Wearing wedge shoes and fashionable outfit, Mellisa Vesperman, 59, was ready in her position. Her hands tightly gripped a handgun—sometimes, she changed to her rifle. She focused her eyes on a paper target hung at an indoor local range, Sharpshooters, in Lorton, Virginia. After several shots, bullets holes in the middle of her target silhouette appeared.

“I grew up with firearms in the house,” she said. “My father taught me to shoot when I was very young.”

A long time shooter, Ms. Vesperman was exercising her ability to shoot with a dozen members of the Pink Pistols’ Northern Virginia chapter. It is an organization which encourages sexual minorities and other marginalized people, including those who are subject to bullying and biased violence, to do legal armed self-defense. In current time, there are 13 million Americans who have an active permit to carry a concealed weapon.

The urge for LGBTQ community to protect themselves with guns has been rising in particular after the Orlando shooting. The incident at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, left 49 dead, almost half of whom were Puerto Rican. It was known as the deadliest mass shooting in the United States history.

As a transgender woman, Ms. Vesperman apprehended Pink Pistols’ calling for LGBTQ people to arm themselves. Not only in Orlando, Florida, many gun stores in North Carolina and Virginia, for instance, also have seen a spike in sales for LGBTQ people. She conceded that there’s a culture of fear among sexual minorities of being a target of hate crimes because of their sexual identity and orientation.

“I have been worried about being a victim of hate crime for half of my adult life since I came out 20 years ago,” she said. “That’s my fear, as a transgender woman, I would be assaulted not only because somebody mistakes me for a woman, but if somebody (also) reads me as not being a genetic woman.”

As a resident of Maryland, Ms. Vesperman herself can’t carry a gun because the state doesn’t allow her to. But, she was wondering if Maryland state could ever change the law and allow people who feel safer carrying guns to do so.

“I think it would be a good thing,” she said. “For a number of years, I thought that I would have felt safer with a weapon in my possession.”

Founded in 2000, the Pink Pistols have a diverse membership, with 40 chapters around the country. The number of its membership has significantly increased within weeks after the Orlando attack. A moderator on the national Pink Pistols’ page on Facebook, Dexter Guptill, said the number has quintupled.

“The day before Orlando, there were about 1,400 members nationally on our Facebook group. Last Monday, the members of the group went to 8,000 members.”

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Mellisa Vesperman (fourth person from the left) and members of the Pink Pistols’ Northern Virginia chapter are doing a meet-and-shoot gathering at Sharpshooters, Lorton, Virginia (Sunday, 07/10/2016). Photo by Mellie Cynthia.

Another transgender woman who was also shooting at the range, a 57-year-old named Marie, said that she decided to join Pink Pistols after the Orlando attack.

“I felt like it was a galvanizing moment in the LGBTQ community to realize that the truth is you can either be a victim, or you can decide to be able to shoot back,” she said, acknowledging that sexual minorities are at the top of hate crime targets.

Sexual minorities have indeed been enduring hate crimes since back in the 60’s, long before the Orlando attack happened. However, there has been no exact data on the hate crimes since most of the crimes are not reported to the police and because of the fear of the victims towards coming out to the society.

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“I have been worried about being a victim of the hate crime for half of my adult life, since I came out 20 years ago.”

-Mellisa Vesperman, member of Pink Pistol, transgender woman-

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According to the data collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 2014, LGBTQ people were twice as likely to be targeted as African-Americans, and the rate of hate crimes against them has outweighed crimes against Jews. It also showed that 20% of hate crimes reported to police in 2013, were founded on perceived sexual orientation. Around 60% of those attacks were against gay men.

“It has been unpopular with the other members of LGBTQ community to talk about gun ownership,” Ms. Marie said. “I would get dismissed all the time as a right-wing crank, but after the Orlando shooting, I felt that maybe it was a good time for me to get a little bit more involved instead just keep it to myself.”

The significance of LGBTQ people protecting themselves with guns has been in the spotlight these days, given the fact that there’s an old saying ‘when seconds count, Police are minutes away’. Also, there is the ‘what-if’ question—if only there was one good person carrying a gun at the club, then the Orlando massacre would have been averted as he or she might gun down the shooter.

“I can not accept of being a helpless victim when somebody is systematically killing people, and I am just going to wait for my turn,” said Greg Wangler, another member of the Pink Pistols and also a gay gun trainer.

“In a gunfight, you can’t win anything,” he said. “You can only stop somebody from taking something away from you, and that’s probably your life.”

Even though hate crime is a present danger for many LGBT people, some of them believe that carrying a gun is not the answer. This past weekend, anti-gun LGBT group, Gays Against Guns, took action by protesting NYC CrossFit locations following its decision to award winners of this year’s CrossFit Games handguns as prizes. Since the Orlando shooting happened, the organization has staged many protests against individuals and organizations supporting the National Rifle Association (NRA) and enabling gun violence.

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“In a gunfight, you can’t win anything. You can only stop somebody from taking something away from you, and that’s probably your life.”

-Gregg Wangler, member of Pink Pistol, gun trainer-

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Many LGBTQ people who are against guns try to look at the issue in a bigger picture. A leader of Hispanic LGBT communities in Washington D.C., Letitia Gomez said that she had often been called bad names on the streets and felt unsafe, but she had never thought to carry a gun to protect herself.

“I think the solution is to continue the fight against hatred, LGBTQ people, and homophobia,” Ms. Gomez said. “Putting a gun on our hands is not going to limit homophobia.”

Experts say homophobia persists because many people characterize gays as mentally ill, promiscuous, and likely to be child molesters, while lesbians have been considered as aggressive and hostile toward men.

Prejudice and stereotype towards sexual minorities can only be defeated when more LGBTQ coming out and be together with other people.  That’s when the premonition of hate crimes is able to be diminished, and perhaps without necessarily carrying guns.

“If we isolate ourselves, that’s when we feel fearful,” said Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, a sociology professor at American University.

“There’s a big difference between saying ‘I could be next’ and ‘I am with people who love me, respect me, and want me to be around’.”

Featured image by Creative Commons.

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