As instructed, I drive to the end of a dead-end street in Lansing, Michigan, past restless dogs and rusty cars on cinder blocks, then climb a fence and slide down a dirt embankment to the railroad tracks. It's early evening, cold for April. In the distance I see an old concrete bunker, an artifact of the city's boom years. Over the phone, Andy told me to look for him at "Frankenstein's Castle," so I head toward the bunker on a hunch. When he sees me coming, he steps to the doorway and opens a beer. He's dressed from hood to boots in dark clothing except for this: Across his face, bandit-style, he has tied a pink bandanna. Three more figures emerge from the shadows, also behind pink masks. I was told not to inquire into their identities. "Here's the deal: No information that can incriminate us," Andy warned.
He gives my hand a brisk shake. His hand is small and soft. I can clearly see that he was born a woman. "This is Stewart," he says. He points to a shy kid with green hair who's firing paintballs from a slingshot at an old tin can. "That's Mel, and this is A-Train." Andy circles A-Train's waist with his arm.
Just like that, I've met the most notorious chapter of Bash Back!, the elusive band of transgender anarchists, radical sex workers, and queer troublemakers from the grainy videos on The O'Reilly Factor. Days after Barack Obama was elected president, at a time when the gay community was in shock over losing the right to marry in California, Andy led his troops to Lansing's Mount Hope Church, the 4,000-member meeting house his parents had taken him to when he was a young girl.
It was not a happy homecoming. About 20 activists formed a picket line out front while a dozen others snuck inside to disrupt the service. One faction rose to chant, "Jesus was a homo," while flinging pamphlets, glitter, and condoms into the air. Another dropped an 18-foot BASH BACK! banner from the balcony. As ushers scrambled to collect the condoms, two women moved toward the pulpit, where they launched into a lusty kiss.
The response was harsh from nearly all camps. The local paper described the protest as "boorish" and "self-defeating." Chuck Norris, a well-known conservative, condemned it in a blog post, and Bill O'Reilly, who branded the group a mob of gay terrorists, called on Michigan attorney general Mike Cox to take a stand. Cox declined, but Bash Back!'s members remain wary of outsiders. It took me three months to arrange this meeting.
"I guess we did scare the shit out of them," Mel says. "It was awesome," adds Andy. "It's a pray-the-gay-out-of-you place. Gays should be there protesting every day."
Fear has always been a useful weapon in liberation movements. The Black Panthers snared attention with slogans like "Off the Pigs!" and militant feminists once seized the offices of Ladies' Home Journal, holding the male editor in chief hostage for 11 hours. The early fight for gay rights was also rooted in confrontation. In 1969, patrons of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village responded to a police raid by hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails. The streets of San Francisco later burned with rage after city supervisor Harvey Milk was gunned down by his colleague Dan White. The gay-rights movement has made big strides since then, but the nonconformists—transgendered people in particular—remain bitterly marginalized, even within gay groups. With Bash Back!, they may have found their stentorian voice.