The sign said, “Satan is a Democrat!” It sat outside a small prefabricated building off Highway 441, the main shopping strip that runs through Milledgeville, Georgia. The sign’s marquee lettering was only recently changed from its previous message: “Democrats are the enemies of America!” Another sign next to it, this one screen-printed, advertised a church called The Society for the Ten Commandments. Brett Kavanaugh was about to be confirmed onto the Supreme Court, so the sign stung a little extra. My wife, Katie, and I decided to stop and take photos in front of it to post on Instagram. It was our small way of saying fuck you right back.
This was where we lived now. And signs like this were part of the reason I decided to buy a gun.
I should mention who ― and what ― I am: a 43-year-old, transmasculine, nonbinary, gay-married, atheist Jew; the child of NYC schoolteachers and a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I am also, yes, a hard-left Democrat. In short, I am Satan incarnate, the enemy, something many of my new neighbors wish didn’t exist.
We moved here last July from Brooklyn when Katie took a tenure-track professorship at a liberal arts college in Milledgeville. The first thing I did when we got the news was to google “Milledgeville” + “gay.” Among the results was a news story from 2015 about a small church that had a roadside sign saying, “Homosexuality is a death-worthy crime.” (I figured out later that this was the same place on 441 that thinks Democrats are the devil.) Further down the list was an article about reality TV personality Honey Boo Boo’s gay uncle, who’s from Milledgeville and is quoted saying, “I’m gay, but I’m as redneck as I can get.”
When we first arrived, we found hundreds of Brian Kemp campaign signs sprouting along the country roads like weeds. The land itself was beautiful. The miles of farms were new to me, and it was thrilling to see cows, horses, deer, turkeys, and armadillos (mostly in the form of roadkill) whenever I drove anywhere. At times, when the sun was just right, it was no wonder why people loved this country so much.
Indeed, there were American flags everywhere you looked. But something about all the flags struck me as aggressive, performative. They were on houses, mailboxes, pick-up trucks, and the message seemed to be, “I’m a patriot. I’m more American than you.” There were other signs in the neighborhood, like the one that said, “Trespassers: the other white meat,” as well as the predictable MAGA signs and more Confederate flags than I’d ever seen outside of the movies.
I learned that there’s a clothing company entirely dedicated to this kind of patriot-signaling, called “Grunt Style.” Their website says, “Our mission is to deliver the highest quality, most patriotic apparel on the planet, straight to your front door.”
These aggressive displays of patriotism all felt like a threat, and looked more like nationalism, like they were saying, “I’m American and I can shoot you.”
My grandmother did not sport Grunt Style but she truly loved this country. She’d fled to New York in 1937 to escape Nazi Germany, and before she died in 2010, I told her I might apply for dual citizenship with Germany. There’s a law that allows the descendants of Holocaust survivors to be renaturalized as German citizens.
She was appalled, asking, “Why would you do that? America is the best country in the world. It took us in and saved us, allowed us to have a family, a life. I will never go back to that horrible country.” And she never did.
There were American flags everywhere you looked. But something about all the flags struck me as aggressive, performative. They were on houses, mailboxes, pick-up trucks, and the message seemed to be, “I’m a patriot. I’m more American than you.”
It’s been hard for me to find a job down here (I’m an urban planner by trade). So to get out of the house, I joined a local CrossFit gym where the style was de facto Grunt. Most of the members were upper middle class, white, and friendly in that specifically Southern way that I find confusing. I was chatting recently with one of them, a handsome muscular guy in his 30s. When I expressed some trepidation about being accepted around here, he told me, “No, no, no, you’re fine — if you ask a Southerner for help, they’ll do anything for you, no matter who you are.”
I do not doubt this has been his experience, but my wife and I talk in the evenings about newly-elected Republican governor Brian Kemp and his support for a new “religious liberty” bill. Religious liberty bills protect people and businesses that won’t serve an LGBTQ person when they feel it conflicts with their religious beliefs ― in other words, it legalizes anyone’s refusal to do anything for me, big or small, like bake me a cake or tow my car or let me adopt a child. The Georgia senate has already passed a different bill that allows state-funded faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to work with gay couples. (That bill is pending in the House at this writing.)
But during our first few months here, what was common knowledge for other queer and trans Georgians became clear to me: religious liberty laws aren’t really necessary. These kinds of micro-rejections happen anyway in such a casual way it’s barely perceivable. In the short time we’ve been here, we’ve already been rejected by one real estate broker, who refused to help us find a home, and I had one doctor tell me he didn’t think I’d be “a good fit at this time” as a new patient.
Yet I get told to “have a blessed day” with surprising frequency. I hear it mostly from cashiers at unsacred places — the hardware store, the supermarket, the gas station — or from complete strangers when I’m asking for directions. Is it even possible for me to be blessed in their eyes? I suppose if I completely renounce my entire identity and convert to Christianity, it might be. But in reality, I’m way too stressed to be blessed.
We registered to vote shortly after arriving in town, psyched to cast our ballots for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor. But I balked when Katie wanted to put up a Stacey Abrams yard sign at the top of our driveway; I worried that it would put a target on our house. I was uneasy at this town’s passive yet palpable hostility, while Katie had the enthusiasm and courage of someone who passes for straight and isn’t at regular risk of being gay-bashed. We skipped the sign.
To be honest, I’d been thinking about buying a gun since the 2016 election. Like most lifelong leftists, I’d always been on the anti side of the gun argument but, I have to admit, I didn’t really the know the first thing about them. With Trump emboldening anti-Semites and white supremacists, and hate crimes on the rise even in liberal bastions like New York, I was more afraid than ever of getting attacked for being genderqueer or gay or nonconforming in whichever way might offend the Trump base. Owning a gun started to seem like a good way to protect myself, my home, and my family. Moving to rural Georgia made self-protection seem all the more urgent.
A post on Facebook caught my eye. It offered gun training “for women.” The problem is, I’m not a woman. I’m also not a man. A few more clicks told me the person offering the classes was a hardcore Trump supporter, and I moved on.
I googled “gay” + “gun” and variations thereof. I was delivered to a corner of the internet populated by a lively liberal and LGBTQ contingent that identifies as pro-2A (shorthand for the Second Amendment). There’s a national group called Pink Pistols, formed in 2000 and reinvigorated after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. The Atlanta chapter appeared to be dormant, but their Facebook page led me to a similar group called Armed Equality. It’s headed up by a woman named Piper Smith. (Most of the LGBTQ gun groups are, from what I can tell, run by trans and cis women, which makes sense since they’re the most common targets of assault and murder.) Armed Equality provides training in firearms safety, emergency medical, and tactical weapons in San Diego. This was exactly what I was looking for, but they didn’t have any local chapters in Georgia. From there I found another group, this one cleverly named Trigger Warning. They had an active Georgia chapter that gets together monthly at a hipster gun range in Atlanta.
These groups are nonpartisan, but they all share a common organizing principle: hate crimes are on the rise and queer and trans people can’t rely on the government for protection. Memes with the phrase #shootback or a rainbow version of the Gadsden Flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”) abound.
I assumed that most of the members of these groups were left-leaning, but quickly discovered that’s not the case. Armed Equality, which is the most active of the bunch, appears to be split down the middle between liberals and conservatives. There are other gun groups that do skew more heavily to the left: Liberal Gun Owners (LGO), the Liberal Gun Club, and the Socialist Rifle Association, among others. They all despise the NRA and enjoy trolling conservatives. The Liberal Gun Club even sells snowflake targets on its website.
To be honest, I’d been thinking about buying a gun since the 2016 election ... Owning a gun started to seem like a good way to protect myself, my home, and my family. Moving to rural Georgia made self-protection seem all the more urgent.
The 2A community also has some crossover with doomsday preppers, getting ready for various apocalyptic scenarios ― food shortages, nuclear holocaust, a failing electrical grid. There are even posts extolling various brands of waterproof boxes that will let you keep your gun with you in the shower.
The specter of government tyranny looms large ― especially to straight white cis men, whose main fear seems to be a government that will take their guns away. But they’re also deeply worried about more immediate violations like burglary, robbery, rape, and active shooters. Sociologist Jennifer Carlson connects this protective impulse to masculinity and the declining role of men as the sole breadwinner in American families. When I first learned about this, I had to wonder: was I adopting the role of “protector” because it gave me purpose now that I was no longer an earner in our household? Was my embrace of gun ownership simply a manifestation of my own masculinity? I ran this theory by Katie. Her response? “Duh.”
But in terms of actual day-to-day tyranny, LGBTQ people, women, and people of color take the real brunt (as Public Enemy famously said, “911 is a joke”). I myself experience it when the government refuses to acknowledge my gender, or when my insurance company refuses to pay for testosterone, or when the state determines which bathroom I can use. I feel it every time a stranger self-deputizes in order to make sure I’m peeing in the “right” place.
After a few weeks of lurking, I wrote a post in Trigger Warning’s Atlanta Facebook group asking for help learning how to use a gun. One guy, a gay man I’ll call Daniel, offered to drive up from Macon to give me a lesson at an outdoor range near me.
Cedar Creek Shooting Range was a 20-minute drive from my house in a state wildlife management area, part of Oconee National Forest. Once I turned off the main road, I drove for several minutes through unadulterated forest until a small parking lot opened up on the right. Daniel was waiting for me, a middle-aged white guy in cargo shorts, going a little gray on the sides. He was immediately friendly and not creepy at all. This was a relief given how nervous I was about meeting a stranger on the internet to shoot guns with in a secluded forest.
Other than the range safety officer (RSO), there was no one else there, which I was also secretly grateful for. More than anything, I was afraid of the other gun people I might meet at the range, like my Satan is a Democrat neighbors. The RSO came out of a small side building to meet us. He was a short older man in his 60s named Ross. When hearing this was my first time even holding a gun, he spent extra time going over the range rules, which all revolved around safety.
“What are you shooting today?”
Daniel opened up his bag in the hatch back of his station wagon. “I figured I’d start her out easy and move up from there. All handguns — a .22, a 9 mm, a .45, and 1911.”
Ross concurred. “Yeah, let’s get her going on the .22 and see how she does.”
Something about this collaboration between two old cis white men on my behalf warmed me, despite my ambivalent relationship to the pronoun she. I was surprised also by their enthusiasm to help, share resources, and provide me with positive feedback, but this is something I’d come to recognize as the norm in gun culture.
Ross turned to me. “You got eyes and ears?”
I answered, dumbly, “Uh, yeah?”
Daniel said, “He means the safety glasses and ear muffs.”
He’d messaged me links to inexpensive eye and ear protection that are required at all ranges, and the packages came from Amazon a few days earlier.
“Oh right, yeah, they’re in my bag.”
I put on my eyes and ears.
I hit the bullseye on the first shot. The Virgo in me was deeply nourished ― something about the precision, the orderly steps, the careful setup followed by cathartic release. I was hooked.
Just beyond the parking lot was an open wooden structure with a narrow roof and screened partitions delineating the gun lanes. Ross assigned us a lane and offered to give extra guidance since I was a first-timer. We both welcomed his input. Daniel said he’d only been shooting for two years. When I asked why he got started, he said quietly, almost in a whisper: “Politics.” We left it at that as Ross got us ready.
We took our paper target down range, stapled it to a large piece of cardboard, and stapled that to a tall target stand. Ross had us place it close to the benches, about 10 feet out, so that I’d have a decent chance of hitting it.
Both guys spent about 30 minutes walking me through how to load a bullet into a magazine, how to properly hold the gun, how to stand, how to aim, and most importantly how hold my finger in a safe position off the trigger, known as “trigger discipline.” Finally, they agreed that I was ready and Daniel handed me the .22. I was totally terrified.
Ross said, “Remember, hold it good. Don’t be a sissy, now.”
Daniel and I exchanged a look, and I said, “I think that ship has sailed.”
I worked through each step, loading the magazine, racking the slide to get the bullet into the chamber, standing with my legs shoulder-width apart, arms forming an isosceles triangle, pushing the gun forward with my right and pulling back with my left, thumbs overlapping.
I lined up the sights with the red oval in the middle of the target. I took a deep breath and held it, put my finger on the trigger and slowly, I squeezed.
I hit the bullseye on the first shot. The Virgo in me was deeply nourished ― something about the precision, the orderly steps, the careful setup followed by cathartic release. I was hooked.
In early September, Trigger Warning had a meetup at Quickshot, a gun range in Atlanta. It was a 90-minute drive but I was itching to shoot again so I headed up there. Quickshot couldn’t be more different from Cedar Creek. It’s indoors, air-conditioned, and looks more like a Starbucks than a gun range. There’s art on the walls, cozy couches, a vat of brewed coffee, and a squad of young attractive staff members wearing earpieces like the Secret Service.
There was a girl with a buzzcut working the counter when I walked in, which immediately set me at ease. She pointed me to a small gaggle near the bathrooms where Sarah, a transwoman, introduced herself. She’s the head of Trigger Warning’s Atlanta chapter. The meetup was in conjunction with the Atlanta chapter of the Socialist Rifle Association (SRA) and, put together, we formed an unlikely assemblage of queers, trans people, and earnest straight cis dudes with ponytails.
Sarah got everyone set up with eyes and ears and showed us to our reserved lanes, making sure everyone was fully briefed on safety before letting us shoot. There were a bunch of other people new to firearms at the meetup and the more experienced shooters were enthusiastic about sharing their guns, ammo, and knowledge.
I moved from lane to lane, trying out different firearms. One of the SRA guys let me shoot his antique Soviet-era 9 mm handgun. Another handed me his AR-15, which was scary. Even with a laser dot helping me aim it, all I could think about was that this is the preferred weapon of mass shooters. This was not what I was there for. I declined his invitation to try out the AK-47 and moved on to a different lane where a person in a skirt and sporting a full beard showed me how to shoot a .357 Magnum. The shooting was serious, but the overall vibe was sweet and relaxed. This group was like the land of misfit toys, and I felt more at home than I had in months. With these people, I wasn’t a weirdo. None of us were. Even though we were handling deadly weapons for two hours, I felt safe.
Over the next few weeks, I researched with renewed enthusiasm different handguns online, and rented guns at ranges in Macon and Atlanta to try them out. On the Facebook groups, asking about what gun to buy is like asking New Yorkers for directions: everyone’s got a different opinion about which way to go.
In the end, I chose a Smith & Wesson 9 mm and found a great price for it on a website called Grab A Gun. In Georgia, you can buy a gun online and have it shipped to a local dealer with a Federal Firearms License (FFL). The dealer will then run your background check and legally transfer the gun to you.
Two days later, FedEx delivered my gun to a store called Bass & Antler. Katie was not enthusiastic about having a gun in our home, so I headed over alone. I pulled into the unpaved parking lot of a prefabricated building with vinyl siding, just up the road from The Society for the Ten Commandments. Inside, I found a dusty room bursting with guns, ammunition, and assorted accessories for hunting and target shooting. I smiled at the two grizzled old white men behind the counter and told them why I was there. They did not smile back.
One of them handed me a form for the background check. It had questions like, “Are you a fugitive from justice?” and “Have you ever renounced your United States citizenship?” It also required me to answer questions about my “race” and my “sex.” There are only two options for the latter, so I filled in the stupid bubble next to “Female.”
When I returned to the counter with the form, one of the guys took my ID and compared it to the form. The other guy just stared at me. After a minute, the first guy said, “Melissa.”
It was jarring to hear my legal name. I don’t use it anymore, but I never bothered to change it on my ID. He continued, “You need to fill in your middle name.” I usually leave that out too, because it’s another female name that I despise.
I wrote “Amy” on the form. The guy then started to battle with an ancient desktop computer, punching in my information one finger at a time. Once the background check was complete, I walked back to the car with my new gun inside a small cardboard box. The entire exchange took 10 minutes.
Two weeks later, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Piper Smith posted on the Armed Equality page: “Kavanaugh confirmed. This is likely: Good for 2A, Bad for 4A, 5A, 1A, & LGBT. Pardon me while I neglect to set off fireworks of celebration. Keep your comments civil.” And indeed, the thread that followed was incredibly sensitive, measured, and considerate.
The Kavanaugh confirmation intensified the thinking among liberal 2A enthusiasts that Republicans are creating a situation where guns are actually more necessary, especially for marginalized groups. One Reddit user in r/liberalgunowners summed up this argument, saying, “Republicans… continue to attack the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, the right to vote, the right to privacy, and a lot of other rights which are just as important as the Second Amendment... I’m not going to throw my lot in with them just so I can watch the country go down in flames while I sit on top of my pile of guns.” Like that user, I’d rather have the full respect and protection of the law. I’d rather not be discriminated against, targeted, or attacked because of who I am. Gun violence disgusts and depresses me as much as anyone else. I wish there were no need for them at all.
Am I being paranoid? I mean, fear is the stock-in-trade of the gun world. That’s how I got here to begin with.
Having a gun in the house didn’t make me feel safer. It made me feel less powerless, more in control, but did it give me a sense of safety? To the contrary. All my fears remained, gun or no gun. In fact, I was more afraid of actually using the thing. Even in my angry fantasies, I didn’t shoot anyone.
Stacey Abrams came to Milledgeville for a campaign stop in mid-October, on my and Katie’s one-year wedding anniversary. We were so inspired by her speech that we finally got a yard sign. (The first anniversary gift is traditionally paper, after all.) We put it at the top of our driveway that night.
Four days later, the sign was gone. Some asshole stole it.
It was just a sign, I know that, but the sense of violation made me go a little bit crazy. It put my nerves on edge that one of our neighbors hated Stacey Abrams ― and, by proxy, us ― enough to take down a sign. Before this, our house had been a refuge for me, a peaceful haven from the threat and judgement and gender policing of rural Georgia. That feeling of safety was tainted now. They were silencing our voice even at home, erasing us.
Now, in addition to a heightened sense of vulnerability, I was full of rage and hatred for the invisible thieves, for my neighbors, for this entire rural county. I considered putting out a new sign saying I have a gun and sleep with it under my pillow, loaded with hollow point bullets. I fantasized about catching the thieves in the act and running out there, waving my gun around, scaring them like they scared me. I wanted to arm myself with even more guns, more ammo, and more accessories that could ward off threats and let me feel safe. Maybe I should’ve gotten that waterproof gun box for the shower after all. Maybe I should rush-order the rainbow Gadsden flag and hang it as signal to our neighbors: “I’m gay and I can shoot you. Don’t tread on me, motherfuckers.”
But this is how the poison spreads: They stole my sign and it only made me become more like the people who hate me. Threatening lethal force over petty property theft is the wrong way to use a gun. It’s not why I got it in the first place, even if the local philosophy was that trespassers counted as “the other white meat.” After a few days, I finally calmed down and had to admit to myself that having a gun in the house didn’t make me feel safer. It made me feel less powerless, more in control, but did it give me a sense of safety? To the contrary. All my fears remained, gun or no gun. In fact, I was more afraid of actually using the thing. Even in my angry fantasies, I didn’t shoot anyone.
We got a new sign and put it up the next day, fully expecting it to get stolen again. But instead of sitting at the window with the gun like a crazy person, I set up a spycam that Katie had bought for me two Hanukkahs ago so I could watch our cats while I was at work back in New York. I calmed my rage and my fears of Southern violence with what amounted to a baby monitor. The gun stayed safely locked in its case, unloaded.
In September, I read an obituary in The Washington Post of Freddie Oversteegen, a female Dutch resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation. She’d killed several Nazis, which, in my mind, was justifiable. But she said something in an interview, quoted in the obituary, that I just couldn’t shake. She said, “Yes, I’ve shot a gun myself and I’ve seen them fall. And what is inside us at such a moment? You want to help them get up.”
In any case, the events of the rest of October made the sign theft pale in comparison to what was happening around the country. Within a span of two weeks, an anti-Semite killed 11 people in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, a racist killed two African-American people in a Kroger supermarket in Kentucky, and a Trump supporter sent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats across the country. The (white, cis) men committing these acts were no doubt emboldened by the current administration, and I was only glad my grandmother wasn’t alive to see what’s been happening to the country she loved so much.
Shortly after, news broke of the Trump administration’s memo defining transgender people out of existence. This is what modern government infringement looks like, based on identity and effected via bureaucracy. There’s no gun that can protect us from this.
Leading up to the Nov. 7 election, Katie phone-banked for Stacey Abrams and I volunteered with the Democratic Party of Georgia as a poll watcher. Tensions across the state were boiling over but our new sign remained standing. We told ourselves we just needed to get through until Election Day.
On my most recent visit to Cedar Creek, there’s an old white guy wearing an NRA hat. I am, of course, knee-jerk afraid of him, but he’s extremely nice to me. Yet again, I’m shocked by the sincere friendliness of people that I want to generalize as the bad guys.
It took a week of vote-counting, but Brian Kemp ultimately “won.” Katie and I talked about moving to a bigger town, like Macon, a 45-minute drive away. The Kemp signs finally started coming down. The Society for the Ten Commandments seemed upbeat for a change — their sign was changed to say, “Thank god for his grace!” We took our Stacey sign down from the top of our driveway. I was consoled that no one stole it a second time, but I also noticed that people had started throwing trash onto our lawn.
On my most recent visit to Cedar Creek, there’s an old white guy wearing an NRA hat. I spotted his truck in the parking lot, the front plate proudly declaring him an “NRA Endowment Member,” whatever that means. I am, of course, knee-jerk afraid of him, but he’s extremely nice to me. Yet again, I’m shocked by the sincere friendliness of people that I want to generalize as the bad guys. He offers to help me set up my target, but I decline. I know what I’m doing by now.
After an hour of shooting, the RSO calls a cease-fire. NRA Hat and I both walk down range to gather our targets. I’m proud of myself ― I had great shot groupings, leaving a ragged three-inch hole in the middle of the silhouette. NRA Hat is happy for me. He points and says, “You killed the bad guy!”
I stop and think about that. I still can’t imagine actually shooting someone. But if I did, I think I’d feel just like Freddie Oversteegen did ― I’d want to help them get up.
Mel Plaut (she/her/they/them) is an author and urban planner. Her first book, HACK , is a memoir of her experiences as a New York City taxi driver. Plaut’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, HuffPost, Lenny Letter, BUST Magazine, and on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Born in New York City, Plaut is currently based in Eatonton, Georgia, where she’s writing a novel about queer gun clubs in rural America. Follow her at @newyorkhack on Instagram and Twitter.
- This article originally appeared on HuffPost.