I totally smoked that punk!" I thought to myself, after pulling off a few well-placed rounds – 30 or so – in the target's chest, plus a few more in his head. I felt good, and not just for my excellent aim. Guns have never appealed to me, and I've had little exposure to them. But I felt confident in my teacher, Jeff Bloovman, a Philadelphia gun instructor and a member of the Pink Pistols, an LGBT group based around the belief that guns can go a long way in combating homophobia. But here, holding my own against the Glock 34's concussive revolt, I felt – was it imperviousness? Was I untouchable? Was I taller? Whatever it was, it was exhilarating, and not nearly as frightening as I had imagined.
This, of course, is a large part of the Pink Pistol's mission: to get LGBT people more comfortable with firearms and encourage them to fight hate crimes with bullets – or at least the threat of them. A small, loosely organized group of a few dozen chapters scattered across the states and Canada, including Toronto, San Francisco and Charleston, South Carolina, the Pink Pistols' membership has climbed from around 1,500 earlier this month to about 6,500 since the June day Omar Mateen attacked the Pulse nightclub, turning the dance floor into a killing field and crashing together two culture war battlegrounds that rarely converge: gays and guns. While the majority of LGBT people seem to be calling for more regulation, Pink Pistols and their allies are hunkering down and taking up arms, banding together under the group's motto, a confrontational warning to potential gay-bashers: "Pick on someone your own caliber."
The Pink Pistols formed around 2000, after gay journalist Jonathan Rauch – still outraged by Matthew Shepard's 1998 murder, and knowing gay men who stopped attacks with guns – published an article on Salon. "[Gays] should set up Pink Pistols task forces, sponsor shooting courses and help homosexuals get licensed to carry," he wrote, noting that they should do it in a way to garner as much publicity as possible. And, as an added bonus to self-protection, Pink Pistols could erode tenacious stereotypes, challenging the image of cringing weakness, especially for those who internalized it. "Pink pistols," he wrote, "would do far more for the self-esteem of the next generation of gay men and women than any number of hate-crime laws or anti-discrimination statutes."
Rauch went on: "If it became widely known that homosexuals carry guns and know how to use them, not many bullets would need to be fired. In fact, not all that many gay people would need to carry guns, as long as gay-bashers couldn't tell which ones did." Just knowing that a gay person could have a gun would deter a potential attacker. As Rauch has conceded, same-sex marriage, the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and other milestones have empowered LGBT people, but it remains that anti-gay attacks, like anti-American attacks, can be visited upon us at anytime. (Rauch even used the word "low-level terrorism" to describe homophobic attacks like the one that ended Matthew Shepherd's life.) LGBT people know that each new space needs to be navigated delicately, lest our mere existence enrage some homophobe. Now, with Omar Mateen, Americans are all too aware how anti-gay violence can explode randomly, terrifyingly, and scar more than just LGBT people.
Sadly not much has actually changed since Shepard's slaughter almost 20 years ago. There were 1,260 anti-LGBT incidents reported in 1998, versus 1,402 in 2011, the most recent year for which numbers are available. And the hateful rhetoric remains. Even post-Orlando, Sacramento-based Baptist minister Roger Jimenez celebrated Omar Mateen's massacre: "The tragedy is that more of them didn't die." ("Them" means "queers" here, of course.) "I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out."
It is this type of hatred that the Pink Pistols hope to counteract by creating a community that defies predictable political alignments. And not only at the shooting range: besides getting together for target practice, the Pink Pistols have joined up with larger, more powerful gun lobby groups like the NRA in supporting high-profile court cases, including District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 case in which Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment extends to individuals, not just well-regulated militias. (Pink Pistols spokeswoman Gwendolyn Patton declined an interview for this story.)
Of course the seemingly innate divide between gay rights and gun rights, one reinforced by widespread stereotypes, can complicate interpersonal relationships. "This guy I was dating asked me, 'Do you carry a gun to shoot people?'" Bloovman tells me. "But I just shift the paradigm and say, 'I carry a gun to protect people.'"
I'm sitting in the wood-paneled basement of the shooting range with Bloovman, who is also studying to be a nurse. Standing at 5-feet-10 inches and 185 pounds, broad-shouldered Bloovman regularly carries a loaded Glock 17, a spare magazine, two different types of knives, pepper spray, a flashlight and a medical trauma kit that includes Russell Chest Seal, a product that does just what it name suggests. He also owns an AR-15, a weapon very similar to the one Mateen used to devastating effect at Pulse.
"I wish that I didn't have to carry all this crap," says Bloovman, who's as much concerned about general violence as he is about anti-gay attacks. "But unfortunately there are people who want to hurt you. I carry guns because I want to protect myself and my loved ones and potentially an innocent third party from being victimized."
In addition to studying the universal rules of handling a gun — always treat it as if it's loaded, and "never let the muzzle cross anything I am not willing to kill, destroy or buy" — I also learn there are two types of bullets: ball ammo, which are used for shooting at targets, and hollow points, which cops use and which petals out when it enters the body, keeping it in its place and preventing the bullet from exiting the target and entering a bystander. Though Bloovman insists that "the purpose of shooting someone is not to kill them, but to stop them," the goal is also to inflict the most damage. "If lethal force is justified, we need to ventilate them as rapidly as possible to stop them from what they're doing."
"Ventilate?" That's a gruesome image, I say. "There's nothing pretty about this," Bloovman says. "It's morally offensive to me to shoot someone." But, sadly, it one day may be necessary.
Tom Nelson, a 71-year-old former gun designer, joined the Pink Pistols back in 2001. One of the first members of Philadelphia's small chapter, Nelson found the group after reading about them in the Philadelphia Gay News. "I've found that the majority of gay people that I've run into, gay guys especially, seem to be scared of guns and don't want anything to do with them," he says. "And here was an organization – an LGBT organization – that actually liked guns and believed in people's right to self-defense. I was thrilled!" And as for LGBT people's increased interest post-Orlando, he says, "I'm overwhelmed because I felt like the voice in the wilderness; finally it feels like people are paying attention."
I ask them both about Rauch's original comments about guns dispelling anti-gay stereotypes. Nelson readily agreed.
"Absolutely, because there is a perception that gay people are [weak]," says Nelson, a mechanical engineer. "One of my greatest sorrows in dealing with the gay community is that they're willing to hold a candlelight vigil for people who are beaten up, stabbed, or shot, but they're not willing to protect those people." Vigils may help the community come together, but "it doesn't do a damn bit of good for the guy who was shot, stabbed, or beaten."
"There seems to be an unwillingness to admit that we need to teach people to defend themselves," he says. "I'm sorry, but begging for mercy from someone who is attacking you is not going to solve the problem."
And as for Bloovman, an action movie fanatic and lifetime martial artist who came out late in life, he himself was once vexed by the apparent gay-guy or gun-guy dichotomy: "This is one of the reasons why I struggled with my own sexual orientation; I was like 'How can I be doing martial arts and shooting for 25 years and [be gay]?'
"What I've figured out through being honest is those things are not exclusive to one another," he says. "Self-protection, firearms, firearm culture is for everybody." He calls the gun rights community a "big tent." Atlanta-based gun instructor Aaron Cowan, with whom Bloovman co-hosts a gun-themed YouTube show, Practically Tactical, tells me that while he has no qualms with LGBT folk, no culture is perfect. "Whatever someone is born to do or chooses to do is their business," he told me via email. "I'm not going to pretend that there isn't homophobia in the gun community, but I can't say that there is a disproportionate amount of anti-LGBT feelings among shooters."
Atlanta Pink Pistol member Dylan West also describes gun culture as being accepting — "I haven't had an issue when people [at the range] have found out that I'm gay" — and Jose Morales, a Philadelphia-based NRA-certified gun instructor, agrees. "The general gun culture is a very open culture. We don't judge people by their looks, their ethnicity or their sexual orientation. We have more in common, which is usually the desire to protect ourselves with safe and responsible gun ownership."
Aside from helping LGBT people, though, Morales hopes the Pink Pistols can help change minds about gun owners, too. "I've been discriminated against because that NRA in my signature file," he says. "When people hear those three letters, they automatically have a stereotype in their minds, much like when they hear LGBTQ, and that's not the case, at all, in either of the circumstances."
At New York's LGBT Community Center, I meet with Brian Worth, Kevin Hertzog and John Grauwiler, three of the principal organizers behind Gays Against Guns, or GAG, a Facebook-born, grassroots group dedicated to "banning access to high-capacity magazine guns and assault weapons" and "stopping the life-threatening convergence of homophobia and flawed gun policy," which was formed in the wake of the Orlando massacre. It already has over 2,500 likes on Facebook, and an estimated 1,000 marchers joined in their brigade in last weekend's pride parade, an action that included signs that read "NRA, prepare to GAG," as well as 49 men and women walking silently in white veils, a poignant representation of the 49 lives lost at the Pulse nightclub.
Yet despite their commitment to curtailing gun violence, none of these three men necessarily disagree with the Pink Pistols. "In terms of gay men having guns and finding security community through them, I have no ambivalent feelings about that whatsoever," says Grauwiler, a public school teacher. He points out, though, that guns only solve part of the problem: "They may make us feel physically safe, but psychically we're not safe. And I think that's the most important sense of security you can have: feeling emotionally safe in yourself, as opposed to relying on this external device."
"I understand that desire to flip the script and own that power, and I've often thought about having an organization called 'gays with guns,'" Hertzog, a prop stylist, tells me. "We wouldn't even need to have the guns, but just the idea that a gay might have the gun would be enough to change the public perception." This is essentially the Pink Pistols' position. He's sure to point out, however, that guns are "a false sense of security."
"I think Gays Against Guns and the Pink Pistols have the same feelings, but we express them differently," says Worth, a Texan who understands the threat of potential attack. "We have the same fears, but we're acting in one way, they're acting in another way. I can feel what they're feeling; it's just a different reaction."
Asked whether PP and GAG can work together, Grauwiler remarks that they don't necessarily have to. "I think it's problematic when we say we all have to be together," he says. "I think that we can coexist as long as we respect each other's positions and platforms, so never would I say, 'Shame on you, Pink Pistols for carrying a gun.'" Yet he also wants to remind readers that PP and GAG have the same enemy: "the conservative Republican constituency and that ilk."
On that front, everyone agrees that the most powerful weapon remains the most simple: coming out. "This is a matter of education," says Pink Pistol member Dylan West, whose own coming out enlightened his once-homophobic family. "It's more a matter of visibility for the community as a whole that will make our community seem more human." And Bloovman can speak to that: in 2011, he won an episode of One Man Army, a military-inspired show on the Discovery channel. Asked by the host why he hadn't joined the actual army, Bloovman responded: "Don't ask, don't tell." Already well known within the gun and shooting communities, Bloovman had just told dozens of gun-toting colleagues he was gay. The reaction wasn't what he expected: in addition to receiving a surprising number of congratulatory calls, Bloovman also heard from a prominent gun manufacturer estranged from his gay son. "I talked to he and his wife about it, because he just didn’t understand gayness. Now he has a great relationship with his son, so I did my good deed. I feel good about that," he tells me over the boom of guns exploding above. "Yeah, I feel really good about that." He tears up. Tough guys, it turns out, can have tender hearts, too.
Frank Ocean addressed the recent mass shooting in Orlando in a Tumblr post, saying "Many hate us and wish we didn't exist."