Chris Cheng made a huge and surprising career change in 2012 — he quit Google for guns and he now travels around the United States to participate in shooting competitions, challenging stereotypes as he goes.
Cheng is an Asian-American, former Silicon Valley tech worker who grew up in Southern California. He is also an openly gay gun lover who believes strongly in the second amendment (the constitutional right to keep and bear arms) and won a reality TV show because of his superior shooting skills.
When it comes to pre-conceived notions about gay people and gun enthusiasts, Cheng is certainly making people think twice.
In a phone interview from his home in San Francisco, the 35-year-old said he is trying to promote diversity in both the gun community and the gay community. The stereotypes he's trying to break apart include that gun owners are white, uneducated, redneck Republicans and that gay people are physically and mentally weak, easy targets for bullying and violence and are anti-gun liberals.
On the contrary, said Cheng, gay Americans and gun-toting Americans are each diverse communities. They have a lot more in common with each other than one might think, he explained.
"For me, there are a number of clear, overlapping principles between gun rights and gay rights," said Cheng.
"I think we still live in a world where there are these overriding, negative stereotypes about both communities, and most people don't know very much about the overlap between gay rights and gun rights."
Cheng, who won the History Channel's Top Shot Season 4 shooting competition and subsequently quit his job at Google to shoot guns for a living, speaks often about that overlap during interviews and public appearances. He's now a professional marksman on a contract with Bass Pro Shops. He recently wrote a book that offers advice on how to become a "top shot."
Cheng talks about what it's like to be gay, and pro-gun, and what they have in common. He and others say beyond both having to fight negative stereotypes, what also links the two groups is advocating for the right to self-defence, and that dearly held American value: freedom.
Freedom a core American value
Gay people have been targets for centuries, Cheng said, and "calling 911 isn't always going to get the job done."
"That's where having the freedom to own a firearm in self-defence is a freedom that I truly believe in. For a country like America where freedom is one of our core values, that there's freedom to be who you are, with respect to being gay and being open, and being safe and secure, and the freedom to protect yourself whether it's with a gun or with other means, those are two principles in my mind that are very much aligned with American values."
For some gay people, like Tom Palmer, self-defence is the main reason for owning a gun. The Washington, D.C., resident, who has been involved in lawsuits with the city over its gun control laws, credits carrying a gun with saving his life in 1980.
He and a straight co-worker were walking down a street in San Jose, Calif., when they were chased by a gang of men who called them "faggots" and threatened to kill them. Palmer pulled out his gun and told them to back off, which they did.
"I'm very glad I did not have to discharge the weapon, all I had to do was show it," Palmer said in an interview with CBC. "And the odds … suddenly were evened out, and I had the upper hand.
Palmer encourages members of the LGBT community, and women, to arm themselves for their own protection. He acknowledges that some people aren't comfortable around guns, but for those who are, it's a good idea to have one in order to defend themselves if necessary, he says.
Introducing gay people to guns is the core mission of Pink Pistols, an organization with 45 chapters across the U.S. and branches in Toronto and British Columbia.
Pink Pistols encourages owning guns
"Armed queers don't get bashed," the group says on its website. The club trains and guides new shooters, and it's trying to change the public perception that gay people don't carry guns and won't fight back if attacked.
Clive Edwards, the B.C. representative who lives in Burnaby, calls Pink Pistols "an equalizer."
"It puts the word out there, that be careful who you attack," said Edwards, a NRA-certified instructor. "Gay people can fight back, just like anyone else can."
Edwards, like Cheng, noted the underlying principle that ties gun rights advocates and the LGBT community: "I think self-defence for everybody, whether you're gay, straight, undecided, is critical, it's the most basic right you have," he said.
Dexter Guptill, the Pink Pistols representative in northern Virginia, agreed and said beyond self-defence, how the two groups overlap is all about autonomy and being free from coercion.
Gun owners want to be able to choose how to protect themselves and gay people should similarly be free to arm themselves, and marry whomever they choose, for example, Guptill explained.
"Gay rights are human rights. Non-discrimination is a human right. Self-defence is a human right and autonomy is a right," said Guptill, who is straight and a libertarian. (Members of Pink Pistols do not have to be gay.)
"It's not so much that I'm pro-gay. I'm pro-freedom, I'm pro-rights, I'm pro-autonomy," he said.
Encouraging the LGBT community to join the gun community helps both groups diversify and enjoy a mutual benefit, Guptill said.
"Each side is helping the other to break stereotypes," he said.