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.
Founded just over a year ago, the group adamantly opposes what it calls the "gender binary system," which classifies people as either male or female. Most members consider themselves neither or both. It's anti-establishment, anti-military, and anti-marriage—for anyone. What Bash Back! supports is gender self-determination, lots of sex and pornography, and confrontation as a first resort—a necessary response to violence.
The group's website features images of activists wielding clubs. They seem theatrical given the pranksterlike tenor of the protests, but members insist that their threats to use force are genuine. Real or not, their hard-line stance has struck a chord. Bash Back! has 15 chapters, in cities like Denver, Milwaukee, and West Palm Beach. Such rapid growth troubles the gay establishment. "This looks too much like something I don't want to be involved with," says Sue Hyde, a director at the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force. "Seeing weapons in the hands of gay folks in the U.S.? There's plenty of hate in the world."
But Bash Back! doesn't need the support of movement leaders to make headlines. The chapter in Olympia, Washington, glued a Mormon church's doors shut to protest the Latter Day Saints' financial support of Proposition 8. To avenge the 2008 shooting death of Duanna Johnson—a transgender woman who, months earlier, had achieved a measure of fame when the vicious beating she'd received in the custody of two Memphis cops was broadcast on YouTube—Bash Back! launched a nationwide campaign. Though the officers were fired, her killer remained on the loose. In Philadelphia, members blocked traffic and wrote STOP TRANS MURDER in pink chalk on streets. In Milwaukee, they dropped a banner at the University of Wisconsin that read R.I.P. DUANNA. The Memphis chapter sent a hearse and coffin to one of the cops' houses with a note that read SEE YOU SOON . . . —DUANNA BB!
"We're not trying to change people's minds, we're not trying to bend straight people to give us freedom—we're fighting back," says Milwaukee member Tristyn Trailer-Trash. "We're going to stop them from preaching hate, stop them from creating an environment that's unfriendly to gay, queer, and trans people. We're not going to be nice about it—they're not being nice about it!"
As the sun sinks outside Frankenstein's Castle, Andy and his comrades build a fire inside the bunker, inadvertently filling it with smoke. I ask them if they embrace the charges of terrorism. Mel finds this absurd: "It's disrespectful to the real terrorists."
"What our government is doing right now," Stewart says, "they kill people by the hundreds of thousands—and we're terrorists?"
"It's the most illogical shit," adds Andy, who is 25 and works as a bouncer in a local bar. In his view, Bash Back! stormed Mount Hope to end terrorism against any gay or trans youth who might be sitting in the pews—in much the same way that ACT UP demonstrators invaded St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to protest the church's opposition to condoms in the era of AIDS. "If I was a little kid sitting there that day, my whole life would be different," he says. He was in seventh grade, he explains, when he noticed that he was attracted to women, and that he wasn't quite a woman himself. He was convinced that he was an abomination, a notion reinforced from the pulpit on Sundays and again on Halloween by Mount Hope's peculiar haunted house—in place of ghouls and headless horsemen, the faithful scared children with "abortionists" and "sodomites."
"I had no idea what gay people were until late middle school," Andy says. "I saw on the news a gay-pride parade, and I remember watching the people march. I thought, Oh my God, that's so disgusting—why are there so many?" He started secretly cutting his arms and legs; before long, he was suicidal.
He came out as a lesbian at 14, but his identity continues to morph. "I'm a dyke and tranny and boi and grrl and fag," he tells me. Not long ago, he had "top surgery"—a double mastectomy. "I know hundreds of people" with similar church stories, he says. "We're still healing, still coping. I didn't want anyone else to go through that."
As he puts kindling on the fire, he says that the group has been lying low since the church action. "Police harassment," he says. "They called one girl's landlord and her parents, outed her as a radical and a queer."
"They called my parents, too, and tried to get me to talk," says a member named Travis.
In the end, Mount Hope responded with a lawsuit accusing 14 Bash Back! members from several states of violating the church's constitutional rights.
"It's outrageous," Tristyn Trailer-Trash says. "The really offensive part is they didn't respect the preferred genders of the people they sued."
The suit alleges that Bash Back! blocked worshippers from entering and leaving the church, violating the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances act. The law, known as FACE, was created to curb the use of intimidation during the anti-abortion protests of the 1990s. But it also protects places of worship from tactics aimed at keeping parishioners away. "The intentionally threatening actions of the individual defendants left Church members feeling terrified," the lawsuit states. It also alleges that Bash Back! members vandalized the building by pulling fire alarms, a charge Andy and the others deny.
"There was no damage done to that church," says attorney Tracie Dominique Palmer. "They did not pull any fire alarm. There were no assaults, no arrests. There was no blocking entrances. This was an exercise of free speech."
Mount Hope insists its main goal is to keep groups like Bash Back! from returning. "If they didn't shout offensive things about Christ, and go up and kiss onstage, we wouldn't be talking about this," says Kevin Theriot, the attorney representing the church. "I mean, this wasn't an MTV awards show. We're trying to protect folks who are worshipping from people using terroristic means to make a political point."
In May, with their fate still undecided, Andy and his cohorts go to Chicago for Bash Back!'s national "radical queer convergence." All told, more than 300 members descend on the DePaul University campus for workshops on queer theory, movement history, and make-your-own sex toys. Organizers patrol the student union with walkie-talkies. Participants adopt false names to confound infiltrators and anyone who might want to serve legal papers. Andy is now Maxxx. He has shaved his hair into a Mohawk and wears a baggy T-shirt, revealing forearm tattoos of Molotov cocktails and hand grenades.
"We got new subpoenas yesterday," he says. "They say they're going to confiscate our electronics—cell phones, computers, Xboxes, iPods, anything with a hard drive. It's an intimidation game. It's not working."
Beyond a confrontation with campus security over the MEN'S and WOMEN'S signs that suddenly disappeared from bathroom doors and the arrest of four kids during a march through Boystown, a gay neighborhood, the weekend is mostly hassle-free. "This has been awesome," Maxxx says.
As he speaks, DePaul couples dressed in evening gowns and tuxedos file toward the student-union building for a sorority event. "Do you see that shit?" Maxxx asks. He scratches his head as the partygoers pose for pictures, warbling hellos at one another while shooting leery glances our way. The air crackles with the friction of mutual distaste. "I'm feeling very awkward," he says. "I'm going to find my people."