By Jeff Edwards
Pictured: Kate Webster, co-teacher of the LGBTQ safety workshop at Thousand Waves, outlines the Five Fingers of Self-Defense. Photo courtesy of Jeff Edwards
An experience I had as a regular CTA rider a number of years ago sticks with me to this day. Every day one summer I had been confronted on the train by government-sponsored ads telling me that 'Your partner's secrets could affect your future.' They actually weren't addressed to me ( white and male ) , but to African-American women who have sex with men: In the foreground was a photo of an African-American woman, and in the background was a smaller, lower resolution photo of two African-American men, whom we were to suppose were sexually involved with each other, one of whom we were to suppose was also sexually involved with the featured woman. At the bottom of the ad: 'AIDS cases among Chicago women have tripled in the last decade.'
Now, one might have said it was good that, 20 some years into the epidemic, a government agency was finally mounting a major AIDS outreach campaign to African-American women through CTA advertising. And one might have said it was good that the CTA had accepted such advertising, 10 years after refusing to run outreach ads designed by African-American community-based AIDS activists on the grounds that their ads were 'indecent.' Except that the government campaign ignored every established principle of successful HIV prevention. How was anyone's self-esteem and confidence being strengthened? How was increased communication between people being promoted? How was community being built? How was sexuality ( including that of sexual minorities ) affirmed? What were women supposed to do with this 'information'?
It seemed to me that the government's campaign was only stereotyping ( bisexuals and gays as 'secretive' and 'dishonest' ) and scapegoating ( bisexuals covertly 'spreading AIDS' ) . It seemed to me that it only invited and justified fear and hatred of men who have sex with men, especially those of African descent. As a gay man who had been active in the early AIDS movement aimed at giving people life-affirming and life-saving information, it made me angry that I had to endure these posters every day.
One day I walked onto a train car and noticed that someone had reached up to one of those posters and crossed out 'Your partner's secrets' and replaced it with 'FAGS,' so that the poster read, 'FAGS could affect your future.' I suddenly felt threatened: What did it mean for someone to do this? What did it mean that someone could have done this in full view of other passengers? What did it mean that no one had removed this, that no one seemed the least bit affected by it? Was it safe for me to do anything about it right then, or even to allow others to see I was upset?
These memories to me speak to some of the ways LGBTQ people experience violence in the U.S. There is the violence of the closet, which at the least is a kind of emotional violence, but that can disable and even kill when complicated by HIV and racism. ( Where is the AIDS outreach to black men who have sex with men, when this is exactly the group most at risk? ) There is the stereotyping which marks us out for others to fear or hate. There is the violence of being called names intended to intimidate and dehumanize. And of course all of this can and does cause physical violence against us, and just knowing that—that 'queerbashing' is always present as a possibility—is another form of violence itself.
At the same time, though, there is a decades-long history of effective LGBTQ anti-violence organizing. This is at the heart of why we celebrate Pride Day each year in June—we are commemorating the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, when Stonewall Inn patrons resisted the then-common practice of the police beating up and arresting people just because they presented themselves as homosexuals or transgendered in public.
On June 14, Thousand Waves Martial Arts & Self-Defense Center ( TW ) is offering a three-hour self-defense workshop for LGBTQ people to celebrate Pride Month. When I enrolled in my first workshop at TW, I assumed that the focus would be entirely on physical fighting techniques. We did practice a number of basic physical techniques that can be learned easily by most people. But that was actually a small part of the curriculum, which was more about awareness, communication skills, and body positioning. And it wasn't just about 'stranger danger,' but about issues with intimates and acquaintances as well.
Perhaps, the most valuable thing I got out of my first TW workshop was that those of us who are aware of the reality and threats of violence in our society need to find allies, we need to share our knowledge and skills, and we need to work towards transforming the larger culture. My anger at seeing those homophobic, biphobic, and racist AIDS posters on the CTA was about a sense of powerlessness in the face of things that seemed too big for me as an individual to handle—the government, the CTA, the sorts of people who talk about 'fags,' fear of getting bashed. Joining with others to share information and skills, and to strategize for intervening in multiple ways in our society, has been incredibly empowering for me. And I am proud to be part of a tradition, going back at least 39 years to the Stonewall rebellion, of LGBTQ cultural transformation. Please join me, and my co-teacher Kate Webster, to get an introduction to all of this, or to get a 'refresher,' and to celebrate LGBTQ Pride.
This Pride month workshop will be held Sat., June 14, 1-4 p.m. at Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self-Defense Center, 1220 W. Belmont. There is a $30 fee, with scholarship assistance available to enable everyone to participate. Class size is limited. Please call 773-472-7663 for more information and to reserve your space.
Jeff Edwards is a violence prevention instructor at Thousand Waves.