In Defense of Self

Too often targeted, the BIPOC trans and gender-nonconforming community learns the art of protection

By Alexandra O’Connor

PINNED HOPES: A protester at City Hall on Feb. 24 shows their signs of support. (Sadie Brown)

Ashton Wei remembers feeling conflicted attending their first self-defense class years ago while an undergrad. 

They weren’t out as trans yet, and the excitement of learning to punch or block was imbued with body dysmorphia, particularly when the instructor told the class only women had to wear shirts under their gis, the traditional loose-fitting martial-arts uniforms.

Wei identifies as a demiboy and neutrois, which is under the trans-masc umbrella to them, and uses he and they pronouns. 

Wei was excited to find a self-defense class taught by, and for, the trans and gender nonconforming (T/GNC) community. It went beyond the physical teachings—the instructor is trans and the several sponsoring organizations are queer and trans-serving, and Wei was intrigued by the mental and nutritional elements of the training.  

“This self-defense is a little different from actual martial arts because it was a little bit of the notice in your body, a little bit of psychological and a little bit of intuition,” they said.

The advocacy network Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide reports that 2021 was the deadliest year for T/GNC people. They were victims in 375 murders across the world and 53 in New York. Trans women or femmes accounted for 96% of those deaths globally and people of color accounted for 89% of those killed in the U.S. 

One way the T/GNC community is combating the violence they face is by self-armament— teaching one another self-defense techniques to know what to do when a potentially violent situation arises. 

POCKET DEFENSE: A cat-shaped keychain donated by Beyond Defense to participants in Lara Americo’s STB Safely class is designed to ward off attackers.  (Alexandra O’Connor)

Advent of the virtual class 

Rej Joo is a trans man with a black belt in two disciplines and more than 16 years of experience teaching martial arts. He was excited to join his good friend, actor Marquise Vilsón Balenciaga, as co-founder of Secure the Bag Safety. Balenciaga started STB Safety by handing out safety kits of pepper spray and stun guns to BIPOC T/GNC people in New York City during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer of 2020.

Joo partnered with Balenciaga to lead STB Safety’s training program and he teaches its monthly online self-defense classes. STB Safety aims to protect BIPOC T/GNC femmes (the large majority identifying as trans women). Black people who are or perceived to be LGBTQ+ are more likely than any other group in the U.S. to be victims of a hate crime.

Joo said that providing self-defense techniques is a start. It is equally critical to teach students how to properly use them—and how to access the mindset required to engage in a confrontation.

“Something that I noticed as someone who has been training and teaching self-defense and martial arts is that you can’t just hand people tools,” Joo said. “They have to be able to use it in the right way, the right time, and be able to decipher it. Because the thing about self-defense tools or weapons is that it can be used against you.”

The classes encompass what Joo calls the complete cycle of self-defense. He starts with prevention and goes over actions that hopefully will stave off violence.

“That’s things like de-escalation, situational awareness, using your voice,” he said.

The next step is to learn practical self-defense techniques like how to block or move your feet.

This is where Joo asks participants, if not already, to turn on their cameras, so he can assist with basic form. The virtual nature of the class gives participants more autonomy over their own pacing and overall comfort.

Joo sees this as advantageous for his community, “because usually, if you’re in a class, you would have to make a big gesture to kind of leave. But all you have to do in virtual classes is just click a button.”

Lastly, they address the aftermath of an assault or attack.

“Sometimes people forget that when we experience violence and trauma in our bodies, our physicality changes,” he said.

Joo calls this healing and preventative work.

“So we walk around the world maybe cowering and you might not even know because you’re in a state of fear and anxiety,” he said. “That if you do walk out in the world that way, predators can pinpoint you from 10 miles away.”

Open-ended questions and time for reflections are usually part of this process.

SPEAKING OUT: Trans/nonbinary activist Shear Avory at City Hall on Feb. 24 , where demonstrators denounced Mayor Eric Adams’ selection of  three officials with anti-LGBT histories. (Karina Guerrero)

Next phases for inclusion 

Joo and Balenciaga recognize their limitations as trans-masc men leading an organization to serve BIPOC trans femmes.

“The particular community that we want to serve, which is trans femme—Black trans femme  particularly—is that we’re not part of that community,” Joo said. “So that’s just been a challenge…what would motivate those women to come to these classes?”

To this end, STB Safety plans to retain an instructor who matches the target audience’s T/GNC BIPOC identity and to provide recurring self-defense classes.

Lara Americo, owner of the Tiny Gym in the West Village, led the virtual self-defense workshop Wei attended. Wei recently relocated from Long Island to Massachusetts for their counseling job at a liberal arts college and was browsing online looking for the community when they came across a flier from The Theater Offensive advertising the online self-defense class.

Like so many trans women/femmes, Americo has faced more than one instance of violence and infuses personal anecdotes alongside teaching the technical elements of self-defense. When she was at a pub during a business trip to Italy, Americo tells the class, a man approached her and began to ask invasive questions.

Americo immediately recognized the danger and emphasizes that employing the crucial calculation of time, space and distance between yourself and the perpetrator must be done instantly. In this case, she purposefully humored him on his questions to create an opening for escape.

When he went to the bathroom, she was able to run away. Americo was rattled—but thankful for her training.

According to the U.S. Census’s Household Pulse Survey, 8.2% of New Yorkers identify as LGBT, with the number of respondents doubling compared to data sources previously used to estimate the size of the LGBT population. (Advocates say even the latest federal data is an undercount. Many LGBTQ+ people remain closeted for a variety of reasons and will not answer survey questions truthfully.)

Further, the questions asked by the census may not encompass the person’s identity, advocates say. A nonbinary or pansexual person may be counted as non-LGBT if they do not select transgender or bisexual, for example.

As Wei explains, trans and gender-nonconforming folks understand the risks they take by living authentically. All the more reason that self-defense training becomes essential for this community.

“It’s not like I wanted to come out to put myself in danger on purpose,” Wei said. “Like I wanted to come out so that people know the real me. That was like the big purpose of it.”