The couple gazed into each other’s eyes, shared a passionate kiss and embraced tightly. But soon after, the hug turned into a chokehold, the eye contact became a warning, their hands transformed into weapons.
This couple were among over 30 members of the LGBTQ+ community who attended a self-defense class on a recent Saturday at a private gym in Clearwater. Andi Bunny, a woman of Ecuadorian heritage, and Ingrid Irwin, a transgender woman from Sarasota, learned techniques and physical skills to maintain a safe distance and defend against unprovoked attacks.
At a time when legislation across the U.S. is restricting transition care for transgender minors and adults while support for the LGBTQ+ community by companies like Anheuser-Busch and Target is fueling violent displays of consumer backlash, they refuse to feel afraid.
“This is for us,” said Bunny, 36. “It is a class that we needed,” said Irwin, 39.
The class was organized by the Found Family Collective, a local group that advocates for members of the LGBTQ+ community. The initiative was supported by Weapon Brand, a self-defense training business.
Among the participants was Ali Leal, from northern Manatee County. Leal, a home caregiver, had been considering taking a self-defense class for a long time. But due to Florida’s rise in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, Leal didn’t want to wait.
“I’ve been in many uncomfortable situations where I didn’t know what to do, and it’s terrible,” said Leal, 39. “It’s just not feeling all right about yourself.”
Having recently moved back to Florida from Ohio, Leal said she wants to be prepared for anything.
“Tensions are very high in the state, and now it is harder to choose love over fear,” Leal said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made anti-LGBTQ+ legislation a large part of his political style and presidential ambitions. He signed bills that target drag shows and restrict discussion of preferred pronouns in schools. He also banned gender-affirming care for minors and required that the use of bathrooms correspond to an individual’s sex assigned at birth, a measure that’s considered a direct attack against transgender people.
According to the Florida attorney general, 148 hate crimes were reported statewide from Jan. 1, 2021, through Dec. 31, 2021. The study shows that crimes motivated by the victim’s race and color represented 48% of all reported attacks, followed by sexual orientation at 24.5%.
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One of the founders of the Found Family Collective, activist Dorian Aylward, emphasized the importance of the self-defense class. Aylward believes the timing calls for it because DeSantis makes it difficult for residents to “just exist.”
“It’s scary and frustrating,” said Aylward, 38.
Bunny and Irwin echoed similar thoughts.
Bunny said that she had never felt more worried than now.
“He (DeSantis) is hitting us in every different direction,” Bunny said.
Being part of the LGBTQ+ community in Florida is a challenge because their members are exposed to constant pressures and threats, even from some places of worship, Bunny said.
She remembered one time struggling with how to buy food for herself. She turned to a local church and its charity program for help. Then, she was verbally abused by the pastor and his parishioners.
“They started preaching against gays and lesbians, accusing us of infiltrating their church,” Bunny said. “They became so passionate during the speech that I left because I was scared for my life.”
Bunny said she wants to gain some knowledge and tools to navigate hatred and stay safe. She said a self-defense class will give her the ability to make quick and effective decisions in case of an attack.
Irwin, an aviation mechanic in Sarasota, also shares the same goal. Irwin said she works in an environment where the “macho men” culture gains an unusual boost due to unfair beliefs.
“It’s definitely harsh, but I must do everything I can to overcome it.”
For more information about the next LGBTQ+ self-defense class, visit the Found Family Collective Facebook page.