With both homophobic and transphobic attacks on the rise, the UK is becoming a dangerous place to be queer – should we be learning how to protect ourselves? Writer James Greig investigates.

With both homophobic and transphobic attacks on the rise, the UK is becoming a dangerous place to be queer – should we be learning how to protect ourselves? Writer James Greig investigates.

When a recent study revealed that homophobic and transphobic hate crimes have surged in the past five years (with a considerably higher rate for transphobia), few people in the LGBTQ community expressed surprise. Instead, these figures confirmed the palpable sense many of us had that the UK is becoming a more dangerous place to be queer. The fact this study was released amid a number of high-profile homophobic attacks only added to this impression. 

Having been on the receiving end of a homophobic attack myself, when I read the statistics, my first thought was an extreme one. I realised that I wanted to get good at fighting – if anyone tried to hurt me, I wanted to be able to hurt them back. Let’s give every LGBTQ person in the country a pair of nunchucks and vouchers to a karate class, I thought.

There is a history in queer thought of advocating for self-defence, if not outright violence. This is particularly true of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when queer culture was becoming both more open and more radical. Stephen F. Dansky, a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, calls on gay men to fight against our oppression “in militant ways.” Martha Shelley, meanwhile, warns that “as long as you [heterosexuals] cherish that secret belief that you are a little bit better because you sleep with the opposite sex, you are still asleep in your cradle and we will be the nightmare that awakens you.” 

Following the Nazi-punching debates of recent years, we’ve seen a growing consensus on the left that political violence can be justified and useful. I truly believe, from the bottom of my heart, that some people simply deserve a good slap. But ensuring your own safety – and that of the people you’re with – should always be your first priority. Apart from anything, it won’t do the cause of queer liberation any good if you end up getting injured, killed, or imprisoned for manslaughter. All of which means that the question of whether retaliative violence is justified or useful is ultimately less important than the less sexy one: “is it sensible?” 

To find out, I attend a self-defence class run by LGBT ju-jitsu group Ishigaki in conjunction with London Gay Pride. I’m joined at the event by a diverse range of people, and not everyone’s motivations match the narrative I had in mind: some people cite previous experiences of being attacked as a reason for their attendance, but plenty of others are there simply because it sounds like a fun day out, or they want to try a new hobby. Over two hours, we learn how to escape from various grips, practise kneeing people in the groin, and spend a large portion of the classes screaming in each other’s faces – which is extremely cathartic. 

As I repeatedly elbow my partner in a padded glove intended to represent a human face, I feel as deadly as Buffy the Vampire Slayer; as coldly brutal as Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Buoyed up on testosterone, I find myself thinking the extremely stupid thought, “I hope someone calls me a faggot on the bus home – they’ll be in for it now!” But, later, when I speak with Ronan Hunter, the class instructor and a jiu-jitsu black belt, he douses this fantasy in cold water.

“We all have the Uma Thurman fantasy and it would be amazing,” he says “but the problem is real-life fights are so messy and if one little thing goes wrong, you’re fucked. It’s not about being able to beat up a group of people. It’s not like the movies; it’s not one-on-one, it’s not fair. If you get attacked, it’s probably going to be by a group of people who feel safe attacking you. And they’re ok with it. They don’t give a shit if it’s not ‘fisticuffs at dawn’ – they’re not trying to be gentlemen.”

If you don’t know self-defence, Hunter believes the best way to deal with public homophobic aggression is to quickly get yourself into a space with more people. “If you’re on a bus on the top deck, go down to the central part where more people are sitting. If that’s not possible, make as much noise as you can.”

If you do know self-defence, all of that still applies. The situation becomes different if you find you can’t get away. In Hunter’s opinion, martial arts should always be the last option; there’s no shame in running away (“If you get attacked it’s nearly always going to be by a group of people, so if you manage to get away, you’ve won.”) As well as the practical benefits, he emphasises how learning self-defence helps build confidence, the benefits of which extend beyond avoiding homophobic attacks.

Having considered it, my initial reaction to the hate crime stats – “we should all learn to fight!” – carries a trace of victim-blaming. It suggests that if all those people who’d been attacked had simply known karate, they would have been fine. But I’m in no position to judge: during my experience with a homophobic attack, I failed – pretty fucking categorically – to respond with any bad-ass, John Wick-style violence. Instead, I curled up into a ball and burst into tears, which I’d argue was a valid response to getting kicked in the head by multiple people at once. I am no longer ashamed of this. The point is: if someone attacks you, that’s always their problem, it’s always on them. The way you react in a moment of extreme stress, whether you freeze or run or hit back, should never be a cause for shame. As Ronan says, “It’s very hard not to internalise it, but [if you get attacked] it’s nothing to do with you. They just scanned for a target. They probably didn’t think about you five minutes later, so it’s about getting to the point where you’re not thinking about them.”

Whatever you think about the benefits of learning self-defence, it’s unfair that the burden of self-protection should lie with us. It represents a failure of society that things have gotten to this point. The police are partly responsible, with many LGBTQ people either feeling uncomfortable reporting hate crime (81 per cent of hate crime victims fail to do so) or saying that they have been unfairly treated once they have. 

The media are also to blame. In light of the staggering increase in transphobic hate crime, it’s not hard to feel that every journalist who’s advocated against trans rights has blood on their hands. It’s appalling that they don’t see this, that they feel no shame. 

Whatever the cause, our suspicions that things have been getting worse have now been confirmed, and it makes sense to be prepared – in whatever form that takes. As for the question, should we all start learning self-defence? It’s probably a good idea. But let’s not lose sight of how depressing that is.

Learn more about Ishigaki on their official website.

Follow James Greig on Twitter.

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