Two weeks after the June 2016 shooting at Orlando gay nightclub Pulse, a group of activists stood at the front of the New York Pride March and unfurled one of the last rainbow banners stitched by Gilbert Baker, the creator of the iconic pride flag. Fueled by the death of 49 Pulse patrons, the newly formed group called itself Gays Against Guns, or GAG.
Since its inception, Gays Against Guns — which counts several alumni of storied AIDS activist group ACT UP! among its members — set its sights on a big target: the National Rifle Association. The group even coined a campy catchphrase for the mission: “NRA, Sashay Away!”
GAG’s long-term strategy to take down the NRA started with a decision to “follow the money,” in particular, the gun lobby’s corporate partners, like Wyndham, Hertz and FedEx.
“We typically have two tiers of action, there’s typically an art component that expresses our sensibilities and the second tier is direct action," John Grauwiler, a GAG leader, told NBC News.
GAG staged monthly direct actions by protesting and distributing fliers outside FedEx stores across the country, and also staged a 26-hour, nonstop protest outside the company’s corporate offices in Manhattan in the spring of 2018.
“It was a lot of effort, but we were there,” Grauwiler said.
So when FedEx announced Monday that it was ending its business partnerships with many organizations — including the NRA — GAG claimed victory.
“GRASSROOTS ACTIVISM WERKS!!!” the group wrote on its Instagram page. “EVERY NATIONAL CHAPTER of Gays Against Guns has been protesting FedEx EVERY SINGLE MONTH, and calling for a boycott, because they were the ONLY major corporation that hadn’t severed its ties with the National Rifle Association after the Parkland shooting. But now, in the wake of the Tree of Life massacre, they have FINALLY MADE THE RIGHT CHOICE!”
For its part, FedEx denied that the GAG protests had anything to do with their change in policy, saying more than 100 organizations had their discount programs terminated. FedEx had offered a 26 percent discount to card-carrying NRA members who shipped guns with the parcel carrier.
“The alliances involved in this transition don’t have the shipping volumes to sustain a dedicated program,” FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey said in a statement provided to NBC News.
The FedEx “transition” follows two years of organized protests by Gays Against Guns against the NRA and the organizations that do business with it. The group has protested in the lobby of the Blackstone Group in Midtown Manhattan. GAG’s “Human Beings” — veiled figures marching silently to represent the lives lost to gun violence — have strolled the beaches of Fire Island and pride marches across the country.
After the Valentine's Day shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people, the group traveled down to Florida to provide support, and they distributed Human Being kits to some of the grieving townspeople.
In the 2018 New York Pride March, GAG’s Human Beings marched again, behind a banner reading “104 WILL BE KILLED TODAY,” and held placards with information about more recent lives lost to gun violence, like Peter Wang, a 15-year-old boy from Parkland: “Peter was shot while holding a door open to let fellow classmates get to safety,” the placard read. “His selfless and heroic actions saved many of his friends.”
Grauwiler, who joined ACT UP! in 1989 at the age of 19, said “I learned a lot about organizing, and I learned how to talk through the media, the importance of direct action and civil disobedience, and I learned that through those initiatives, that’s where you find empowerment, and that’s where you inspire others to do the same thing.”
GAG has attracted attention for its direct actions, also known as “zaps," which are in the same spirit of some of ACT UP!’s most headline-grabbing stunts. The group staged a takeover of the Food and Drug Administration to demand more aggressive testing and rollout of HIV medications; the FDA complied within a year. In the ‘90s, ACT UP! activist Peter Staley draped a giant fake condom over the home of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.