“It became very clear to me in 2016, when Donald Trump won the election, that shit was going to get a lot worse,” Lady Feral says. Like many trans people, Feral was afraid of what four years with a president who openly derides marginalised people, calls for violence against his opponents, and rode a tide of bigotry into the White House, would mean for her and her community.
Feral wasn’t the only one. YouTuber Tacticool Girlfriend felt the same way. “I am mixed race, and there were concerns about racism… I wasn’t sure if it was getting scarier or I was more aware.”
2020 has been the deadliest year on record for trans and gender non-conforming people, with at least 39 killed so far. Feral told me that she’s been assaulted personally just walking down the street. It’s why she now carries a concealed Sig Sauer P365. In response to the rising violence, LGBTQ+ gun groups such as Armed Equality, based in San Diego, Philadelphia’s Pink Pistols, and Florida based Operation Blazing Sword – which formed after the Pulse nightclub shooting – have grown hugely in the last four years.
The Socialist Rifle Association, which counts trans people among its founders, recently surpassed 10,000 members. The state doesn’t protect trans people, so these groups have vowed to protect each other.
Of course American gun culture — which is mostly based in a fictive past in which guns provide protection, food, and the ability to violently remove Indigenous people from their land — also breeds violence. Guns, in the hands of police as well as civilians, have enabled hate crimes and murders of trans and gender non-conforming people.
But guns are as integral to the self-image of the United States as flags, eagles, and cursive bumper stickers quoting the Constitution. And until nobody has firearms, some would argue, there’s no reason that marginalised people in America shouldn’t.
Both Feral and Girlfriend decided that arming themselves was an important part of taking responsibility for their own safety and that of their communities. As Girlfriend puts it: “Marginalised people are being hurt, and we can’t trust authority to take care of them.” In 2017, Feral took on security for the Portland Trans Pride march, where her team choked out ultra-nationalist bigot Joey Gibson after his group was responsible for a series of assaults on LGBTQ+ people.
Feral grew up around guns in Columbia, South Carolina, but they didn’t become a big part of her life until she joined the army. There, she worked with a gun in her hands for six years as a Special Forces Medical Sargent with the third Special Forces Group deployed to Afghanistan.
“When I got out of the army,” she says, “I got rid of all my weapons, except for a commemorative one from deployment that I never even fired. It was 2016 that I really got worried and I re-armed. I went and sold the deployment pistol and got a couple of other weapons and have been going hard ever since.”
By that time, she had transitioned, and in late 2015, she moved, because of North Carolina’s growing hostility towards trans people, which included at the time the government’s attempt to impose a controversial “bathroom bill”. Feral made her new home in Portland, Oregon where trans healthcare is more accessible for low-income people.
Girlfriend, like Feral, was familiar with guns before transitioning. She had a Mosin Nagant rifle – the gun that won the Second World War in the hands of Soviet conscripts. Her friends enjoyed re-enacting World War II battles (“They were a bunch of nerds – not like gun bro, like gun nerds,” she says), which eventually rubbed off on her.
LGBTQ+ people have a right to use guns legally as much as any other citizen. Gun groups have existed for years in the US, but have made a calculated appeal to exclude many people. In a since-deleted tweet on November 15, the Firearms Policy Coalition urged Million MAGA Marchers to “shoot back” at counter-protesters. And the NRA has a long history of racism, including its failure to oppose gun restrictions in California when those restrictions were clearly targeted at the Black Panthers.
Girlfriend sees gun culture as “very intentionally a monopolisation of a very specific corner of an ideological spectrum”. Her YouTube channel is an attempt to make gun knowledge more open, without the usual crass jokes and bigotry.
“[We] should have a more accessible and not right-wing channel that just covers the basics of firearms, that normalises them as tools for everybody. I don’t want there to be a cultural monopoly on it.”
In July 2020, she decided to set up her own channel, quickly amassing nearly 18,000 subscribers after just four months. Today, her videos, which cover everything from basic firearm safety and how to buy a gun to lead exposure and the basics of concealed carry, often garner 30,000 or more views.
Feral has also helped members of her community arm themselves, using her license for firearm instruction to teach close friends, who tend to be LGBTQ+ or people of colour.
The change of presidential administrations isn’t going to make things any easier, according to Feral: “Those of us with a little more marginalised a perspective are very aware that democrats are not leftists.”
Girlfriend says she and others “can’t go back to brunch,” adding: “I am afraid that people are going to go to sleep once that transition happens, and we have an even worse Supreme Court to contend with.”
Feral and others are also worried that Joe Biden will enact his planned reforms to gun policy. Gun bans tend to bar purchase, not ownership. According to Feral, “That’s not going to disarm the right-wingers [who already have guns], it’s going to mean that the leftists [who may not have guns] can’t get armed.” This could leave armed trans people in the worst possible scenario, with a government that doesn’t recognise their gun rights and a Supreme Court that doesn’t recognise their human rights.
Feral says a ban would be “low-hanging fruit” for Biden’s base, but the implications might be anything but progressive. “If they make assault weapons a National Firearms Act regulated item, you’re talking about $1000 in tax stamps alone [to buy an assault rifle].” In her view, this doesn’t keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people – it keeps them out of the hands of poor people.
Both Feral and Girlfriend say they are often approached by trans, non-binary, and other marginalised people wanting to arm themselves in the face of escalating right-wing violence. Girlfriend says that she was expecting the threatening emails and comments on her YouTube page, but has been overwhelmed by the positive ones. “The amount of very vocal support has been both humbling and very empowering at the same time.”
They also emphasise that buying a gun is only a small part of keeping yourself and people around you safe. What’s most important, according to Girlfriend, is community: “Find some folks friendly and amenable to you arming yourself. Talk to them, see what you can learn from them. I can’t stress enough how important it is to not just buy a gun. Find community if you can.”
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