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Alongside U.S. 59, several miles north of the Loop, sits the appropriately named 59 Gun Range. Run-down homes, vacant lots and a fireworks emporium line its block. Immediately adjacent is Pancho's Mobile Homes, a makeshift sales lot marked by a hand-painted sign, where dented trailers teeter on cinder blocks like derailed train cars. In the smoky gun shop, which forms the lobby of the range, a wispy teenager with long, oily hair and a dimwitted but lively gaze drawls about the thrills of gun recoil. His sidekick affirms with a crooked smile.
At one of the shadowy shooting lanes, Marie Garrison stands a menacing six feet three inches tall in a modified Weaver combat stance, .45-caliber pistol in hand. Spent shells litter the floor, and bullet holes dot the wall just inches from her face. She gently squeezes the double-action trigger. Each blast comes as a surprise. Each surprise punches a pinkie-sized hole in the paper silhouette.
In the next lane, Brandi Williams, a stunning, middle-aged, red-lipped blond, aims her Kimber 1911, a reduced-size .45-caliber pistol designed for concealed carry. And Xen Polk, a round man with thick glasses and a frightfully hacking cough, wields his .357 Sig.
What separates these shooters from so many others is more intimate than their firepower. Garrison happens to be a lesbian. Williams is a male-to-female transsexual, courtesy of one detail-oriented surgeon in Thailand. And Polk is proudly gay. Together they form the core of the Houston chapter of Pink Pistols, a group of concealed-pistol-toting, Second Amendment-defending sexual minorities who don't take mess from criminals, haters or legislators trying to take their guns.
Their motto: Pick on someone your own caliber.
But their gun-wielding ways haven't won many supporters in Houston's gun-shy gay community. They've had to find a home on the fringe, a home where the fellers at 59 Gun Range would feel cozier to them than any Montrose crowd. But they're content there. "The gays here aren't interested in joining Pink Pistols," Polk says. "They give in to the gay stereotype of weakness."
Effective self-defense has been a matter of debate ever since concerns over gay-bashing heightened in the late '70s. A community group, the Montrose Patrol, organized in 1978 to help authorities monitor potential hot spots. It went fallow 11 years later, doomed by its own success: Organizers said that when bashers stopped targeting the community, patrollers lost their enthusiasm.
With a spate of highly publicized gay-bashing incidents across the country in the '90s, including the murder of Paul Broussard in Montrose in 1991, Houston's gay community again mobilized around security and safety. The Montrose Patrol was reincarnated as Q-Patrol. Today, Q-Patrol faces the same challenge as its predecessor -- lack of interest -- and leaders are considering whether they should dissolve the group.
Pink Pistols came along touting a more militant and self-reliant alternative. "We provide an environment where people in the sexual minority can feel comfortable learning to shoot and learning their right to defend themselves against harm," says Gwendolyn Patton, the national media spokesperson for the Pistols. Armed gays don't get bashed, they claim.
Pink Pistols is a loosely governed national organization that erupted from cyberspace fully formed. In March 2000, Jonathan Rauch, a senior writer for National Journalmagazine, published an essay on Salon.com that called for homosexuals to "embark on organized efforts" to be trained in firearms and to carry guns.
That call to set up "Pink Pistols task forces" spread across the states as quickly as the double-click of a mouse. Xen Polk and Dan Weiner, who recently died from cancer, founded the Houston chapter not long after the article. There are currently 47 U.S. chapters.
Polk, Weiner and the rest did not come on the scene without controversy. In 2001 an e-mail war waged on what was then Houston's most popular gay Internet message board, Houston Activist Network. Members debated the wisdom of armed self-defense, as well as the overall image of the gay community. When it was over, enemy lines were drawn and the message board shut down.
"Pink Pistols killed it because they insisted that it was a group only for people that agreed with them," says Ray Hill, an early gay activist and the Pistols' most vocal opponent. "They would go on for days about the great joy of putting more powder than specified in a given bullet shell so you get more bang for your buck. If you're not into guns, that gets to be real boring."
Garrison says that much of the beef with the Pistols grew from the fact that co-founder Weiner believed that Pink Pistols should replace Q-Patrol -- that Pink Pistols was the next step in the evolution of self-defense. "Whenever they start saying, 'We need to carry our weapons out where people congregate,' I don't think that's a safety issue," Hill says. "I think there are some gay people that have this macho thing about weapons."
Garrison differs. "Ray Hill wanted to continue to hold the power. I disagreed with him when he tried to use that power to keep that community in a mold rather than allow them to progress. Pink Pistols was trying to give them individual power."