As hate crimes and discrimination against the LGBTQ community continue to increase in the wake of the election, combat gyms and martial arts studios across the country are offering free self-defense classes as a show of support.
Hate crimes continue to be a major problem in the US: More than 1,372 incidents took place between election day and February 2017 alone, and there are currently at least 52 hate groups that actively target LGBT members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Perhaps as a result, many community advocates and self-defense instructors have reported a surging interest in martial arts classes. The Center for Anti-Violence Education, for instance, has seen a 400 percent increase in requests for self-defense and violence prevention programs since the election, according to Tracy Hobson, the Center's executive director. Most of the calls and inquiries, she says, have been coming from the LGBTQ community, women, and people of color.
A few weeks after the 2016 mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, Matt Robinson recalls being asked if he could organize a free active killer defense seminar geared toward the LGBTQ community. Robinson, the owner of Krav Maga and MMA in Charleston, South Carolina, agreed on the spot—the sense of fear in the air was palpable, and he wanted to do what he could to help.
In each seminar, Robinson runs through a series of worst-case scenarios that might play out in public places like restaurants and bars—including how to potentially step in and prevent a mass shooting. "I give people a kind of 'what to do' should things should go bad and they find themselves in a [vulnerable] position," he says.
The trend has been picking up: At New York's Brooklyn Goju, for instance, instructor Yuko Uchikawa offers free karate classes to cis and trans women and survivors of abuse. As they practice kicks and stances, the students also get to know each other in one of the safest spaces possible—one in which they're even encouraged to clarify which pronoun they want to be addressed with.
The calls for action, however, aren't just selfish in nature. "One thing [that's] is heartening is there are people who actually want to be trained on how to be an upstander rather than a bystander," Hobson says. "They're interested in how to stand up for other people." And that's increasingly important: One study published in February looked at the types of discrimination that LGBTQ people face globally. Resarchers Chelsea Lee and Robert Ostergard Jr. focused on 175 countries using an algorithm and discrimination index that measured three areas: criminalization and punishment, discrimination, and intolerance. They concluded that "most states have high levels of discrimination, which not only prevent LGBTQ people from attaining equal rights, but also threatens their well-being."
Daniela Vinesar, CEO and instructor at Chicago's Titan Gym, also restructured her Krav Maga classes after noticing an increase in demand from the LGBT community. "We designed the workshops as a safe haven to [help] ease anxiety," she says. The first class was a such a success that she now offers the workshops monthly.
Perhaps inspired by the success, some of her fellow employees are getting in on the act, too. One instructor, Daniel Imhoff, recently led a class called "Get Stronger Together: LGBTQ Self-Defense Workshop," where he taught de-escalation techniques, and demonstrated how to get out of chokehold situations. "I wanted to teach Krav Maga because I think everyone should feel that confident in themselves. And I wanted to teach to the LGBTQ community because, as a gay man, I know what it's like to be a target—especially [in this political] climate," he says.
One of Titan's members, Bradley Blankenship, registered for Imhoff's free self-defense class and put a call out on his Facebook page, inviting friends to join. As Islamaphobia continues to spread, Blankenship and his partner, who is Pakistani American, had been feeling tense—uncertain about the safety of their friends and family.
"I'm fortunate to live in a progressive city and liberal neighborhood, but many people aren't that lucky. Hate crimes are on the rise," he says. But even in the most progressive cities, violence is still a part of everyday life, says Alberto R. Lammers, communications director at the San Francisco LGBT Center.
"We still see these type of things happen, especially in the transgender community," he says. "Unfortunately the rhetoric coming out of Washington is only making matters worse and emboldening people to act on ignorance."
One transgender woman I spoke with, who prefers to go by the pseudonym "Scout," even told me that martial arts training is a necessity to survive daily life in the Bay Area, but that for a long time she couldn't find a safe, affordable place to train. Inspired by her own experiences with street harassment—as well as reading about the violent deaths of 22 transgender women in 2016—Scout recently worked out a deal with a local gym thanks in part to a grant from a private community fund. She now regularly practices Jiu Jitsu. "As a broke trans woman," she says, "it has changed my life."