuality is perfectly aligned with the group’s pink triangle, his story also fits well with the "Pick on someone your own caliber" motto.

"A very good friend of mine was bashed in Boston about two and a half, three years ago," Smith recalled. "It was in an area in Boston in the Fenway that was known for Gay cruising. There had been a series of increasingly violent crimes against Gay men. … I became interested in issues around hate crimes. That was kind of the genesis of all this for me."

Smith said that, before Pink Pistols, his only experience with guns had involved some rifle shooting as a child in order to earn a Boy Scout merit badge.

"I’d never thought much about firearms before," said Smith. "I came at it from the perspective of a traditionally liberal Democrat from California. I’d always thought that gun control — I’d held the party line. I started changing my views over the last three years."

Despite the obvious self-defense aspect of firearms and Smith’s experience with Gay-bashing, he appears to enjoy talking about community rather than guns.

"We’re really bridging a lot of communities, between the Gay community and other communities," Smith offered. "[Pink Pistols] has brought us into a lot of contact with a lot of people who’ve changed their views about the Gay community.

"There’s this impression, as I deal with more and more people outside my world, like suburban Boston gun owners," Smith said. "They think we want special rights, that we’re not willing to take personal responsibility. From Pink Pistols, they’re learning that you can’t stereotype people."

Diversity aside, there is still the "pistols" half of the Pink Pistols equation. The Pink Pistols may be bridging communities by bringing together Gays, straights, and a variety of categories in between, to find common ground on the shooting range. Although the Pink Pistols have fostered some friendships, they have also stirred some animosity. Via the Boston chapter, for example, the Pink Pistols have publicly criticized openly Gay Massachusetts state Sen. Cheryl A. Jacques (D) for her primary sponsorship of a tough 1998 gun law.

"From a civil rights standpoint, the law is horrifying," complained David Rostcheck in a prepared statement released by the Pink Pistols. The release described Rostcheck as "an activist with the Pink Pistols, a civil rights group that protects the rights of shooters with alternative sexualities."

The Rostcheck quote continued: "It’s racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and it discriminates against the elderly and disabled. When people actually sit down and read it, even ardent gun-control advocates are shocked at what it legitimizes. A police chief can deny a license to a legally qualified person based on their gender, their housing, their sexual orientation — absolutely anything they want. Jesse Helms never managed to pass legislation this discriminatory."

At greatest issue was an aspect of Jacques’s law that included discretionary licensing. Although the Pink Pistols criticism has not had any effect on the law, a Gay gun group’s public criticism of a Gay legislator’s gun law did boost the Pink Pistols national profile in the form of press coverage. The group’s feud with Jacques has been mentioned in The Patriot Ledger and Daily Free Press, both Massachusetts newspapers. Of course, they made no friend out of Jacques.

"I fully respect that they have a different point of view than I do but, frankly, they’re misguided and misinformed," Jacques told the Blade. "They’ve called on me to repeal the law. They’ve raised sexual orientation as an issue. This law has nothing to do with sexual orientation. … I think they, for some reason, think they have some special standing because of their sexual orientation. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just another chapter of the NRA. … There is nothing unique about their call to arms, to use a bad pun."

Rostcheck, who identifies as bisexual, is sticking to his guns. Jacques aside, Rostcheck said that he thinks Gays and others have taken to the ideas Pink Pistols promotes, whether that means armed Gays to some, or breaking down stereotypes to others.

"The reaction from the shooting community has been really good; it’s much more supportive than we would’ve thought," Rostcheck said. "And the Gay community, … it’s been generally supportive. We’ll see if we get bricks thrown at us at [Boston] Pride. We’ll definitely have a presence. Many of the straight shooting groups are willing to march to support us."

Clarence Patton, who is Gay, has worked with the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project for more than four years. The group works to prevent and investigate Gay-bashings. He is no stranger to violence against Gays, working as AVP’s community organizer and coordinator of public advocacy. He said that he, too, has been a victim of verbal attacks for being Gay, and a physical attack for being black.

"It would not have been helpful for me to have a gun," Patton said of the time he was assaulted. "Somebody would have been dead — me or the other person. Or the police would have come and I’d be there, this big black guy with a gun. What do you think would’ve happened?"

On a less personal note, Patton expressed some disappointment in what Pink Pistols means to efforts for Gays to live without fear.

"Can we really be surprised that parts of the Gay community would find the way to solve violence would be with the potential for more violence?" asked Patton, suggesting that most elements of mainstream culture will be expressed in some way within any minority culture. "I find it unfortunate and a little sad. … I find it frightening that guns make some people feel more confident. I just don’t think they’re the answer."

Patton said AVP has no official policy about firearms or gun-control laws. He did offer, however, that the group has an unofficial sensibility that is not very tolerant of weapons.

"Our position is that we don’t think arming oneself, having more weapons around, really protects anybody," said Patton. "There are questions of training and responsibility, the increased danger of having weapons around. … I would really question the efficacy of firearms from protecting people in what are often random, spur-of-the-moment attacks."

People For the American Way, a civil rights organization whose activities include monitoring anti-Gay activity, holds a position similar to AVP: ambiguously anti-gun, said Peter Montgomery, a PFAW spokesperson.

"I think I can understand the impulse of someone who has been bashed to protect themselves," said Montgomery. "But I think, in the big picture, the answer to hate crimes is not to have everyone armed. Folks obviously have a right to go to shooting clubs, but I really don’t think that large-scale carrying of weapons is likely to be the answer we’re looking for."

Although PFAW, according to Montgomery, has no official stance on gun-control issues, it is one of dozens of institutions listed on the Pink Pistols Web site as having anti-gun policies. A number of names familiar in the Gay community make the anti-gun list, especially under the celebrity category. Actor Ellen DeGeneres made the list, as did musicians k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, and writer Brad Gooch — all openly Gay.

The Pink Pistols may include bridge-building as part of their mission to introduce more Gays to shooting as both a hobby and a means of self-defense, but the group’s list of the "anti-gun" crowd is evidence that they are swimming upstream.

Kenneth V. Blanchard said he is familiar with the Pink Pistols’ struggle. In 1993, he founded the Maryland-based 10th Cavalry Gun Club. Blanchard’s club was designed as a shooting club for African Americans and takes its name from a cavalry regiment of black soldiers formed in the 19th Century. How does his attempt to introduce and educate the African American community in the way of firearms compare to the Pink Pistols’ mission?

"It’s the same," Blanchard said, commenting on how the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has supported gun-control efforts. The NAACP also made the Pink Pistols anti-gun list.

"As soon as you choose to not be a victim, as soon as you become conscious … you lose some friends when you’re not a sheep," Blanchard said, explaining that the African American community is traditionally gun-shy. "Nobody wants to be perceived as being a vigilante or an evil person, and everything to do with firearms has been associated with evil stuff. I’m telling people we have to change that."

As Blanchard said he shares the Pink Pistols’ goal of fighting an anti-gun stigma within his community, he also shares the Pistols’ view that armed minorities are less vulnerable.

"Historically, every minority group has been targeted by legislation or disarmament," Blanchard said. "They’re also the same groups that have most crime against them. I’m trying to arm people. It’s not just for the ‘good ol’ boys.’ America is everybody."

While Blanchard’s group is eight years old and the Pink Pistols have only just recently celebrated its first birthday, Smith thinks they will be around for a long time to come.

"I don’t think it’s a fad," he concluded. "These crimes of violence are increasing. We can only do so much with the laws. I look at firearms as one way to approach this, not as a single or final answer."


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Copyright 2001 The Washington Blade Inc. This article appeared in the issue of:
April 20, 2001