5 Years After Pulse Shooting, the LGBTQ Gun Debate Grows in the Face of Escalating Threats, Bigotry

by Finbarr Toesland

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday June 12, 2021
Originally published on June 11, 2021

5 Years After Pulse Shooting, the LGBTQ Gun Debate Grows in the Face of Escalating Threats, Bigotry
  (Source:Gays Against Guns)

More than 19,153 people have died from gun violence so far in 2021, a number likely surpassed by the time of this article's publication. In the wake of such recent tragedies in Miami, Indianapolis, and Boulder, and the five-year anniversary of the massacre at Pulse nightclub, one might think that Americans — especially LGBTQ Americans — have had enough. They have. But many in the queer community are beyond protests and petitions.

Since Ermiya Fanaeian re-launched the Salt Lake City-based chapter of Pink Pistols in July 2020, an LGBTQ gun rights group, the response from local residents has been "incredible."

"Folks are reaching out to us every day wanting to join — we're getting new members on a weekly basis. It's so exciting to see how many folks are engaging with what we're organizing for them," says Fanaeian.

Reasons for joining this inclusive gun group are varied, with some people seeking a welcoming community and others simply wanting to take up a new hobby. But, according to Fanaeian, there's one unifying motive that brings new members into the fold.

"It's 100% protection," she explains. "Most of the people who reach out to us say, 'I didn't grow up around guns, I don't really know how to shoot guns, but I know that I want to protect myself.'"

At a time when self-styled militia factions are considered a rising threat by the U.S. government and anti-LGBTQ hate crimes remain at historically high levels across the country, some members of the LGBTQ community are turning to the protection they believe is offered from carrying a firearm. And they're not alone. The Guardian recently reported a sharp gun sales increase in the early months of the pandemic, with nearly 20% of purchases by first-time gun owners — half of which were women.

"One of the major driving forces for [LGBTQ] folks is they think if the right is arming themselves, we can't just fight back with pepper spray, right? These are people who are actively and unapologetically anti-LGBT, anti-Black Lives Matter, and anti-immigration. And if they're arming themselves, we have so many in our vulnerable communities who are in serious, serious trouble," Fanaeian adds. "This year more than ever, people have been realizing it's time for us on the left to start arming ourselves."

The New Face of Pro-Gun Groups

Ermiya Fanaeian
Ermiya Fanaeian  (Source: Ermiya Fanaeian)

Fanaeian's journey to lead a group that helps LGBTQ people "select a firearm, acquire a permit, and receive proper training in its safe and legal use for self-defense" has been far from conventional. At just 17, Fanaeian co-founded March for Our Lives Salt Lake City, a student-led campaign supporting gun control legislation created following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

After spending years as a vehement gun control advocate, Fanaeian realized that the politicians she was working with weren't making real progress reducing the violence faced by trans women.

Last year was the deadliest on record for fatal anti-trans and gender-nonconforming violence with 44 fatalities reported by The Human Rights Campaign. If homicides continue at the current rate, anti-trans killings are on course to break records again this year. The majority of these deaths were Black and Latina trans women including Tiara Banks, a 24-year-old Black transgender woman killed in Chicago on April 21, 2021, and Diamond Kyree Sanders, a 23-year-old Black transgender woman, who was shot to death in Cincinnati on March 3.

"And while [politicians] were working with us to disarm Americans. These were the same politicians who were letting our attackers off the hook, not doing anything about violence against us," says Fanaeian.

Fanaeian felt she had to decide which group she was more dedicated to, and the answer was easy: The trans community.

"I realized that at this very political moment, trans people need to arm ourselves in order to protect ourselves, our community and our movement. I decided that it was time to step away from the gun violence prevention movement and instead focus on the armed protection of our community."

A Tipping Point

Brandon Wolf after joining President Biden for a Rose Garden address.
Brandon Wolf after joining President Biden for a Rose Garden address.  (Source: Brandon Wolf)

The devastating 2016 Pulse shooting that saw mass murderer Omar Mateen kill 49 people and wound 53 more with a semi-automatic rifle and pistol at the Orlando gay nightclub became a watershed moment for many LGBTQ people in their involvement with the gun control debate.

At the time, the attack became the largest mass shooting in the U.S.'s modern-day history and remains the deadliest assault on the LGBTQ community.

Brandon Wolf was at Pulse on the night of this unprecedented attack. While he survived, his best friends, Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, were killed. The events of June 12, 2016, fundamentally changed Wolf and his life trajectory.

"In the wake of the shooting, I've run on hope and optimism — I often tell people that's all I have left. When you have everything that you've ever dreamed of ripped away from you in an instant, in a moment of hate and violence, you hold on to whatever hope and optimism you can find," says Wolf.

Since the shooting, Wolf has campaigned for LGBTQ rights and gun reform and works as media relations manager at LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida. He recently attended the White House for the unveiling of a series of executive actions on gun control by President Joe Biden. The words the president used in the Oval Office when Wolf and other activists met with him remain at the forefront of Wolf's mind.

Wolf recalls Biden's recent comments at the event, where the president said, "When I think about American exceptionalism, when I think about national security, and defending our country from foreign adversaries, I don't just think about it in terms of how many warplanes we have, or how big our ships are, I think about it in our ability to take care of our people. And if we cannot fend off this uniquely American gun violence epidemic, then we cannot truly call ourselves exceptional."

President Biden has taken a much firmer stance on gun control issues than the previous administration, focusing on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. An analysis by Newsweek found that R-15 rifles were used in more than 25% of the last 80 mass shooting with these weapons being able to fire at a faster rate compared to manual guns.

Biden, once again, called for a ban on assault weapons and "common-sense" reforms after two deadly mass shootings in March this year. Yet, despite these repeated calls, Congress has so far been unable to pass any significant control reform on this issue. Defining what "common-sense" precisely means is fluid as gun control activists, and gun rights activists have little common ground in defining this term.

Brandon Wolf speaking at the Human Rights Campaign March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, D.C.
Brandon Wolf speaking at the Human Rights Campaign March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, D.C.  (Source: Human Rights Campaign)

For Wolf, the right to bear arms and common-sense gun safety regulations are not mutually exclusive. He believes an honest conversation needs to happen on the climate around being marginalized in America right now. "To be an LGBT person, an LGBT person of color and specifically a Black trans person or a Black trans woman in this country — it's not safe."

"The proliferation of folks wanting to get firearms in order to protect themselves is indicative of the kind of rampant violence against marginalized people, and very specifically Black trans women, that is happening right now," he adds.

A central hope Wolf has for the gun safety movement is putting an end to violent people who are intent on inflicting harm to marginalized populations to be able to stroll into a big-box store or gun shop and leave with an assault weapon.

Wolf recognizes Americans must confront challenging questions about how this gun violence epidemic evolved if the issue is to be fundamentally resolved.

"We need to take a hard look in the mirror as a country and ask ourselves why we have allowed this violence to go unchecked and the voices of the victims to go so unheard, that they feel they have to take measures into their own hands," he says.

An April 2021 survey found that while just over half (53%) of Americans are in favor of the introduction of stricter gun laws, this figure has fallen from 60% in 2019, indicating that despite ranking gun violence as a major problem, Americans are deeply divided in how to best address this epidemic.

Divergent Paths

Pink Pistols
Pink Pistols  (Source: Ermiya Fanaeian)

In Daytona Beach, 60 miles from Pulse nightclub, Erin Palette had just woken up and was sipping her coffee, bleary-eyed, on the morning of June 12, 2016. As she scrolled through social media on what was seemed to be a typical Sunday, messages began to flow in asking if she was all right. "I had no idea what was going on," she recalls. It didn't take long for Palette to witness the horrifying reactions spreading online, but she noticed something else unfolding across social media too.

"I saw gun owners who were typically conservative, male and middle-aged saying, 'I don't care what your politics are, I don't care about your sexuality or how you dress. You are a human being, and your life is precious. If you want to learn how to defend yourself, but you don't know where to start, and you don't have a gun, contact me,'" says Palette, who is a trans woman, the founder of Operation Blazing Sword, and serves as the national coordinator of Pink Pistols.

Posts from gun owners offering to not only give training on how to safely shoot but also provide a gun and ammunition at their own cost to those interested immediately caught Palette's attention. Realizing that LGBTQ people don't usually travel in the same circles as gun owners, Palette set out to bridge this gap and make a Facebook post listing these volunteers' names and contact information so that LGBTQ people in her circle would see the offer. Thus, Operation Blazing Sword was created.

Now entering its fifth year, the nonprofit helps gun-curious LGBTQ people find queer-friendly gun instructors to teach them how to shoot and safely use guns to protect themselves. During the instruction sessions, participants learn the basics of using a firearm, including the rules of safe gun operation.

"We aren't trying to convince people that you must own a gun. What we're trying to do is remove the fear of ignorance and let people make an informed decision," she says.

Palette and Fanaeian are just two of the countless LGBTQ people who have become increasingly interested in the pro-gun movement. The emergence of gun groups that cater to LGBTQ people is far from a new phenomenon, but new queer and trans gun clubs have sprung up in recent years and many existing clubs are growing. From upstate New York-based Trigger Warning opening to members in 2017 as a direct response to the threat from right-wing extremists to the Boston chapter of Pink Pistols reopening after the deadly 2016 Pulse shooting in Orlando, LGBTQ gun organizations are on the up.

The last time Palette checked, over 1,300 instructors had signed up to Operation Blazing Sword, and the number continues to grow. Pink Pistols has more than 50 active chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Direct Action

(Source: Gays Against Guns)

For some, like Palette, Pulse's legacy became a turning point to delve into the world of firearms. In contrast, others like Wolf and John Grauwiler, the founder of Gays Against Guns (GAG), used the moment to push forward with gun control advocacy.

Days after the Pulse massacre, Grauwiler co-founded GAG, which he describes as "a direct action group of LGBTQ people and their allies committed to nonviolently breaking the gun industry's chain of death: investors, manufacturers, the NRA and politicians who block safer gun laws." The activist-led organization has notched up several successful campaigns against the National Rifle Association and their corporate supporters, including protesting outside FedEx stores until the delivery firm ended their discount for NRA members.

A lifelong activist for LGBTQ rights, 50-year-old Grauwiler was president of his university's LGBTQ student union, participated in marches on Washington, and has been a member of ACT UP. As a New York City schoolteacher, the mass shooting at Sandy Hook devastated Grauwiler.

"It brought me to my knees. Then the Charleston shooting — I lost my faith in humanity. After Pulse, I started getting really pissed off. I was thinking something has got to be done," says Grauwiler.

With several friends, Grauwiler harnessed the anger and outrage felt after Pulse and turned it into action. Through boycotts, protests, civil disobedience actions, rallies, and art events, GAG has spent the last five years working to draw attention to the human cost of gun violence, with their inaugural march at NYC Pride 2016, including "die-ins" and The Human Beings, a group of 49 people who were veiled, dressed in white, and held placards representing the lives lost at Pulse.

The Human Beings, NYC Pride 2018.
The Human Beings, NYC Pride 2018.  (Source: Gays Against Guns)

Grauwiler points to deadly assaults against trans people and LGBTQ suicides as some of the direct ways gun violence has impacted the queer community. As the victim of a brutal gay-bashing in 2001 that nearly cost Grauwiler his eyesight, the feelings of vulnerability many marginalized members of the LGBTQ experience is one he knows first-hand.

"Emotionally, I understand the desire and the need to feel safe. In fact, it took me a couple of years to shake that feeling of vulnerability. I'm empathetic to the anxiety that members of my community face. But I think carrying a gun can sometimes create an irresponsible power in people and, more importantly, lead to death," explains Grauwiler.

"If an altercation were to happen and I have a gun, and someone else has their gun, the statistics tell me that one of us is going to die." Grauwiler refers to a study that found people who carried guns were 4.5 times as likely to be shot and 4.2 times as likely to get killed compared with unarmed citizens. When the group that conducted this study at the University of Pennsylvania investigated shootings where victims had a chance to defend themselves, their chances of being shot went up even higher.

Palette sees the benefits of carrying a firearm to outweigh the potential negatives in a hostile situation where an aggressor intends to rob, rape, or kill their victim. "If you have a gun, you at least have the opportunity to defend yourself. I don't believe in giving the criminals what they want — concealed carry is herd immunity against crime," she says.

The belief that some Americans hold that just because somebody starts carrying a gun, they will become a danger to others is flawed, according to Palette. "It's a matter of public record. If there were an awfully large number of concealed carriers murdering people, we would have been hearing about it on the news already." A 2019 study did find that "it is very rare for permit holders to violate the law" with concealed carriers shooting fewer people than police officers.

"A lot of people have asked me, when I first carried a gun did it empower me? The answer is no. If you are placing your faith in a gun, that gun has stopped being a tool and has become a talisman," she says.

For Palette, even if carrying a gun does give the carrier a boosted level of confidence, it's far more important for the user to have the skill to wield it and the will to use it to defend themselves if needed.

"I liken carrying a gun to putting on my seatbelt. It's not that I am living in fear of car accidents; it's that I realized that there was a real statistical risk that something could happen, and this one simple device will increase my chances of survival," she concludes. "For me, it's the same thing with the gun."

Finbarr Toesland is an award-winning journalist who is committed to illuminating vital LGBTQ+ stories and underreported issues. His journalism has been published by NBC News, BBC, Reuters, VICE, HuffPost, and The Telegraph.