Clara Elliott teaches trans and nonbinary Virginians how to protect themselves
In 1969, protests over the treatment of the queer community by police came after The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, was raided. The ensuing rebellion has become a rallying point for LGBTQ+ rights.
To mark the anniversary of those events, VPM News is highlighting some of the queer leaders in Richmond whose work has had a direct impact on the lives of other LGBTQ+ Virginians.
It’s only Keara Dail’s second time handling a firearm, and they’re treating the weapon with the utmost care.
Facing a paper target with their feet planted wide and their arms stretched out in front of them, they consult with their instructor, Clara Elliott, on positioning their hands before pulling the trigger. A shot rings out, an ear-splitting crack that punctuates the quiet woods surrounding The Cavalier Rifle and Pistol Club in Montpelier.
Dail misses the target by a hair, but the two still celebrate the effort.
“I have never shot a gun before taking a class with Clara. So, I was super nervous. I didn't know if I was going to be good at it,” Dail said. “But she’s really been a really supportive instructor.”
Elliott is the founder of Arm Trans Women Firearm Instruction, which offers free firearms training to transgender and nonbinary people in Virginia. As a firearm instructor and transgender woman, Elliott said she saw a need for access to these services in her community.
“Price should not be an obstacle to learning how to defend yourself,” Elliott said. “[Especially] for the trans community, because so much of the trans community has struggles with trying to find employment, with trying to find acceptance within the workplace and struggles to find jobs that are paying a living wage.”
According to a 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 29% of respondents were living in poverty, more than twice the national poverty rate at the time. That was despite the respondents having higher education attainment on average than the general population.
ATW’s services are also available to cisgender clients on a sliding scale, and Elliott hosts classes specifically for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
Transgender people are more than four times as likely than cisgender people to experience violent crimes — including rape, sexual assault and physical assault — according to a 2021 study by the Williams Institute School of Law at UCLA. That study also found they were more vulnerable to property crimes.
Last year, 375 transgender and gender-diverse people were murdered, according to Transrespect vs. Transphobia Worldwide, which monitors violence against transgender people. That made it the deadliest year for this population since TTW began monitoring those cases 11 years ago.
“When I recognized what was going on and saw that there was a need, I said, ‘I can't just sit here and not do something,’” Elliott said.
As a Black, nonbinary trans person, Dail said they feel vulnerable to transphobic attacks. Safety in navigating the world was the main reason why Dail said they looked Elliott up on Instagram, after another queer friend told them about her free classes.
“You run a risk of danger, living in the world as a trans person, as a Black person,” Dail said. “I really want the ability to not only protect myself, but also if my loved ones are ever in danger … I would have the ability to defend my community too, and make sure other people are safe.”
Navigating gun culture as a transgender person
Elliott grew up in suburban Midlothian, but spent much of her childhood learning to shoot at a gun range about 40 minutes outside of Richmond. Because both of her parents also shot from an early age, the culture surrounding firearms was all that Elliott knew.
“I've been in gun culture my whole life, and I was worried about it,” Elliott said, adding that it’s not traditionally been accepting of gender-nonconforming people.
At 39, Elliott began her gender transition. When she did, she said she expected to be rejected by her community, and that fear was part of why she didn’t come out of the closet sooner. But she was pleasantly surprised by the gun club she belonged to at the time.
“I was actually really quite worried about it. It was one of my big stumbling blocks … [that] I'll never be accepted at the gun club. I don't know if I'll be able to be safe there,” Elliott said. “[But] I was embraced by some of the women of the club, asked to come to classes more than I had ever been before I transitioned.”
A space for queer people, women and people of color
“What I wanted to do was to be able to provide someplace else for people — someplace that would allow people to come and learn about firearms in a safe and an accepting environment where they didn't have to worry about, ‘Am I going to be safe?’” Elliott said. “As an LGBTQ person, as any sort of outsider coming into what is typically considered a conservative environment, you have that innate fear.”
Following the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Elliott said she feared for the safety of other members of the trans and nonbinary community. That trepidation was compounded during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With all of the events of the summer of 2020, with the pandemic, with the protests and with the police crackdowns … you had a lot of people saying, ‘I need to be able to protect myself,’ Elliott said. “I had the ambition to be able to say, ‘I can help make a difference specifically within my community, and hopefully to a broader community.”
The FBI reported that crimes against gender nonconforming people rose 40% in 2020 compared to the previous year. That continued a long-term trend of increasing hate crimes against transgender people; the number of anti-transgender hate crimes reported by the FBI has increased by 216% since 2015.
Elliott said she’s also observed a consistent increase in interest by not only queer and transgender people, but also women and people of color.
“Within the firearms world, there was a polar shift in who was buying,” Elliott said. “There were a lot of people in that time period who never felt that they would ever own a firearm.”
In 2020, the same year that ATW opened, the National Shooting Sports Foundation reported that women made up 40% of new gun sales, and purchases by Black people increased by 56% compared to 2019.
Two days of firearms training
Elliott’s basic firearms training course lasts two days: one focused on classroom instruction, followed by a day on the shooting range. Dail said it was a comfortable and even enjoyable experience, primarily because they were learning alongside other queer and Black amateurs.
“At no point did I feel judged by her or other people in the class. And so, it really created a great environment to learn in,” Dail said. “It's difficult to find a space, especially as a Black trans person, where I feel accepted and welcomed, and not immediately put off by the types of people who are going.”
Elliott’s students also learn non-lethal defense techniques, including how to operate pepper spray and stun guns, basic martial arts training and de-escalation tactics. Students discuss with Elliott scenarios when queer and Black people are most likely to encounter danger — waiting for the bus or walking home at night, for example — and emphasize the importance of being aware of their surroundings in public.
“Self-defense is not purely a firearms related thing,” Elliott said. “The whole point is to teach people to use this if they have to. But it's better to teach them to never have to — de-escalation techniques, being able to avoid situations if something doesn't look quite right, because they develop situational awareness.”
Once students complete ATW’s basic course, Elliott said they leave with the skills and paperwork they need to get certified for a concealed carry permit.
Elliott said she has never had to use her firearm to defend herself and neither have her clients — to her knowledge. But that’s better than the alternative, and she said it also doesn’t mean that she and her clients aren’t facing threats to their safety on a regular basis.
“I know a lot of people who have been assaulted, who've been attacked just walking down the street, who have been sexually assaulted, who have been raped,” Elliott said. “I've certainly had times where I have felt the fear of that. I've seen the eyes on me in a way that you knew was not safe. Or I've been walking somewhere and you know that somebody's falling in behind you.”
On the gun range, Dail bends their knees slightly and concentrates on bracing for the weapon to recoil. They take a deep, steady breath, and with Elliott by their side, pull the trigger again.
It’s not a bullseye, but the pair rejoice anyway, because this time their bullet came closer to hitting the mark.
“I definitely feel super empowered,” Dail said.