Transgender personal safety

Trans and genderqueer people face potential violence because of intolerance, but you can take a few simple steps to increase your personal safety.

For trans women, we also must deal with the safety issues all young women face. Because we have not had as many years of socialization as women compared to others our age, especially when just starting out, it’s easy to forget that women and girls in their teens and twenties are the most common targets of many violent crimes. Being a young woman can have a very different social dynamic than being a young man. You might still feel like you, but some people will perceive you and act toward you in a very different way.

Many young trans women tend to take more risks than non-trans women their age, like walking or taking the train alone, or taking drugs. However, the highest risks we take can be when dating, especially if our date doesn’t know our status. A good friend of mine once called me from a restaurant and said triumphantly, “I’m on a date with someone who would beat the shit out of me if he knew!” While this may seem like some sort of ultimate validation, it’s an excellent way to find yourself in an extremely dangerous situation.

Many young women, especially in large cities, don’t have cars and have to walk or take public transportation a lot. If it gets past a certain time of night, you might consider a cab, rideshare, or a ride from someone you know before heading out on foot. Even a bicycle is a better option than walking. I have been walking alone in relatively safe places like midtown Manhattan or Chicago’s loop and been approached by men in very aggressive ways.

Being out on the street at night is especially dangerous, even more so if you’re alone. For women like us, groups of young men are often the most dangerous types of street encounters. They can sometimes get a pack mentality, especially if they believe your are transgender. If you’re going out, there are certain types of bars and party situations where you need to be even more careful, and they usually involve young men (and probably alcohol and maybe drugs).

Most of this is common sense, but I think it’s worth reviewing.


The most dangerous myth

There’s a false notion that most violence against women is done by a stranger jumping out of the bushes. The truth is this:

You are far more likely to be assaulted or killed by a date, coworker, or a friend than by a stranger.

Being safe while out and about is important, but don’t get fooled into thinking that familiar situations with acquaintances are safe.


Self-defense

Most people think of kicks to the groin and blocking punches when they hear the term self-defense. However, true self-defense begins long before any actual physical contact. The first, and probably most important, component in self-defense is awareness: awareness of yourself, your surroundings, and your potential attacker’s likely strategies. The criminal’s primary strategy is to use the advantage of surprise. Studies have shown that criminals are adept at choosing targets who appear to be unaware of what is going on around them. By being aware of your surroundings and by projecting a “force presence,” many altercations which are commonplace on the street can be avoided.

Stay alert

  • Stay alert at all times and tuned in to your surroundings, wherever you are. Awareness is your best self-defense; know what is happening around you. Be especially careful if you are alone or drunk or high. Watch where you are going and what is going on around you. The same principles of defensive driving should be used when walking or going about your daily activities: Look for potential problems, and be prepared to react to them. The wearing of headphones or looking at your phone while on foot or on public transportation can reduce your level of alertness.

Trust your instincts

  • If you feel uncomfortable in a place or situation, leave right away and get help if necessary. If you think something is wrong, remove yourself from the situation. Trust your gut — if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

Familiarize yourself with the area

  • Get to know the neighborhoods and neighbors where you live and work. Find out what stores and restaurants are open late and where police and fire stations are located. Plan your route in advance, and vary your routes whenever possible. Evaluate and be aware of your surroundings. Use well-lit, busy streets. Keep a safe distance between you and others, and always have an out (somewhere you can turn to run if you feel threatened.) Walk with friends or a group. When you are out late at night, have a friend accompany you – don’t go alone. Let someone know where you will be going and when you will return.  Avoid shortcuts, dark alleys, deserted streets, parks, and wooded areas.  If you feel uneasy, trust your instincts and go directly to a place where there are other people. Walk on the part of the sidewalk close to the street and away from shrubbery, trees, or doorways. On less busy streets at night, it is sometimes safer to walk in the street rather than on the sidewalk.

Project confidence

  • Walk as if you know where you’re going. Stand tall. Walk in a confident manner, and hold your head up. Keep your hands free or hold a defensive device. Stand tall and walk confidently. Don’t make it obvious if you are in unfamiliar territory.

Handbags and accessories

  • A good purse is one with a flap that folds over the opening and fastens at the bottom, and often has an interior zipper. The easiest purse for you to open is also the easiest for a pickpocket to steal from. Flaps should be secured and turned toward the body at all times. Backpacks are very easy to steal from, since it’s less likely you’ll feel someone reaching into it.
  • A reader writes with advice on how to wear your purse: Under a garment is fine, but be careful of wearing it diagonally across your shoulders like that. I’ve taken a couple defense classes designed for women, and it was demonstrated quite effectively to us that modern purses are NOT fragile. The strap is often very strong. A man grabbing that strap and pulling on it will take your whole body with him, and it’s very very easy to get hurt that way. Better to let him have the purse than end up in the hospital with a broken ankle.
  • Wallets should be carried in an inside coat pocket and cash in a front pants pocket. A rubber band tied several times around a wallet can increase friction and make it easier for you to notice if you are being pickpocketed. Avoid wearing excessive jewelry. In particular, keep necklaces and bracelets inside your clothing.
  • Don’t carry large sums of cash. If you do carry cash, do not display it in public. If possible, carry only identification, phone numbers, and the credit cards you will need. Keep a list at home of credit cards and other important material you would need to replace in case of loss. Separate your house keys from your car keys. Women should keep their keys in places other than their purses. That way, if your purse is snatched, you will still have your keys. Keep names and phone numbers of relatives or friends on your person, in the event of an accident or emergency.

Elevators and entryways

  • Attacks often happen when you have your keys out: when you’re closing up at work, in the vestibule of your building, at your front or back door, at your laundry room, at your car, or in elevators. Be especially aware as you enter or leave a building or car.
  • Before entering an elevator, look at the persons already in the car. If you are uneasy, wait for the next elevator. If a suspicious person enters an elevator and you are uneasy, then get off right away. If you notice a person in an elevator has not pushed a floor indicator button, do not get off at your floor. Go back to the lobby and report the suspicious activity. Stand near the control buttons. If threatened or attacked, sound the alarm and push several floor buttons if possible.

Cars

  • Always park your car in a busy, well lit area. In multistory car parks, try to park as near to the pay kiosk as possible. It is best to park in attended lots. If you must leave a key with the attendant, leave only the ignition key. In all other cases, lock your car. When going to your car, have your keys in your hand. Also, holding them so that the sharp part of the key protrudes through your fingers gives you a weapon. Always check your car before getting in – to make sure that no one is hiding inside. Have your house keys in your hand before you get out of the car, and vice versa. Do not leave ANY packages or personal items in open view in the car. Place them in the trunk. If you are in danger of being harmed or robbed, while in your car, start sounding your horn until assistance arrives. If you feel you are being followed, drive to the nearest police or fire station, or open filling station.

Public transportation

  • While waiting for a bus, train, etc., stand near others who are also waiting. Upon arriving at your stop, be aware of those who get off with you. If you feel you are being followed, go to the nearest occupied building and ask for assistance. After dark, attempt to get off the bus in well-lighted areas. Use only well-lighted streets to reach your final destination.

Defensive items

Noisemaking device (recommended)

  • Consider carrying a whistle or other noisemaker, and sound it loudly if you are accosted or feel threatened. I think those metal whistles that double as keychains are a good idea. If you’re in an area where you feel uncomfortable, have your whistle in your hand and ready. Hold your keys when going to and from your car, home and business. This will save time and give you some security in having protection.
  • A reader wrote suggesting carrying a rape alarm (also called a personal alarm): “The two I’ve got make the most godawful noise imaginable. A nice alternative to a whistle.”
  • There are pros and cons to these. They are loud (like 130 dB or so), which might scare an attacker off before they get to you, but they probably won’t be as effective at summoning help in some circumstances. Some come with a bright flashing strobe, which can also disorient an attacker long enough to get away.
  • One advantage over a whistle is that these are hand-operated and don’t require you to blow in them. You can use them while running more easily, and you can be yelling something at the attacker or to others while they’re going off.
  • Other slight disadvantages are that they are sometimes a little on the bulky side, and they’re battery-operated, so you need to check the power regularly. Another reader noted the ones with electronic sounds can sound like car alarms and might get ignored by bystanders.
  • There are also aerosol-based products that are like the little air horns you hear at sports events, but with a whistle sound. The problem with these is they only hold a dozen or so short blasts, where the electronic devices emit a sound as long as the battery holds out.
  • Some women can only scream loudly in their “boy voices,” and some are reluctant to do so, even in a potentially dangerous situation. A noisemaking device can be a real boost to the decibel level you can generate.
  • A lot of larger hardware stores carry this stuff, but you might need to order them online. Here’s an option:
  • https://amzn.to/2G2fezx
  • https://amzn.to/2Z95BIe

Pepper spray, tasers, and other incapacitating devices (less recommended)

  • Any device you carry for protection may be used AGAINST you. Select such security devices carefully. Pepper spray, tasers, etc. are somewhat controversial for this reason. Surprisingly, 15-20% of people will not be incapacitated even by a full-face spray. Also, if you’re carrying it in your purse, you will only waste time and alert the attacker to your intentions while you fumble for it.
  • Never depend on any self-defense tool or weapon to stop an attacker. Trust your body and your wits, which you can always depend on in the event of an attack. A whistle will often scare someone off before an encounter even happens. Don’t just have it in your purse if you’re in a potentially unsafe situation. Have it out in your hand. If you feel threatened, blow your whistle, bang garbage cans, honk your horn, or shout “fire!” to attract attention. 

Knives, guns, and other deadly weapons (not recommended)

I feel there are many pragmatic reasons not to own or carry a gun:

  • 1. Many gun owners are incapable of using their guns in a combat situation with sufficient expertise, either to prevent an armed criminal from taking innocent lives, or to be sure of not hitting bystanders with their own stray bullets. Just buying a gun will not protect you. You will need to pay for extensive training if you want to use it effectively.
  • 2. Most homicides involving guns occur between victims who knew each other. Having guns around greatly increases the chances you or someone you know will be hurt or killed by one, compared to households without guns.
  • 3. Suicides are the majority of gun deaths every year. Given the high suicide rate in our community, it’s a bad idea for many of us to own guns.
  • 4. According to 2015 FBI data, there were only 265 justifiable homicides by private US citizens using a firearm. For each of those, guns were used in 34 criminal homicides. Source:http://vpc.org/studies/justifiable18.pdf
  • Then, of course, there’s the moral issue of participating in the culture and economy of gun violence… But we’ll not go into that complicated matter.
  • A reader writes: If your plans or thoughts about safety or self-defense include any sort of weapon, please consider training both to help you work through the question of whether this is right for you and, if it is, to give you basic skills in the safe use of it and an understanding of legal issues surrounding the use of force. Certainly, for firearms, there are any number of NRA-affiliated local gun clubs where volunteer instructors donate their time for inexpensive classes in gun safety and defensive use of firearms. But you can also turn to some women’s organizations for help… You can also ask your local police for the names of instructors or organizations in your area.

Below are some resources for those who want additional information (both pro and con):

National Rifle Association of America – NRA (nra.org)

  • The NRA is recognized nationally as the gold standard for safe firearm training, developing millions of safe, ethical, responsible shooters and instructors. 

Violence Policy Center (vpc.org)

Brady United Against Gun Violence (bradyunited.org)


Other self-defense options

Some women have found that taking self-defense courses makes them feel more confident and less afraid. That alone can help make you appear to be a less desirable target of a criminal. Check out the sites below for additional information:

American Women’s Self Defense Association (awsda.org)

  • AWSDA provides training programs to self-defense instructors, as well as services for women to increase their knowledge of self-defense techniques and rape prevention.

IMPACT Self Defense (impactselfdefense.org)

International Self Defense Organization (isdo-world.com)

  • ISDO was created to unite all the martial arts and fighting sports that promote Self Defense.

If you feel threatened…

  • By someone else on foot: Turn around to let the person know you’ve seen them. Try to get a description: height, weight, clothes, age, ethnicity, hair color and style, anything else distinguishable. Cross the street, change direction, run to a place where there are other people, or walk closer to traffic. Step out in the street on the other side of parked cars. Be alert when someone moves into your space, that three foot radius around you.
  • By someone in a car: Get the license plate number and a description of the car and driver, if possible.

If you are attacked

  • If you are suddenly confronted by a predator who demands that you go with him–be it in a car, or into an alley, or a building, it would seem prudent to obey, but you must never leave the primary crime scene. You are far more likely to be killed or seriously injured if you go with the predator than if you run away (even if he promises not to hurt you). Run away, yell for help, throw a rock through a store or car window–do whatever you can to attract attention. And if the criminal is after your purse or other material items, throw them one way while you run the other.
  • Get them “off their script.” Most attackers have an idea in their head of how their crime is going to go. If you do something unpredictable, the surprise can throw them off. Throw your bag at or past them and run the opposite direction.
  • The following works well for getting both strangers and acquaintances off their scripts:
  • If he’s attempting a sexual assault and has you pinned, pretend to have a seizure or pee your pants. This might freak them out and throw them off their script. Many sexual assult perpetrators expect you to scream and beg. Some suggest using that time of negotiation to get them to think about what they are doing by asking them pointed questions: what happened today that made you decide to do this? Try to get them to think of you in the same way they think of someone they love, like their sister, etc. Getting them to see you as a person instead of a generic victim might get them to stop or to be less violent.

Final note

Never worry or feel embarrassed about your behavior if you feel threatened.

  • Get out of an elevator if it doesn’t feel right, even if it seems silly or rude. Run away yelling, even if it seems embarrassing. Slip out the back way while on a date. Your safety is much more important than someone’s opinion of you. If you get a bad vibe in any situation, do whatever you need to in order to protect yourself.
  • Most people are basically good, and physical attacks are fairly rare. Don’t let fear of an attack rule your life. Go out. Have fun. You’ve earned it after all you’ve been through. Just make sure you stay safe. The vast majority of attacks can be avoided by taking a few simple precautions.
  • So have fun, but be careful, OK?

Sources: Andrea Brown at TransAlba Transsexual Support, LAMBDA, the Chicago Police Department and QRD Anti-Violence Project