Theyre Here, Theyre Queer, Theyre Armed
Photo by Jeanne RiceBooks and guns are effective killing machines, but they're pretty useless until they're picked up, and even then, they're completely dependent on the intelligence of the person handling them. Still, your run-of-the-mill repressed sociopath usually doesn't set out to kill fags with a copy of Leaves of Grass. No, he's more likely to use a gun . . . or a pipe, or a knife, or three or four of his repressed buddies with a couple of 12-packs in them.
Of course, the gun could also be used to defend the to-be-bashed gay or lesbian. Fired, pointed or held in a meaningful manner, a gun could assuage the situation (perhaps deter the repressed sociopath whose reading of Leaves of Grass conjured up some unsettling tingling about the naughty bits). Suddenly, the balance shifts; prey becomes protector, hunted the hunter, or some such Stewart Granger-type sentiment. The point is bullies might be far less inclined to screw with someone who's packing.
"The Great Equalizer," says Terry McIntyre, intoning the phrase with reverent zeal. McIntyre heads the Orange County chapter of the Pink Pistols, a two-year-old national organization that encourages gays and lesbians to become familiar with and, if legal, tote guns about, not only to protect themselves—its national motto is "Armed gays don't get bashed"—but also to project a sense of strength.
McIntyre is sitting in a small classroom in the indoor Laguna Niguel shooting range where the Pistols hold their monthly meeting and shoot. A small sticker stuck to a bulletin board bears the likeness of a crying baby with the motto "Seal of the Democratic Party of the United States" around it. McIntyre is there with seven other Pink Pistol members, about the usual turnout.
This is one of more than 30 Pink Pistols chapters in the U.S.; the Orange County chapter has been around only a few months. It was started by McIntyre, who, in one way or another, is responsible for everyone being there tonight. The transgender former security guard? He met McIntyre one night and was talked into coming down. Same for the man who last fired a gun as a police reserve trainee; he met McIntyre at a gay-movie event. There's John, the 20-year Navy vet who carries a handgun with him and has had to draw it three times, the last time when a man brandishing a tire iron dared him to use.
"Go ahead and kill me," he told John. "My family will hunt you down."
There are a couple of young guys; a young woman; and a tall, good-looking man with requisite close-cropped beard and mustache. It's his face, accompanied by a big shiny handgun, that graces the Pink Pistols fliers posted at all manner of gay hangouts.
"I'm in every gay bar in Orange County," says the man, Mitch Barrie, with a bit of a laugh, probably because he isn't gay. The young woman, Yacouta, is his French-born wife.
No, Mitch isn't gay; he's just a liberal gun enthusiast who hates the conservative politics of the National Rifle Association and believes the Pink Pistols could bring gun rights to a whole new range of people—not only to shoot, but also to spread the gospel of gun rights unencumbered by Charlton Heston's cold, dead hands and the mind to match.
They all have one thing in common: Terry McIntyre. Big as he is—six-foot-four—he's an unlikely herald. He wears a hearing aid; he's soft-spoken; and he seems to study you as much as listen when you're talking, his head cocked slightly to one side, almost always with the faint, or not so faint, hint of a smile. Mild as his manner is, he bears the unmistakable countenance of a true believer. He talks about individual rights with the force you'd expect of someone whose coffee table in their Santa Ana home has How to Own a Gun and Stay Out of Jailupon it and whose shelves include The Trial of Susan B. Anthony. Pretty much what you'd probably expect from the chairman of the Orange County Libertarian Party.
He says he has never felt threatened because he was gay, but he has had boyfriends of slighter builds who have. The Pink Pistols are for them, McIntyre says, for anyone who feels unsafe on the street, not just gays and lesbians, but also young mothers and senior citizens, which is why Pink Pistols welcomes anyone, gay or straight, to be a member or to just come down and shoot.
"We welcome anyone. Gay, straight—we don't care," he says with a smile. "We have a strict 'don't ask, don't tell' policy." Which makes the Pistols just like the U.S. Armed Forces, only with not so many gays.
Talk to him about guns, and McIntyre will quote crime statistics for you, will tell you how crime has gone down in a particular area when criminals knew that ordinary citizens were allowed to carry guns. He'll tell you of a former Colombian boyfriend whose neighbors took things into their own hands and, with guns, chased away from their anarchic town the thugs that afflicted it. Talk to him about guns, and he will tell you the whole debate—whether private citizens have the right to carry guns—gets to the heart of what America is about.
Photo by Jeanne Rice
"Self preservation," he says, "is the ultimate civil right."
The Pink Pistols have been compared to the Black Panthers and Jewish Defense League (JDL), movements that grew from communities animated by a pervasive feeling that the general public cared very little about—was antagonistic toward—their safety. But though the Pistols are interested in protecting their own, their manner and rhetoric are far less fierce and they advocate nothing unlawful. The things they would change—especially laws limiting the right to carry concealed weapons—they've set about to alter in the same way one gets a new crosswalk: grassroots organizing, discussion, meetings and, someday, they hope, organized lobbying, you know, like the National Rifle Association, an organization some of the Pistols admire and others loathe.
Still, as the Panthers and JDL did in their communities, the Pistols have generated discussion in the gay community. Some like the idea of armed gays and lesbians. But even those who believe it foolhardy will usually qualify their opposition, saying they understand why there is a Pistols.
"There are so many issues facing the gay community I don't think a gun club is the answer or is even something that automatically gives us respect," says longtime local gay activist Randy Pesqueira. "I don't think you necessarily project strength with a gun. In a way, you lose something; you're becoming like the fanatics who hate you."
Then he paused and continued, "That being said, I absolutely understand where this is coming from. I mean, myself, part of me has always fantasized about gays having this really cool vigilante group that would take care of all of our enemies."
It's a sentiment you hear often when the subject of the Pistols comes up. Many gays and lesbians who define themselves as politically left of center to liberal also see their very existence threatened because forces out there define them by whom they chose to sleep with.
"It's about self preservation," says Carson, a Long Beach architectural historian who describes himself as politically progressive. "I'm for gun control, for registering weapons. Yet, by the same token, there is a lot of violence and hatred out there. It would be naive for us not to know how to defend ourselves. I think that, unfortunately, this is a need for us."
His partner, Jim, an inactive Lutheran pastor, is a bit more direct. "Of course, I believe in the Sermon on the Mount, peaceful resolution to problems," he says. "I would never advocate someone going ahead and whacking someone. But there is this stereotype that we are weak and can't defend ourselves. You look at what happened to Matthew Shepard or just recently in West Hollywood or to that boy in the South that they burned to death by putting a burning tire around his neck, and we're not even sheep being led to the slaughter. We're chickens. Sheep have more to them.
"Carson's going to hate me for saying this, but kicking the shit out of some of these guys just might be the answer," Jim says. "I once had a plan called 50 Angry Faggots With Chainsaws. I suggested we get a couple of minivans, pack them with 50 people with Sears Craftsman chain saws, and then we drive out to someone's house who has been trying to destroy gays. I suggested [the Reverend] Lou Sheldon [head of the notoriously anti-gay, Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition]. We'd get to his house, rev up the chain saws and stick them through the walls. Then we'd have everyone take five steps to the right, and pretty soon, the house would be reduced to kindling.
"I know it sounds ridiculous, but this is the cumulative effect of living under all the lies and the hate and the twisted minds that really mean to do you harm. Eventually, you just get so tired of it, tired enough that you want to do something about it."
Terry McIntyre did. Back at the Laguna Niguel shooting range, where they'll sell you a target featuring the likeness of Osama bin Laden, McIntyre had just completed an hour of target practice. He cleaned his guns and returned them to their case.
"Claiming always to be victim, making it seem that we need society to protect us, is not working. I'm sorry, but 'I'm weak and helpless' is not a deterrent to a bully. This," he says, tapping the gun case, "is a deterrent."
Randy Pesqueira agrees and has just this advice for the group: "They say they want to portray themselves as strong, and then they call it the Pink Pistols? That takes the power right away from that gun. If they want power, let's go for it. Call it the Learn to Kill gun club."
* * *
John has had opportunities to kill. Perhaps as many as three, but there's only one he'll talk about—the aforementioned nut with a tire iron. John's car was parked by the side of a freeway; the nut was chasing John around the car.
"Nobody came to help," he recalls. "I was screaming for help, running around my car with my gun in the air, and no one did anything. I was completely on my own."
When the police finally came, one of them confided he was amazed at John's restraint, remarking that he would have "popped the guy."
"A gun is a huge responsibility," John says. "You have to be prepared to use it, and you have to want to avoid using it at all costs." Regarding the man he didn't shoot, that cost John a broken arm courtesy of one well-swung tire iron. Still, he thinks he did the right thing. "I didn't want to kill that man if I didn't have to."
Which is what he wants to teach those who come to Pink Pistols. John's the guy who will talk to new shooters about their level of experience and offer advice if wanted. He has been competing since his early 20s. He'll tell you that most right-handed people shoot down and to the left because they squeeze the trigger with too much finger. He'll tell you that the best way to shoot at a target or a person is standing at an angle so as not to give the person a clean shot at you. To shoot like a classic TV-drama cop—standing straight up and down, two arms stretched in front of you—is to offer up your head, chest and heart.
"It's called the isosceles triangle, and you don't want to do that," he says. When John is reminded that the Pink Pistols' black-and-pink logo is of a person shooting in exactly that position, he grimaces and sighs.
"That's why I'm here," he says.
* * *
That a gun club would commit such a geometrical faux pas is not so surprising when you consider the organization got its start in the mind of a man who has shot a gun just once, he thinks, though he can't be sure whether it was live ammo he was shooting.
"Thirty-one states allow all qualified citizens to carry concealed weapons. In those states, homosexuals should embark on organized efforts to become comfortable with guns, learn to use them safely and carry them," Jonathan Rauch wrote in Salon in March 2000. "They should set up Pink Pistols task forces, sponsor shooting courses and help homosexuals get licensed to carry. And they should do it in a way that gets as much publicity as possible."
As the last line indicates, Rauch was saying that the appearance of strength was as important as strength itself. Consider straight America's response to the 1998 Shepard killing. "Shepard was small, helpless and childlike. He never had a chance. This made him a sympathetic figure of a sort that is comfortingly familiar to straight Americans: the weak homosexual."
Good intentions and hate-crime laws did nothing to help gays and lesbians because, Rauch wrote, they "do nothing to challenge the stereotype of the pathetic faggot. Indeed, they confirm it. By running to the heterosexual majority for protection, homosexuals reaffirm their vulnerability and victimhood."
"Guns," he wrote, would emancipate gays "from their image—often internalized—of cringing weakness."
Rauch, who writes for the National Journal and Atlantic Monthly and is writer in residence at the Brookings Institute, has written a lot of columns suggesting a lot of things, and he expected this to be just one more that goes out in the ether, scares up some discussion and then is gradually forgotten. This particular one, which ran under the headline "Pink Pistols," garnered some letters to the editor ranging from one gay man who said a gun had become "another item of apparel" to another who said that the Pink Pistols was "a fabulous idea. The gays will be able to shoot people who are about to bash them, and young gays who get depressed about living in a culture where people want to bash them will be able to shoot themselves."
Then Rauch received an e-mail from a Boston businessman named Doug Krick who said he was organizing the gun organization Rauch had described. Would Rauch mind if they used the name Pink Pistols?
Soon, Pink Pistols chapters were popping up everywhere—36 by August 2002—and not just in the large urban areas you'd expect, but in Moscow, Idaho; Asheville, North Carolina; and Anchorage, Alaska.
"I was as surprised as the next guy when it caught on," says Rauch, who has yet to talk with anyone from Pink Pistols, though he says he thinks he'd like to shoot with them someday. "I was not really writing about guns. I was writing about gays and how gays are tired of being the eternal victim."
* * *
The rise of the Pistols has proved a flinty issue for national gay organizations, most of which depend on support from straight, left-of-center patrons—the type of patrons who don't take kindly to anyone making like Gary Cooper.
"This movement puts gay groups between a rock and hard place," Rauch says. "I think they're uncomfortable with the premise, especially with how it makes their straight, liberal supporters feel. On the other hand, this is a true grassroots movement, which is all about self-empowerment, which is what the gay movement has been about. These groups don't know what to say."
Indeed, LAMDA, the nonprofit legal organization dedicated to civil rights for lesbians and gays, offered me only a terse "we wouldn't have any comment on that" from an unnamed spokesman, while David Smith, a senior strategist for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay and lesbian organization, says, "I think obviously it's an individual decision to protect yourself. The HRC is not going to weigh into that discussion."
To be fair, it's hard to talk about the Pistols as one organization. Because it's grassroots, individual chapters take on characteristics all their own. The Los Angeles chapter is known as a place for a nice social shoot, while Orange County is known for its libertarian ideology, which shows up not only in discussions, but also in the fact that "members" are not asked to sign anything, pay any dues or perform any duties. All they're asked to do is show up, if they want, at the monthly shoot and pay what they want to help defray the cost of renting the range. It turns out that how a Pink Pistol is used depends on who is handling it.
"It's what's great about this country," says Rauch. "These are genuinely local; no two are the same in any two places. I understand that in the one nearest to me in Northern Virginia, the majority of the members are straight. You know, these are people who can't stand going to NRA meetings, so there is this new group, unburdened by all that baggage, where they can feel much more comfortable.
"This was originally a gay thing," Rauch says, "but I think this sends a message to gay-bashers about the power of diversity in the U.S. This is genuine diversity—gay, straight, conservative, liberal. Some of the gay groups are for diversity so long as there is no diversity of opinion."
* * *
Indeed, John and McIntyre say they have felt more at home at NRA meetings when introducing themselves as Pistols than they have at certain gay organizations.
"I think the NRA sees the great possibilities," John says. "We've finally been able to talk face-to-face and see one another as we are. I've sat down with them, and some of them have had questions about gays and sex. Yeah, it was a little weird, but I could see they were genuinely interested. For many of them, it was probably their first contact with a gay man, and I was happy I was able to provide information so they could see I was a human being."
At gay organizations, McIntyre says, "the general reaction goes something like, 'Oh, my God! You're one of them!" He smiles. "They see us as those gun nuts. We want them to know we're not crazy. We're trained; we believe in what we're doing. We want to be their gun nuts."
"Gun enthusiasts," he says.
"Their gun enthusiasts," he says.
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