Safety

Part of my ongoing series of articles for young women in our community.

Trans women face potential violence not only as young women, but also as transgender women. 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 young women in their teens and twenties are the most common targets of many violent crimes. Being a young woman is a very different dynamic than being a young man. You might still feel like you, but others will perceive you and act toward you in a very different way.

Violence and harassment against the lesbigay and transgender community is real. Although violence is actually somewhat rare, it's important to remember that about one transwoman a month gets killed in the US, and many more are seriously injured. Even something as seemingly small as verbal harassment can be pretty terrifying under certain conditions. I myself had a couple of touch-and-go moments before I was passing well, but it's possible to reduce your risk by avoiding common problems.

I have met many young women who 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 that you pass, 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 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 you are clocked. It's very important to be careful when walking alone, especially at night or in unfamiliar areas. 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).

Most of this is common sense, but I think it's worth reviewing. Learn to recognize potential problems and warning signs in your daily routine. Not every attack can be prevented.  There are things you can do reduce your risk, though. 

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. 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 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. Don't assume a false sense of security because you are either surrounded by people or in a remote area.  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 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 and keep them chest high in crowds. 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.

Carry a defensive item

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 one place: http://www.securityplanet.com/alarms-pa.htm

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. I remember Dana Rivers on Oprah proclaiming with seemingly perverse pride that she knows what her revolver tastes like. Given the suicidal tendencies among some in the community, it seems like an extremely bad idea for many of us to own guns.

4. According to a 1998 FBI report, there were only 95 justifiable handgun killings in the U.S. that year, where people defending themselves encountered an assailant previously unknown to them. Out of 280 million people. More people are struck by lightning each year than use handguns for a justifiable homicide against a stranger.

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.

Since I wrote this, I have received several letters like the one above advocating the use of guns. Most describe some sort of action-movie fantasy in which an assailant or rapist is justifiably murdered during an attack. As I have noted, these sorts of events are extremely rare. While I believe these readers are certainly sincere in their desire to help others, I still believe the risks of owning and carrying a gun outweigh the potential benefits. Below are some resources for those who want additional information (both pro and con):

Women's Firearms Network articles (gun advocates)

NRA Women's Programs (gun advocates)

A Deadly Myth: Women, Handguns, and Self-Defense (gun violence prevention)

Brady Campaign: Women and Guns (gun violence prevention)

Other forms of self-defense

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)

Jennifer Carson's Women's Self-Defense page

Regina P. Garson's Self Defense page

One especially enthusiastic late transitioner sent along the following PDF tracts for those extremely interested in self-defense: Kill or get killed, Shooting to live, Knife fighting, Hand to hand, and a Security Handbook for Activists.

Those interested in the legal issues might want to read these articles suggested by a reader on justifiable homicide, self-defense, and fighting and self-defense.

I would just add that being cautious is important, but don't live in fear or be obsessed about these matters. Do what you need to do in order to be safe and to feel safe. A life lived in fear is a life half lived.

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, if possible. 

If you are attacked

What if the unthinkable happens?

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.

Dating

Going out on dates can be really fun and exciting, especially once you can start dating as the real you. However, don't let the initial thrill cloud your judgment.

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

The Queer Resources Directory has a great list of dating tips:

Find out who your date is.

Ask for your date's first and last name, where they work and live, and what they like and don't like.

Ask around to see if anyone knows the person.

Introduce your date to others (e.g., your friends, the bartender.)

Tell a friend where you're going, or call your own answering machine as if you were calling a friend.

Make sure your date knows you spread the word about them.

Choose public places, such as malls or restaurants, for first meetings. Leave your date’s name and telephone number with that person. Never arrange for your date to pick you up at home. Provide your own transportation, meet in a public place at a time when many people are present, and when the date is over, leave on your own as well. A familiar restaurant or coffee shop, at a time when a lot of other people will be present is often a fine choice. Avoid hikes, bike rides or drives in remote areas for the first few dates. If you decide to move to another location, take your own car. When the timing is appropriate, thank your date for getting together and say goodbye.

Protect your valuables. Don't carry extra cash.

If you bring someone home, don't leave your wallet, cash, or valuables in sight. Your possessions -- and the person you brought home -- could all be gone while you're in the shower or asleep.

Watch for red flags. Pay attention to any displays of anger, intense frustration or attempts at pressuring or controlling you. Acting in a passive-aggressive manner, making demeaning or disrespectful comments or any physically inappropriate behavior are all red flags. You should also be concerned if your date exhibits any of the following conduct without providing an acceptable explanation:

Provides inconsistent information about age, interests, appearance, marital status, profession, employment, etc.

Fails to provide direct answers to direct questions.

Never introduces you to friends, professional associates or family members. This is an especially big problem with tranny-chasers. Not only is it insulting and degrading, but it's a sign that they are not secure with their own sexual identity. This might prove to be a serious problem at a later point, whether it's heartbreak, or even a dangerous situation where they take their self-hatred out on you.

If you decide to bring someone home, introduce her or him to a friend, acquaintance or bartender so that someone knows who you left with.

Never do anything you feel unsure about. If you are in any way afraid of your date, use your best judgment to defuse the situation and get out of there. Excuse yourself long enough to call a friend for advice, ask someone else on the scene for help, or slip out the back door and drive or run away. If you feel you are in danger call the police. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

I highly recommend reading Jennifer Reitz' excellent dating guide: http://transsexual.org/dating1.html Although she recommends divulging up front, personally, I have gone out with people and did not tell them my trans status. This is a personal decision that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

A note on transfans

I went out with my share of tranny-chasers when I first went full-time. Most of them were very nice (and some were extraordinarily hot), although several of them had pretty serious hang-ups about their own feelings. They seemed to be pretty uncomfortable with the fact that they liked transsexuals. A couple of them seemed to pin their own self-loathing on me. Their reactions ranged from

Drugs and alcohol

A lot of younger women, especially in the club scene or in college, are going to encounter drugs and alcohol. I've personally made a number of bad decisions when drunk or high, from sex partners to other unsafe activities like going someplace with complete strangers.

Alcohol is by far the most common problem. I like to drink, but it's important to stay in control, or at the very least, stay with someone who is in control (i.e., not drinking or taking drugs).

Get/mix your own drinks: There may be a reason a person insists on getting or mixing you a drink. Getting you drunk or giving you "knockout drops" is an easy way to cloud your judgment.

The date rape pill has been discussed a lot on television and in magazine articles. Personally, I think the scare is a little overhyped, since alcohol, ecstasy, and depressants are the most likely to impair your judgment. The following safety habits can protect you from a bad experience:When going out, if you have a friend you trust with you, you are safer. Watch out for your friends and make sure they are watching out for you when you are places with lots of people or people you don't know and trust like at a party or in a coffeehouse or in a bar. Be aware. Now that you know about the date rape pill, it is your responsibility to watch out for yourself and people you care about. Don't go home with someone you don't both know and trust and don't accept drinks when you are alone at a house where there are strangers (like at a party). Watch when someone pours you a drink. Better yet, get your own drink. Make an agreement ahead of time with friends that you won't let each other leave with people you haven't planned to go with. Don't leave your drink or food unattended at a party or coffeehouse or lounge or anywhere else that people you don't know and trust could have access to it.

If you are going to use drugs and/or alcohol, try do do it with a group of friends, and try to have one who is going to take it easy that night and watch out for everyone else. Make sure your friends don't let you go off by yourself with someone you don't know well.

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?

See also my pages on sex work safety and on internet safety and stealth.

Sources: Andrea Brown at TransAlba Transsexual Support, LAMBDA, the Chicago Police Department and Queer Resources Directory