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Salem, a transgender activist in Dallas, started acquiring weapons in 2020 and found guns provided a way to push back against forces of suppression against transgender and other rights.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

It was intended to be a child-friendly drag show, organized by the owner of a craft distillery whose son is a performer.

But the event in Roanoke, Tex., quickly became a showcase for a new contest for armed supremacy in American civic life, when a group of armed leftists, some of whom are transgender, encircled the venue, masked and dressed in black, several clutching AR-15 guns.

Nationalist and right-leaning groups such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, and other self-formed militias have become a regular and often menacing feature of U.S. politics and protest, appearing at rallies, firing on civilians and storming the Capitol in Washington.

But the upheaval of the past two years, from violent Black Lives Matter protests to the social dislocations of the pandemic to open violence against transgender people, has created fertile ground for progressives to respond in kind.

“I think we’re at the beginning of the resistance,” said S., one of three armed leftists in the Dallas area interviewed by The Globe and Mail. The Globe is not publishing their real names because they fear reprisal for their activities.

“The world would ideally be a place where guns didn’t exist. But that’s not a world that we’re ever going to see,” added Salem, the nom de guerre of another local progressive with an AR-15, who is transgender non-binary.

On Nov. 19, a gunman in Colorado Springs, Colo., killed five people at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub, after a drag show. In Texas, a militia group has already begun advertising a protest at a Christmas drag show.

“The calls for violence only seem to get more frequent and direct and I feel like it’s inevitable that we see it at one of our events,” added Salem, who uses she and they pronouns.

It has left her “frustrated that no amount of individual preparedness is going to make a significant difference in preventing what’s coming. Anxious that I’m going to catch a bullet eventually.”

But Salem and others like her across the U.S. have, in fact, been preparing.

At least two armed leftist groups have formed in the Dallas area, the Socialist Rifle Association and the John Brown Gun Club, the group that came to the distillery drag show and which conservative activist and author Andy Ngo has called a progressive “militia linked to domestic terrorism.”

It’s a description the leftists reject. But a recent shooting day at a gun range in the Dallas area brought together at least two dozen armed leftists. Some make weekly appearances at community events. They are usually masked, suited in armour. Some carry handguns, others assault rifle-style guns.

In Texas, carrying rifles in public is not illegal and military-class protective gear is available for purchase.

Those arming themselves on the left say they believe their presence at such events diminishes conflict by making other groups more reluctant to act. They quote Malcolm X: “Sometimes you have to pick the gun up to put the gun down.” In a recent article, writer Robert Evans argues that right-wing violence that plagued Portland, Ore., in recent years was rebuffed only when leftists started shooting back. “Historically, fascists win when they decide to go for it, to throttle democracies, believing that no one is organized enough to fight them,” he wrote.

Expanding gun ownership among “marginalized groups of people is incredibly powerful and, I believe, necessary,” said S., a cisgendered female who is driven by a desire to protect others. “When one faction has all the firepower – whether that be just generic white men, or cops, or whoever that might be – that’s very dangerous,” she said.

Other groups have also begun to explore weapon use. One is Yellow Peril Tactical, a collective of Asian-Americans that regularly posts tips on weapons and shooting drills. “Self-defence needs to be democratized,” it said recently in an Instagram post. The group began to post on Dec. 30, 2020, with a 1968 image of an Asian man holding a sign that says, “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.” The image was taken at a rally in support of Huey Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party.

That history is pertinent, since the Black Panthers mark perhaps the closest historic point of reference to leftists and other groups arming themselves, said Amy Cooter, a sociologist who researches militias and other conservative groups. What kind of result that produces is unclear. It could make organizations like the Proud Boys more reluctant to engage in confrontation. “It could also lead to more backlash,” she said.

The right-wing groups she tracks have been adding to their own firepower. She worries about the consequences, particularly as their ideology around critical race theory and transgender rights grows entwined with efforts to legislate on those issues.

Take Robert Beverly, the founder of Texas Defense Force, an Arlington, Tex.,-based militia and security contractor. He has appeared at some of the same events as local armed leftists. He dismisses them as “turds” whose morals he considers degenerate.

Mr. Beverly has installed a machine gun turret on the back of a truck and boasts about his capability for communications and surveillance. “We match 98 per cent of the police departments.”

More violence, he says, seems inevitable.

Those on the left say they have been motivated to buy guns in part by fear. Soon after Bubble joined protests in Texas after the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, the non-violent demonstrations turned menacing. People pointed guns at him and threatened to run him over. “Throughout 2020, pretty much every week there was a life-threatening event in my life,” said Bubble, who is non-binary and uses Bubble as his chosen name. “It was a sense of constantly being in danger,” he said.

Brandishing a weapon provided an option for defence. “A lot of people on the left have been afraid of the spectre of genocide – particularly the genocide of trans people,” he said. His read of history is that the worst historical instances of genocide were directed against unarmed groups.

But, asked Cathie Carmichael, a scholar of violence in the Balkans at the University of East Anglia, “is the [U.S.] really at that stage?” For leftists in the U.S. today, “personally, I think that arming themselves increases the likelihood for violence,” added Prof. Carmichael, author of Genocide Before the Holocaust.

Those with progressive politics say they often feel as if police do too little to protect them.

At the drag show in Roanoke, distillery co-founder Jay Anderson asked police in several nearby cities to attend the event. When those efforts produced little fruit, he welcomed the John Brown Gun Club, knowing that armed right-wing groups would also be there. He did not know the leftists would come with AR-15s.

Their armament reflected a broader change.

The Dallas ranks of the John Brown Gun Club have grown five-fold since the beginning of 2021, Bubble said. The club, he said, offers the warm embrace of people willing to help others in need of cash, food or a place to stay.

At a shooting range in a Dallas suburb, Salem described the rationale for owning an AR-15, a gun that has become the weapon of choice for some of the country’s worst mass shootings. The gun’s ubiquity and portability make it useful, Salem says. If one malfunctions, “you can very easily change things out.”

She banged out 10 shots in rapid succession, peppering the heart of a target with holes. She trains for a quick-fire response, the kind of volley that can stop an attacker.

Salem started accruing guns in 2020. At the time, she had lost work. The pandemic made societal instability look frighteningly possible and she had descended into what she calls “an unhealthy place mentally.” She began to identify as transgender non-binary. Watching protests unfold across the U.S. in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, she saw herself in the struggles of other people seeking a way to live freely.

Her own family underscored that feeling. She was raised by a devout evangelical mother who kept her closeted in a world of Christian culture. She attended a private Christian school and was barred from books and movies that included magic, such as Harry Potter. She left home after high school.

On her 21st birthday, her mother took her out to dinner and began to discuss conservative conspiracy theories that affixed blame to Jewish and gay people. That’s when “I realized like the person who raised me thinks that people like me are trying to destroy her way of life,” Salem said.

Guns provided a way to push back against forces of suppression against transgender and other rights. Salem says wielding an AR-15, often while wearing protective chest plates hardened against armour-piercing rounds, has also been personally empowering. “Being able to not see myself as a potential victim is nice,” Salem said.