On November 7th, a progressive flood at the polls gave some on the political left hope for 2018: Communities across the nation elected trans women, refugees, immigrants, and others who have historically been shut out of the political process. But not all marginalized communities are hopeful, and even among those who are, survival is still imperative. Some progressive communities have responded to worries about their safety with a tactic that some on the left might find surprising, perhaps even counterproductive: They're taking up arms.
Trans women are one such community. For some trans guns rights activists, arming trans women is a moral imperative in a society that routinely fails to protect them from systemic violence. Their work sits at the intersections of a sometimes awkward divide—some are left-leaning, some are on the right, and all of them cherish an individualistic interpretation of gun rights. This flies in the face of assumptions people may make about the trans community's political leanings and feelings about the Second Amendment.
Being transgender can be extremely dangerous, and trans people don't view the social structures ostensibly intended to defend people from harm as safe for them—law enforcement, for example, has a record of abusing trans women and disbelieving trans women when they report crimes. This is particularly true for trans women of color, who are made doubly vulnerable by society, especially those in the sex industry.
For trans women feeling alone against the world, armed self-defense can start to feel like a very appealing option, though sometimes a frightening one.
"I was so traumatized by guns by my 30s that it took three very patient queer gun instructors in a private living room to coach me through my first firearms training," says Scout Tran-Caffee, a non-binary trans woman and multidisciplinary artist from Northern California.
Whether women are pursuing training and licensure for the purpose of accessing conceal carry permits, or spending time with fellow LGBT people on the range to learn more about gun safety and fire a variety of weapons, gun ownership can also create a sense of solidarity and community.
Kayla Harris, an Oakland-based woman who started out with LGBT gun rights organization Pink Pistols before splitting away to form the Rouge Rifles with a colleague, has been a gun owner for a very long time. But it wasn't until the election that she started exploring the possibility of supporting fellow LGBT people who wanted to learn more about guns. "After the [Pulse] shooting and after the election, I knew tons of people who were suddenly interested in guns who never had been before," Harris says.
Harris carried her interest in firearms through transition, and is a certified firearms instructor—one reason she pursued and maintained her certification was a desire to give back to her community. "Gun owners shouldn't just default to the white guy who lives in Wisconsin or whatever," she says. "That's not the only person who should own guns. For disadvantaged and marginalized people, it equalizes force."
Harris' casual interest in guns and enjoyment in shooting shifted as she transitioned and adapted to the Trump era. In an age when the federal government appears to be making war on the trans community, emboldening people on a local level, her fears are rooted in practicality. "There are countless stories of people who failed to be neutralized by a less than lethal weapon," she says.
That's her driving desire in educating people about firearms, with a focus on home defense (conceal carry permits are extremely difficult to obtain in the Bay Area). She knows not all trans women agree with her work, but she wants to provide access to trans-inclusive, safe, supportive firearms training for those who are interested. Often, she loans out her own weapons on the range for training purposes, giving people an opportunity to see if shooting is for them before plunging into buying a gun—and dealing with the demands of storing it safely and in a legally compliant fashion.
Though Harris supports gun education and ownership for trans women who feel it's a good fit for their needs, she does have a word of caution.
"If I as a trans woman ever shoot a right-wing fascist, the law is almost definitely not going to be on our side," she comments, noting that law enforcement agencies have a long history of prosecuting marginalized people who fight back. While stand-your-ground laws may be a defense for white cis men, a fatal encounter could go very differently for a trans woman, and Harris has no illusions about the implications.
"When I teach a defense class, the point of the class is to kill someone," Harris says. "If you're a trans woman, the person you're killing is likely to be someone society values more than you."
Whether the National Rifle Association would step up in defense of a trans woman—especially a trans woman of color—who shoots and kills in self defense is an open question. When 32-year-old Philando Castile was shot and killed by law enforcement in Minnesota, the NRA failed to condemn the incident, despite the fact that Castile had a conceal carry permit, something critics said may have played a role in his death.
Harris, and Tran-Caffee, hope a test of the NRA's limits will never come; firing a gun anywhere other than the range or an organized sport shoot isn't something either woman relishes.
"I dream of how trans peoples' daily lives could change if all our bullies came to assume that we were all jiu jitsu blackbelts or else had concealed carry licenses," says Tran-Caffee, who also participates in martial arts training at Oakland's Four Elements Fitness, where she's worked to make the gym more LGBT-friendly.
In the face of people who are afraid to leave their homes and be themselves because they fear physical assault that might be difficult to stop with the use of non-lethal means, the fight over gun control gets much more complicated, and perhaps it should. The lack of nuance in conversations about what form gun control should take, and what the founders intended with the Second Amendment, may do a disservice to both sides.