After the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando in June 2016, the LGBTQ community has had the gun lobby firmly in its sights. Killing 49 people, the attack was, up until recently, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. This piece is the first of a two-part series exploring how LGBTQ groups and activists are protesting and using tried and tested campaigning tactics to gain ground on gun control.
I ’ve been an activist for a very long time,” Cathy Marino-Thomas told VICE Impact. Out since 1978, Marino-Thomas became an AIDS Buddy in the 1990s as part of the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) Buddy Program, visiting countless people with HIV/AIDS, assisting them with daily chores, advocacy and information. “And then I led Marriage Equality USA for 17 years,” she continued. Today, the activist is a leading committee member of Gays Against Guns (GAG), a collective, based in Manhattan, which is part of a growing movement among LGBTQ people across the U.S.
Following successful campaigns for marriage equality and the repeal of the government’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which prevented gay soldiers from openly serving, members of the LGBTQ community, like Marino-Thomas, are drawing on past successful campaigns to tackle gun violence.
VICE Impact spoke to Marino-Thomas on why this fight is so important to the LGBTQ community as well as the tactics she thinks are needed to win this fight.
VICE Impact: The LGBTQ community organized in June 2016, in the days following the Pulse shooting, to tackle gun violence. Why was it important to set up Gays Against Guns ?
Cathy Marino-Thomas: The thing you have to understand is that for the LGBTQ community, the club had always been our safe space and often in our history it was the only safe space for LGBTQ people. It was the only space in which we could gather, be ourselves with the person we loved together -- and not feel persecuted, but safe.
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The idea that a gunman was able to come into a gay club and injure others was very deep for us. It brought us back to the civil rights riots and all of the struggles for which we’d had to gain equality.
John Grauwiler, one of the co-founders got the idea that maybe we should meet and think about what our next step should be. He rented a room for 60 people at our LGBTQ center in Manhattan. 300 people showed up. We couldn't sit down. The first thing we did was march in the Pride Parade to express our outrage.
What are you fighting for today?
Our campaigns focus on three main issues, which all form what we call the chain-of-death. It’s the gun manufacturers, the people that invest in gun manufacturers, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the politicians who enable the manufacturers by blocking safer gun laws.
We are advocating for stronger background checks and a ban on assault weapons. We are also advocating against teachers being armed in schools, which, to be honest, is just an obnoxious idea.
We also have a campaign looking at the investors that invest in gun manufacturers stocks. There are several hedge funds that focus on investing in these so we have a side campaign investigating this issue.
How are you fighting against all of this?
We are tired of lobbying and we are tired of letter-writing. We think that putting boots on the ground is the way forward.
We are a direct action group. We picket and protest. But we also do other actions that are maybe a little more subtle. For example, we had a stamp that we put on dollar bills that said “blood money”. We went into the coffee shops inside the offices of companies supporting the NRA and bought coffee with these dollar bills knowing that one of the executives could come in and get a note that said: “blood money”.
All of these actions are about applying pressure. We want the press to cover these and keep the issue of gun violence in the news.
GAG was at the March for Our Lives. What did you make of the day?
The Parkland shootings were devastating for all of us, but these Parkland kids are amazing. Amazing for all of us.
GAG had eight different organizations across the country, which all participated in their local marches and so we met tons of kids marching for their lives and I know it’s a corny statement to make but really, that’s what they were doing. They were marching for their lives to show it’s really an epidemic at this point. It was truly inspiring.
All of the speakers were kids that had either lost someone because of gun violence, been affected by gun violence or were terrified of gun violence. They spoke of their experiences of growing up with active shooter drills, and always having at the back of their mind that someone could come into their school to hurt them.
That’s exactly the same feeling we had on the day of the Pulse shooting. Someone came into our safe space. Schools should be a safe space for these kids. For us it was the club, for the kids it was the school.
And you’re not only a lesbian activist, you’re a mother too,
I have an 18 year-old-daughter, which keeps me especially engaged in this issue. Being scared for your kids at school every day, whether you are straight, gay, lesbian and so on is no place any parent should find themselves. Two weeks ago, my daughter’s school had a lock-down because some kid put on social media that he was going to bring a gun to school. It was a terrifying experience no parent should have to go through. For that reason, I will keep looking into this issue until we have a solution.
What’s your plan of action?
Keep the pressure on the legislators. The way GAG is planning to do that is to continue the direct actions.
We have a group that goes down to DC every month that protests in the Senate office building. And our protesters don’t stop until they are arrested. The first month there was five of them, the next month ten of them, the next 20 and this month we are expecting between 50 to 100. We are also staying engaged in the midterm elections.
How can people support GAG?
We also have GAG U(niversity), which allows anyone to send in a question about gun violence and our band of very intelligent university style researchers will get that answer for you.
They can also show up to any demonstration we organize and feel safe. Not everyone gets arrested at our rallies [laughs]. There are lots of ways to get involved and we are really open to new ideas too.
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This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity