Handling a .50-caliber machine gun atop a Stryker armored fighting vehicle in Iraq and Afghanistan, Josephine became an expert at scanning her surroundings for potential threats. The Army taught her how to absorb a flood of information in a moment. On patrol, she would count the number of passengers inside an approaching vehicle, identify places where she could quickly seek cover if necessary, or commit a patch on someone’s jacket to memory. 

Since she returned to civilian life nearly a decade ago in Killeen, the Central Texas town adjacent to the Fort Hood Army base, those skills have mostly lain dormant. Recently, however, Josephine, who began identifying as a transgender woman after leaving the military, has begun to feel that she’s back on the battlefield. Like many other queer Texans, she has read with mounting concern about rising rates of violence and intimidation against transgender Americans. (She asked for her last name to be concealed for fear of being harassed.) Lately, when she stops at a red light, pulls into a gas station, or enters a Walmart, she anxiously scans her surroundings for symbols she associates with American extremism: Confederate flags, Back the Blue bumper stickers, Punisher decals on jacked-up trucks. 

Now, amid the 2023 Texas legislative session, in which lawmakers have introduced more than 130 bills that seek to radically transform the lives of members of the nation’s second-largest queer population, Josephine says extremism is no longer fringe. To her and many others, the slate of legislation now up for consideration looks like the beginning stage of a larger attempt to criminalize—and eventually eradicate—transgender Texans. She argues that the debates about transgender identity parallel “the Jewish question” in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe that set the stage for widespread violence against Jews and other “undesirable” minority groups, including homosexuals. In particular, Josephine is concerned by the introduction of Senate Bill 1029—which, if passed, could effectively end gender-affirming health care for transgender adults. Other bills of particular concern to her would require that individuals of all ages undergo psychological evaluation before they can receive such care, ban classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in certain grade levels, and impose civil fines of as much as $10,000 on venues that host drag performances. 

The anti-trans bills before the Legislature don’t explicitly call for the eradication of transgender communities, and the authors and supporters of many of those proposals claim their intention is to protect young Texans who might be confused about their gender identities from treatments that can be difficult or impossible to reverse. After decades of study by medical experts, those same treatments are the standard of care in medicine. Advocates say gender-affirming care saves lives and leads to very low rates of regret

Josephine and other trans Texans say any proposal that would restrict access to gender-affirming care, particularly for adults, is an indirect form of violence that threatens their existence. If the state’s official policy demonizes a particular group, some trans Texans argue, it’s only a matter of time before physical violence ensues—just as attacks on Mexican American communities increased after former president Donald Trump described undocumented migrants as murderers and rapists. 

Days after reviewing SB 1029, Josephine spent $600 on a Glock 9mm handgun that holds fifteen rounds—enough, she estimates, to counter multiple attackers or to, at the very least, “take one or two of them with me to the grave.” 

Like many military veterans, Josephine adopts a sober tone when discussing weaponry. She could hardly be described as a gun enthusiast. Warm, but noticeably shy, she says she abhors the idea of engaging in violence, especially after seeing its effects firsthand in conflict zones. “I never want to have to point a gun at a human being ever again,” she says, recalling the discomfort she felt aiming weapons at Iraqi civilians. But she’s prepared. When she’s not using the Glock to brush up on her skills at a shooting range near her home, the gun can be found in one of two places, depending on the time of day: tucked into her waistband or resting on her bedside table. Josephine has also begun keeping a loaded, military-style AR-15 rifle in her closet. 

“I never thought I would feel like I was on deployment when I was back home in Texas,” says Josephine. “We just want to live our lives in peace and be left alone, but conservatives are mistaken if they think the trans community is not going to fight back when we’re attacked. We’re sick of being targets.”

Josephine is not alone. In Texas, deciding whether to leave the state has become a regular topic of conversation among members of the transgender community, especially those who rely on gender-affirming hormone therapy that ensures they are able to maintain the outward characteristics that match their gender identities. But for all the talk about whether it’s time to seek a new home, anecdotal evidence indicates that other transgender Texans are not only opting to stay but are vowing to take their physical safety into their own hands by investing their time and money in various forms of self-defense. “I’m a nonviolent person, and so I don’t know if I would harm someone in my own defense,” said Jonah Welch, a thirty-year-old nonbinary Texan from Brownsville who, for the first time, has begun seriously considering getting a gun license and learning how to fire a weapon. “But if it came to protecting my friends or family, I would.” 

Transgender Americans endure disproportionate levels of homelessness, poverty, and violence, according to Equality Texas, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the LGBTQ community. Last year, three transgender individuals were murdered in Texas, all of them women of color. Other LGBTQ advocacy organizations, such as the Montrose Center, in Houston, estimate that transgender individuals are four times more likely to experience violence than cisgender individuals. 

Being empowered to defend himself is partly what convinced one transgender man to move to Texas. After growing up in rural Ohio near the West Virginia border, hunting deer and often shooting clay pigeons, he liked the idea of living in a state that embraced gun ownership and personal autonomy, and he moved to Texas after college. In recent years, as Texas Republicans eradicated abortion rights and ordered child-abuse investigations into the parents of transgender children, however, the 34-year-old who works for an Austin tech company, has begun to feel that the “live and let live” attitude that attracted him to the state is rapidly eroding, along with his own sense of safety.

On Instagram, a popular meme shared by accounts focused on trans rights shows a woman sneering beside the words, “Working out to ‘get hotter’ ”; underneath, the same woman is shown looking approvingly at the words, “Working out to fight Nazis.” Accordingly, the man said many of his transgender friends are now getting into CrossFit, the intense workout regimen whose community has a history of embracing transgender athletes. The Austinite also visits a shooting range once a month. Lately, he’s begun fielding inquiries from other transgender individuals who want to acquaint themselves with firearms. “A lot of people who have been really resistant to the idea of gun ownership—mostly because they’re absolutely mortified by gun violence—have been coming to me and saying ‘I want to learn to shoot’ or ‘If you’re going to the gun range, hit me up!’ ” said the man, who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about government reprisals after drawing attention to himself in the media. “I used to be a little nervous to talk about the gun range around trans people, but now that conservatives aren’t being shy about their goal of eradicating us, self-defense has become a common conversation among trans people.” 

That’s one reason why Camille Williams, a 28-year-old trans woman in San Marcos, thirty miles south of Austin, has decided to organize a transgender gun club for newbies and longtime enthusiasts. Williams spent her childhood in Victoria, an hour and a half northeast of Corpus Christi. She was raised by a conservative father who taught her how to handle firearms. Though their relationship has frayed, she wants to pass along to others the self-defense skills she learned growing up. She believes if Republicans such as her father were to reconsider their assumptions, they’d find common ground with transgender Texans, starting with both sides’ respect for self-reliance and personal toughness. “A lot of Republicans just don’t know what trans people are really like, and so they make these intense assumptions about us being narcissistic snowflakes begging for attention,” Williams said. “The trans men and women I know are extremely strong people, and many of them have a libertarian ethos and are also pro-gun. Like my father, they have a very Texas attitude that says ‘I’m not going to let a bunch of bureaucratic dweebs in state government tell me what to do.’ ”

For many transgender Texans who live in the state’s big cities, the decision to arm themselves has arisen during road trips to their smaller hometowns. Those trips, especially in the western half of the state, require drivers to navigate long, desolate expanses of roadways where gas stations can be far apart and cell service is limited. For many, the prospect of breaking down in these rural stretches of the state is a convincing reason to get a firearm. 

For one transgender resident of a suburb outside Austin in their late twenties who works as a program manager for a nonprofit, long road trips to visit family in El Paso used to be regular, and relatively carefree, journeys. But in recent months, as they began to see more and more violent anti-trans rhetoric spreading online, they started taking state highways in hopes of lowering the chance of encountering a law enforcement officer, knowing their androgynous appearance sometimes evokes confusion, or worse. To better deal with potential threats, they recently purchased a Glock 9mm handgun that they keep under their vehicle’s front seat. They and their partner also invested in an AR-15 that they plan to keep in their home. In total, the couple, who has never owned a gun before, says they reluctantly spent around $1,600. “I never wanted to own guns, but now I feel like I have to,” said the individual, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from state leaders. “I feel let down by my community, by society, and by my government. I know there are risks to gun ownership, but now there’s greater downsides to not owning.”