Some LGBTQ Floridians are taking self-defense lessons amid a hostile political climate
A series of free classes are underway in the Tampa Bay region to teach members of the LGBTQ+ community self-defense skills.
It comes as Florida implements new laws that target their rights, and as the Department of Homeland Security warns threats of violence have increased against the LGBTQ+ community nationally.
Found Family Collective, an LGBTQ+ support group, organizes the events while the self-defense company Weapon Brand provides the training. An introductory class was held in St. Petersburg in March while a second class took place on a recent Saturday at CrossFit ABF in Clearwater.
About 30 participants stood in pairs around the gym as instructor Brian Anderson-Needham guided them through self-defense techniques. They would take turns, with one pretending to be an aggressor attempting to grab or strike their teammate while the other practiced maneuvers to break free and defend themselves.
Courses like these are helpful given the current political climate, said Cet Mohamed-Moore, co-founder of Found Family Collective. Some state officials are “sowing division and creating discord and making everything an ‘us vs. them’ situation,” she said, which could embolden those seeking to harm the LGBTQ+ community.
“It's disheartening, but also, seeing that we can continue coming together do things that resonate with people and actually help them improve themselves is very heartening,” said Mohamed-Moore.
A new law that, come July, will prevent transgender people from using many restrooms that match their identity drove Noah Lovell of Lakeland to take the class. As a trans and nonbinary person who uses a wheelchair, Lovell is worried safety in bathrooms could become an issue. The class boosted his confidence.
“I definitely learned how to protect myself from chokes, from being abducted and things like that, and how to use my wheelchair — not as a disadvantage, but as an advantage,” said Lovell.
The lesson offered a sense of security to other attendees as well, like Andi, who asked to go only by her first name for fear of retaliation.
“I’m getting more in touch with my community knowing that we can watch out for each other, but it is getting really scary, just even going outside looking visibly queer or anything is just terrifying,” Andi said.
The Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin on terrorism this week that said individuals or events associated with the LGBTQIA+ community are “likely targets of potential violence” in the coming months from domestic extremists.
Nearly 200 anti-LGBTQ+ incidents were reported to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) for 2022, triple the number reported in 2021.
Data on hate crimes is incomplete in Florida, but of the 148 the state attorney general’s office reported in 2021, just under 25 percent were motivated by the victim's sexual orientation.
Participants at the training say they hope to never have to use the skills they learned in the class. But Andi’s partner Ingrid, who also asked to go only by her first name, said she doesn’t want to wait for something to happen to prepare herself.
“A lot of my friends are looking for escape routes, you know, to move somewhere,” said Ingrid, who is transgender and is concerned about maintaining her health care due to a new law that restricts access to hormones and other gender-affirming treatments in the state. “Unfortunately for me it’s much harder. I have a child here that I need to take care of and they are queer too so, you know, getting back into community and trying to support each other is important right now more than ever.”
Organizers were intentional about creating an inclusive environment. Before attendees even walked through the door, there was a sign stating “Hate has no home here,” in rainbow lettering. At the start of the session, group leaders set ground rules: everyone was to respect one another’s identities, speak up if they felt uncomfortable, and encourage one another regardless of skill level.
That meant a lot to Lovell’s partner Zoe, who is queer and neurodivergent. Zoe is a teacher in the region and says new education laws aim to silence queer staff. Bonding with fellow LGBTQ+ residents in a safe place made for a positive learning experience.
“Finding queer spaces within the last six months has been so amazing, and so for anyone who doesn't feel like they have community, like, we are out here and we love you and we want you to come out and just be yourself,” Zoe said.
The group plans to host additional classes on ride-share safety in July and active shooter scenarios this fall. Donations are encouraged but not required.