What It Feels Like to March as the Spirit of a Gun Violence Victim
Demonstrations by the protest group Gays Against Guns feature veiled stand-ins for shooting victims, dressed all in white, silently marching to represent their spirit.
Photo by Jeremiah Waters
Gays Against Guns (GAG) was formed in New York City this June, just before the NYC Pride March and five days after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Moved and outraged, a group of LGBTQ people and allies (including many longtime activists) decided to come together in order to "nonviolently break the gun industry's chain of death" through flamboyant protests and acts of civil disobedience.
Their demonstrations feature "Human Beings"—protesters dressed in white, their faces shrouded in veils, holding up signs with biographical details of gun violence victims. Silent and ghostlike, they are meant to represent the spirits of those who have fallen to mass shootings, as well as haunt those within the gun industry who played an indirect but inexcusable role in their death. GAG activists say that becoming a Human Being is a powerful experience, one that often moves them to tears.
Hal, a GAG member, recalls how it felt to march as a Human Being at a GAG protest of the NRA in Washington, DC this August.
I first saw the Human Beings during pride, and I was completely blown away. Because it was not only about a paramount, life-changing, life-ending issue—it was what I felt was needed to jar people off their pedestals. I've always felt that emotion drives everything, and fear is one of the strongest emotions. Something like the Human Beings shakes everybody.
I've been an activist since the beginning of the HIV pandemic. My first friend died in 1979, and I stayed involved throughout the crisis until about four or five years ago, when I stepped back and also retired from my full-time job. I'd been looking to get involved in another important cause, and once I saw them, I decided I needed to do this.
GAG assigns you the person you're going to represent. They give you the name and information about them. You google them and take little bits and pieces from whatever you find online. When I was a Human Being at the NRA protest this summer, I was a young lady with two small girls who was killed in Aurora. I kept thinking about children being without their mother.
I didn't realize how moving it was going to be. I was normal old me until I put the veil on. I felt a rush of emotion. I felt the magnitude of why I was there. Through the veil is how the world looks when you're not part of it anymore, and that made it all the more real.
Being surrounded by the other Human Beings makes it a unique experience. When tourists see us, they stop, almost like they're watching a funeral procession go by.
We're required to be in all white; GAG provides us with the veil, and everything else is our own. I wear white sneakers and white socks. I have a pair of white 501s that I got in 1997 when my husband and I had our commitment ceremony, before marriage was legal—they're kind of special to me. And I have a sparkly white belt that I never knew what I was going do with. It brings the disco in. The hat that I wear is a regular straw cowboy hat that I spray-painted white. It makes sense to me; I don't know if it makes sense to anyone else, but it's about Orlando. Orlando to me is the South, and I picture people in cowboy hats in Florida. I don't know why, I just do.
It really was Orlando that got me started in GAG. Pulse rattled me like the HIV experience did. Being in my 20s in the late 70s and early 80s, the start of the HIV pandemic was a world that none of us could have ever imagined. It was the best of times that quickly became the worst of times. We were out. We were free. It was the revolution, and it was fucking amazing. Then it suddenly came to a grinding halt. That's how I felt after Pulse happened because, being an old disco queen, the discos and clubs are where we went for safety. Those 49 people that were killed in Pulse were there to dance, and that just shattered everything.
When you put on the veil, you aren't allowed to talk. You're meant to be reflecting on the person you're representing, a person who can't represent themselves. People come up to you—especially tourists—to ask what you're doing and they get no response. That's empowering on a certain level, and it gets them to talk to the people handing out the flyers instead to learn more—it helps them put the steps to the dance.
The work I do with GAG is similar to the work I've done with the HIV crisis on one very important level: I feel like I'm fighting for myself. I felt, in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, that I could be next victim. I checked my body continually for lesions, after every sneeze and every cough, until there was an effective test to show that I wasn't positive. Even after that I didn't stop.
And my advocacy efforts with GAG are similar because I feel like I could be a gun violence victim at any time. I've always felt that way, since I grew up in New York. Gun violence is more prevalent now, but it was always there.
When (AIDS activist group) ACT UP first started, it was the theatrical demonstrations—like when they put a condom over Jesse Helms's home, or when they scattered human remains on the lawn of the White House—that got the most attention.
And now, if the Human Beings are coming to Washington to stand outside your door and embarrass you because you're taking money from the NRA, it's going to get noticed.
One of the taglines of Gays Against Guns is "GAG is watching." And it is. Don't fuck with the gays.
As told to Khalid El Khatib