Chris Cheng—Coming out of the gun closet
Recently in an article about Austin Weiss I said the “…Second Amendment belongs to Americans. All Americans. Male or female; black, white, purple or green; inked and bearded and pierced or not…” One group I didn’t mention was the gay community.
It’s honestly not something I’d put much thought in; just never occurred to me. Though the experience of Tom Palmer (an openly gay man who used a gun to ward off attackers) in San Jose in 1982 is as significant a gun control issue as that of John Hechinger (one of the major catalysts for the original D.C. gun ban) in 1975, I never considered sexual orientation to be of any significance whatsoever with regard to owning a firearm. In fact, I never considered the sexual orientation – gun ownership equation at all.
Chris Cheng, the Season 4 Champion of the History Channel’s Top Shot, is a great marksman and a staunch proponent of the Second Amendment. He is also gay.
I’m happy to say that Chris has agreed to share his story with RECOIL; our conversations have caused me to once again reevaluate the way I look at things.
I have always equated the right to defend oneself with a firearm, whether vs. a criminal or a tyrannical government, as being predicated on just one thing—have you been convicted of a crime that would prevent you from owning a firearm?
No? Then good to go.
I don’t care what color you are, what god you worship or what your sexual preference is. I always sort of assumed responsible firearms owners viewed things pretty much the same. That’s a myopic perspective Chris has helped me widen.
I’m going to relay the answers Chris provided to the questions I asked, then hopefully convince him to expand on them later on.
David: Chris, you had no prior LE or military experience before Top Shot. You worked for Google, had little experience with firearms—and you’re gay. Did your sexual preference impact your decision to audition, and more importantly did it impacted their decision to accept you? Did the producers even know you were gay?
I wanted to make a point that gays, and geeks for that matter, can shoot guns as good as anyone else. As part of my audition, I decided that being a token gay guy could increase my chance of being selected. In my audition video, I made a funny tagline that I was Gay for Guns which got a number of good laughs from the audition panel.
I’m pretty sure it factored into the casting panel’s decision to accept me, but it was one of many factors they considered. I had to demonstrate that I could shoot well. Top Shot isn’t about personality conflicts and drama like other reality competitions. It’s a marksmanship competition to see who can master a wide variety of weapons in unpredictable, challenging situations.
Did the other competitors know? How did that impact the dynamics of the Top Shot house?
I was pleasantly surprised when other competitors found out I was gay. They were either indifferent or accepting. The most common response I received was “Chris, we don’t really care that you’re gay, we care about how well you can shoot…the better we all shoot, the more exciting the competition will be…” I suppose this affected the house dynamics in that I never heard any gay pejoratives during my six weeks there.
The shooting community was honestly one of the last places I expected gay acceptance on any level. That really caught me off guard, in a good way. It’s how life should be, where no one cares if you’re gay, straight, or somewhere in between. We should be evaluated and judged based on our skills and accomplishments. While I was hoping to break some stereotypes, some of my own stereotypes regarding the shooting community were also broken. It was an enlightening experience.
How did you prepare for your competition? Did you have a boyfriend or partner at the time and did that affect your training at the time?
For five months, I studied and practiced 25 hours a week, performing a lot of online research about marksmanship fundamentals. This was on top of my normal 45-50 hour per week job at Google.
YouTube was an amazing resource to learn about marksmanship. Since I didn’t have any gun buddies to train with, and since I didn’t have access to a large variety of weapons, I decided that focusing on core marksmanship skills would be the best strategy. Sight picture, sight alignment, trigger control, and breathing control were my main areas. These core skills translate across all weapons platforms. In a competition like Top Shot you never know what kind of weapon would end up in your hands.
My boyfriend of four and a half years understood why I needed to fall off the grid during that time to practice and study. He thinks similar to me; if you want to succeed, you gotta go all in. It was great having his support.
Let me ask you this—given that you have a unique perspective, and given that gun rights in many places are as contentious as gay rights, is there any similarity between “coming out of the closet” as a gay man and “coming out” as a gun owner?
That’s a really great question. At Google, one of the most insightful things I learned from a fellow Gaygler (nickname for a gay “Googler”) who also liked guns was that he was “out” as gay with his colleagues, but not “out” as a gun owner. He was afraid that his coworkers would assume all the negative things about guns that might affect his career. Many gay people share the same career concerns about being “out” at work.
“Coming out” in whatever sense, being gay, being a gun owner, or anything else can be extremely hard. Sometimes it’s easier to just stay quiet and fly under the radar, but being gay, and being a gun owner are parts of me that I want people to know about. It’s important to be visible and show everyone how normal these communities are.
Talk to me about stereotypes, gun and gay.
Instead of going into gay and gun specifics, I like to think about stereotypes in the following manner. First of all, I’m skeptical of them. If we look at human nature, we have an animal instinct to label things as safe/unsafe or good/bad. I believe stereotypes emanate from this survival mechanism to help us quickly make life and death decisions. Our fight or flight instincts kick in, and our cognitive abilities get hijacked by our emotions, namely fear.
When I feel myself applying a stereotype, emergency lights go off in the thinking part of my brain. I try my best to give each individual person I meet a blank slate to define themselves.
Setting aside the more serious stuff for a minute, let me ask you as a gun geek. What was your favorite weapon from the Season 4?
That would have to be the Milkor M32A1, a six-shot 40mm grenade launcher which I used to win Top Shot. I had never shot a grenade launcher before and my competitor was the 2003 World Grenadier champion. Winning Top Shot with a freakin’ grenade launcher was incredible!
Which weapon gave you the most trouble?
The Ruger Vaquero in the first team challenge. I could not get enough meat on the grip of the pistol, and so I kept pulling my shots low. Part of me never wants to shoot it again, but I have a feeling I’ll end up owning two of them when I get into Cowboy Action Shooting later in life
You’ve got a book coming out. Tell me about it.
I’m very excited to share my story about how I went about training to win Top Shot. Not only is it a beginning marksmanship book, but I also dive into sports psychology, leadership, and anecdotes from playing baseball, music, working at Google; how it helped me not only win Top Shot, but win in life. [Note: pre-sales of Shoot to Win are now available on Amazon here.] I’m also actively working on a TV show concept about guns; traveling the country showing the diversity of the Second Amendment community. More on that soon (and more details on that currently untitled project here).
I know you can’t speak for the entire LGBT community, but give me some perspective on ‘gays and guns’ I might not have—or is there really any difference?
The gun rights group has the Second Amendment and we see our rights getting chipped away. The gay rights camp has been experiencing the opposite where more rights are being fought for, and won.
I think the interesting part is that both camps know what it’s like to have people trying to take away your rights. Not only do we have to fight to earn these rights, but we have to keep fighting to keep them. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about gay rights or gun rights, all rights must be fought for and subsequently protected.
Saved rounds and alibis—final thoughts?
Ironically, I don’t want to make a big deal out of gays and guns, but in order to reach that end, the means dictate that we elucidate both topics to the point where they are familiar to the general public and help the fear fade away.
Finally, I hope people can simply be proud of who they are, and what they have accomplished, or hope to accomplish. I’m living the American Dream, having aimed high and dared to dream big. I hope to inspire others to do the same.
So, I’d like to thank Chris for taking the time out to talk to me and to discuss such an intensely personal issue on a public stage. He has a lot to say; too much to cover in just one article. Please visit RECOILweb again soon. I’ve invited him to pontificate further. If all goes well you’ll hear more about everything from his own perspective on the Second Amendment to life in the Top Shot house, his training regimen and his experiences as a competitor traveling the country. I’ve asked Chris to keep an eye on the comments, so if you have any questions feel free to ask.