The Elmers never saw themselves as gun people.
But now Melissa Elmer, 68, finds herself in a bulletproof shooting stall in Bellevue, pointing her compact handgun at a paper target, finger on the trigger. Her wife of 15 years, Jan, watches from behind her, snapping photos on her phone.
Melissa raises her handgun, takes a moment to line up her shot and fires a gun for the first time in her life.
“I had never touched a gun and I was kind of uneasy just touching it,” Melissa says. “You don’t know what to expect, and the first time it was like, wow, it was kind of exhilarating because you actually did it.”
The couple have been gun owners since last year. But they have tried to keep this new part of their life private. Most of the Elmers’ friends don’t know they own a gun.
“Progressive people we know look at us kind of cross-eyed when we tell them we own a gun,” Jan says.
Coming out as a queer gun owner can be similar to what it’s like to come out as queer. There is often a fair amount of shaming — some lose relationships, jobs — says Erin Palette, national coordinator of Pink Pistols.
“There is a stigma within the queer community about owning firearms, and it’s rather ironic in that this stigma closely mirrors what it was like to come out in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Palette. “There is definitely a desire to keep their gun ownership on the down low and it can be difficult to live like that.”
Pink Pistols is an LGBTQ-inclusive gun group started in 2000 with the idea that members of the LGBTQ community should have a safe, inclusive space to learn how to use firearms for self-defense. Its motto: “Armed gays don’t get bashed.”
There are now roughly 55 local Pink Pistols chapters across the country. Washington has eight chapters, including one in Seattle.
Once a month, the Pink Pistols Seattle group picks a nearby shooting range at which to meet, places like Bull's Eye Indoor Shooting Range in Tacoma or Norpoint Shooting Center in Arlington. First-time attendees are introduced to veteran members. The talk ranges from what’s happening at work to what new gun accessories are available for purchase.
Range meetups focus primarily on shooting. People show off newly purchased guns and take turns trying out different guns. Experienced gun owners take time to teach new gun owners about firearms. In between firing rounds and in conversations that linger in the parking lot post-meetups, friendships take hold.
Because of a societal shame that can come with being a queer firearm owner and Pink Pistols’ commitment to not outing its members, it is hard to track the number of LGBTQ gun owners in the U.S.
But gun sale numbers, according to Bloomberg, have surged after mass shootings. June 2016, also according to Bloomberg, recorded the third-highest monthly gun sales on record in the country.
That month was a galvanizing moment for the queer community, says Pink Pistols’ Palette, because the night of June 12, 2016, was when 49 people were killed and 53 others were wounded in a shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“Pulse was that watershed moment where people said, ‘Oh wow. We are hated as a demographic and they will go after us indiscriminately,’” she says. “So there were a lot of people who were thinking, ‘Yeah, the police may not arrive in time. Maybe I should reconsider my stance on guns and have one to defend myself.’ ”
Sharyn Hinchcliffe, one of the Pink Pistols’ Seattle chapter administrators, says she has seen more interest from the LGBTQ community in the group since Donald Trump was elected. Hinchcliffe says she’s spotted new faces at meetups and has had more inquiries at Pride and gun events.
She thinks this has to do, in part, with Trump administration policies that have alarmed the LGBTQ community: the removal of the LGBT rights page from the White House website; the 2017 ban on trans people serving in the military; and Trump’s opposition to passage of the Equality Act.
There’s also the recent rise in hate crimes, Hinchcliffe notes. From 2016 to 2017, the number of hate crimes rose 17%, according to the FBI. Of those 7,175 bias crimes, 15.8% were against a victim based on their sexual orientation.
“People are definitely on edge,” says Hinchcliffe. “There is an undercurrent in this country that I have not seen before. I’m 52 and I’ve never seen it this violent.”
Hinchcliffe joined Pink Pistols after the Pulse shooting. She identifies as a straight, cisgendered woman; she says Pulse made her want to help defend her LGBTQ family. She wanted to be a shield.
“It doesn’t matter your sexual orientation, your religion, your politics — you as a human have the right to live,” Hinchcliffe says. “It doesn’t get more sacred than that.”
During one afternoon in July, Melissa and Jan Elmer joined the Pink Pistols for the first time, at the West Coast Armory in Bellevue. Melissa carried her concealed pistol license and her Smith & Wesson M&P Shield 2.0 compact handgun.
“We never believed in guns but then our current president got elected, and it felt like people got more aggressive and as a lesbian couple, we could be more vulnerable,” Melissa says.
After purchasing a gun, they sought the inclusive community of Pink Pistols.
“I felt like we needed to have someone show us,” says Jan. “That was a big reason for reaching out to Pink Pistols. This group will bring in new people like us and give us some training and teach us etiquette, like where to put your fingers and not put your fingers.”
At that first meetup, John Abbitt, a Seattle chapter administrator, gave the Elmers shooting tips and answered questions.
“How do you feel?” he asks Melissa. “You’re doing so good. Best thing to do is try to relax,” he said as he patted Melissa on her back before she fired another round.
Abbitt acknowledges that since Trump’s election, some of his LGBTQ friends have said they are scared and have been reaching out to him with questions about purchasing guns. His work with Pink Pistols, he says, is about empowering people, teaching proper gun usage and making sure everyone feels welcome.
“Because when I was in Oklahoma I felt like an outsider,” he says about where he grew up. “There wasn’t really any Pink Pistols thing out there. You just feel different.”
Abbitt’s right forearm signals his support for gun rights: a tattoo of an AK-47 with a rainbow-striped magazine and the words “Molon Labe” written in Greek. The phrase means “come and take it” and is regularly used as a rallying cry against strict gun control legislation.
Abbitt says his tattoo is a symbol of the continued fight for equality.
“Still in 2019, being LGBTQ in many countries is a death sentence,” he says. “As for my tattoos, I proudly wear on my arm what it means to me: that equality and love is a God-given right that I will fight to protect, even if that means fighting a mob trying to throw me and my husband off a roof for loving each other.
“Like if you want my equality, come and take it.”
In Oklahoma, Abbitt grew up hunting with his dad and brother. But he says he felt like an outcast within the gun community there.
Yes, he was passionate about firearms, but he wasn’t a National Rifle Association supporter, for example. He felt as if he didn’t quite fit the mold. And there wasn’t much of a queer community either. He felt like he didn’t belong.
He met Victor — his future husband — while still in high school. They’ve been married seven years. When the couple moved to Seattle last year, Abbitt joined Pink Pistols.
“Not everybody will feel at home in the mainstream LGBTQ community,” says Victor. Pink Pistols, he says, is “a supportive network for people who feel like outcasts within the outcast community.”
Victor was born in Vietnam and says the idea of owning guns was always strange. Then he met Abbitt and now he has his own rifle.
“I don’t think we can argue with that sense of wanting your own safety and the safety of people you love,” says Victor, who is afraid to hold his husband’s hand in public.
Says Abbitt: “You should never be afraid to be yourself.”
At last year’s Trans Pride Seattle event, members of Pink Pistols in pink Pink Pistols T-shirts handed out flyers that explained who they were and when they meet. They were carrying their firearms, as they always do.
But, according to Pink Pistols members, event security followed along behind them and collected the flyers from people as soon as they passed them out.
Tobi Hill-Meyer, co-executive director of the Gender Justice League, denies this happened. The league was the event’s organizer, and Hill-Meyer says the security team would not have acted that way.
This year, the league said it invited the Pink Pistols to host a booth so long as they didn’t carry any firearms. Pink Pistols did not participate.
Hill-Meyer says Pink Pistols members openly carrying guns made some attendees uncomfortable.
“A lot of people in our community have experienced violence and trauma. A disproportionate number of trans people are veterans, and a disproportionate number of trans people have PTSD,” Hill-Meyer says.
This year, Pink Pistols administrator Margaret Rhoades, who identifies as a lesbian trans woman, and her partner, Susan YoungCrane, decided not to attend Trans Pride because they did not want to be searched. They say they didn’t see anyone else getting this kind of attention from security.
“What bugs me with Trans Pride is they don’t want people with guns there,” YoungCrane says. “But why are they against the most oppressed demographic not being able to defend themselves?”
YoungCrane and Rhoades have been together for 10 years. They both grew up around guns. Rhoades got her first gun when she was 11 and liked hunting pigeons in California. YoungCrane remembers learning how to shoot .22s as a kid in Texas at YMCA camp. Now as a couple, they like to shoot together, frequenting Ladies Day at a local gun range in Federal Way.
They both are lifetime NRA members, but Rhoades says she isn’t crazy about the organization. “We don’t quite fit their mold,” she says.
Finding a gun community that was the right fit for them was hard. The couple felt as though they didn’t really fit in with most of the gun groups or LGBTQ groups.
Rhoades says she isn’t one to wave a trans pride flag through the streets – she would rather just blend in. The Pink Pistols, she says, is where she can be herself.
She and YoungCrane started going to meetups two years ago. They like the inclusiveness and group’s focus on gun education. And it feels like a safe place.
“It’s nice to go shooting and have friends to go shooting with so you’re not going to the shooting range alone and with people who aren’t going to be judgmental and stuff,” YoungCrane says.
In April, Nicole “Niki” Stallard joined a lineup of speakers — Republican lawmakers and gun rights activists — at a March for Our Rights rally in Olympia. As a trans woman and a gun owner, she is active with Pink Pistols, often traveling to events to speak about the group.
Wearing a pink tank top, a leather jacket and knee-length skirt with sheer stockings, Stallard took the stage, her blonde, shoulder length hair blowing in the sporadic wind like the American flag that waved behind her. The crowd was outfitted with Confederate flags, tactical military gear and assault rifles.
She began to rally them.
“We as Americans, we have our differences,” she says. “We don’t have to like each other but we have to defend each other’s natural rights — even people we disagree with.” She yells to the attentive crowd: “So I’m asking from a point of love, we need to show love to all Americans. If you are an American, we love you regardless of you race, color, creed, or whatever.”
She won them over without missing a beat, drawing cheers and applause with her passionate stance that everyone has the God-given right to defend themselves.
Afterwards, people stopped her to say how much they appreciated her and to share their similar views — including a group of men from the Three Percenters, an American militia group, who laughed and joked with her.
“America is changing. People are much more tolerant of our differences,” Stallard says. “Though there is still a lot of work to go, the fact that I can stand in front of a group of patriots as an openly trans person is a sign that we as Americans can come together and that our commonalities can outweigh our differences.”
Which is exactly the power of a group like the Pink Pistols, say Jan and Melissa Elmer: the ability to unite disparate members of the queer community who share one distinct interest.
Says Jan Elmer: "I think that's what our society needs right now."