Raw Power founder Meredith Gold photographed by Emily Monforte

Fighting Fire With Fire

As the LGBTQ+ community faces more violence and reactionary politics become mainstream, many queer people are taking self defense training courses to learn how to defend themselves against hate.

You’d miss the entrance to Fortune Gym on Melrose Avenue if you didn’t know what you were looking for. The small sign over the even smaller entrance way gives way to steep stairs, with kind employees at the top ready to usher lost patrons in the right direction amidst panting boxers and enthusiastic trainers. 

Taiwanese LA-based musician Polartropica ascends these steps every few days to meet their own trainer, Kai, to practice self defense. They bring their trademark style — brightly colored clothing and thick winged eyeliner, showcased on their Instagram to over eleven thousand followers — into the gym with them. Their introduction to the boxing gym was somewhat accidental. A former girlfriend of theirs trained at the gym, and they were given the option to train herself or wait at the local Starbucks until the session ended, but their drive to learn how to defend themselves endures as they continue attending sessions. 

Polartropica uses she/they pronouns, but for the purposes of this article they will be referred to using they/them pronouns.

“I just felt like it’s an addiction because you just feel so different after you do self defense like that,” Polartropica said animatedly outside a smoothie bar across from Fortune Gym. “I just never felt strong. You just carry yourself differently.”

Polartropica realized how importance self defense is, especially for queer and femme-presenting people, when they began training. As a musician, they have plenty of moments when they’re especially vulnerable, like loading gear into a car in a dark parking lot after a late-night gig, where their newfound skills may come in handy.

“I just think it’s so empowering just to have some basic [self-defense] skills and feel strong and be able to carry yourself with a little bit of confidence in any situation because that’s a big deal too, right? Because if you’re scared, if you’re unsure, people can sense that,” Polartropica said. 

“It makes you feel a little more confident going around day by day, especially in Los Angeles.”

Polartropica started taking classes during the protests of 2020, saying the violence they witnessed police unleash on protesters was particularly jarring, in addition to AAPI hate crimes and constant violence against trans women. Going out with their friends as a queer person, Polartropica said safety is always at the top of their mind, especially with how much attention their femme trans friends receive, good or bad.

“So I just think it’s so important as a queer person, LGBTQ, or a person of color like or anybody else to just be aware of your surroundings and be aware that it’s not always safe,” Polartropica stressed. 

“When things happen we’ve seen these in videos like a lot of bypassers don’t know what to do, literally, like someone could be yelling racial slurs at you and threatening your safety and people just walk by like nothing’s happening cause they’re scared or they’re like, ‘This is not my problem.’”

Growing up, Polartropica tended to be very passive, so giving themselves permission to stand up for and prioritize their safety over politeness was vital to their training. They compared this empowerment to a mother bear growling when someone got too close to her cubs.

“I think also just knowing that it’s okay to do that, especially femmes and queers, like if you’re uncomfortable, it’s okay to speak up and it’s okay to stand up for yourself,” Polartropica said. “And don’t let anyone gaslight you into thinking that you’re bitchy.”

Meredith Gold by Emily Monforte

Meredith Gold, Black Belt Hall of Fame member and founder of RAW Power Self Defense, learned the importance of standing up for herself early on. An unknown man yelled “nice titties” at then-15-year-old Gold, Gold shared matter-of-factly, before accosting her on the sidewalk in her Beverly Hills neighborhood one Sunday afternoon. 

Startled, she ran away down the street towards his awaiting car. He quickly grabbed her around the waist before shoving her into the car, intent on driving away with her. Gold made it difficult by writhing and screaming before ultimately escaping.

Though the police arrived shortly after Gold returned home, the results were disappointing. 

“They literally just said, ‘Are you okay? Okay, well, we’ll probably never catch him, but you’re fine.’ And my parents, you know, through no fault of their own, they were just so relieved that I was okay, that we just never discussed it ever again,” Gold relayed. 

“And it developed into PTSD for me, so I really never felt safe when I was alone and I just learned to not be alone. I just became really adept at making sure I was around people as much as possible.”

Gold learned that this tactic wouldn’t work forever in her 20s, when she moved into her own apartment, and soon found IMPACT self-defense classes centering realistic scenarios and full force contact training. The result was transformative. 

“It really just gave me answers to so many questions. It gave me a sense of empowerment and possibility. [It helped] me understand that I didn’t make a mistake. It wasn’t my fault — what had happened.”

Gold found her passion and dove head-first into teaching classes of her own at IMPACT. After leaving the organization, she developed her own self-defense business, RAW Power, in 2000 and teaches classes in Los Angeles to this day.

Using ASST, Adrenal Stress Scenario Training, RAW Power strives to recreate realistic situations in which students will use their self-defense techniques. In addition to learning physical and verbal strategies, students practice with full force against padded instructors who yell and approach them aggressively, within the safety of the space. 

The legend behind ASST, Gold shared, can be traced back to a young woman practicing karate in the 1970s. Though she trained for years, she was assaulted, and told her instructor how her training had failed her at that moment. The realization that the system had failed to prepare her for the overwhelming stress assailants inflict on their victims reportedly launched ASST and its newfound focus on realism. While this training was designed to combat how women are often approached and attacked, Gold said that it can be catered to protect any targeted population, including the LGBTQIA+ community.

“You know, it’s just obscene that people are targeted that way,” Gold said. 

“So this kind of self-defense seems like a perfect fit for literally any community that is targeted merely because of their mere existence is perceived as some sort of offense or threats or whatever the bullshit excuse is that the assailants have.”

The LGBTQIA+ community does in fact face disproportionate violence, with Black and brown queer people at an even higher risk. Twenty-two trans people have been violently killed or shot in 2022 alone according to the Human Rights Campaign; a record-breaking 50 fatal incidents occurred in 2021. In both years, Black and Latinx trans women made up the majority of the victims. Legislation across the U.S. specifically targeting queer people has grown exponentially, with over 313 anti-LGBTQ bills proposed so far this year according to the HRC, compared to 290 introduced  passed in 2021, then a record-breaking number. This year’s campaign against the community, largely orchestrated by Republican-held state legislatures, follows that of 2021, a year the HRC called the “worst year in recent history for LGBTQ state legislative attacks.” 

Recently, RAW Power has worked with AIDS Project Los Angeles Health and Alliance for Housing and Healing, providing self defense courses for the LGBTQ+ community, specifically trans individuals. For Gold, sharing these vital skills to those served by the APLA has been especially gratifying.

It’s extraordinarily important because so many trans folks just don’t blend in. [Living in their truth is] such an amazing, beautiful, brave thing to do,” Gold said in admiration. “But by walking down the street, not blending in, they’re even more vulnerable to people who are looking for a mark and looking to vilify a population.”

Conversations with Gold and other instructors made it seem like standing up for yourself can be as simple as saying no or otherwise verbally confronting the assailant. The forceful, and oftentimes unexpected, physical or verbal response by the potential victim interrupts the attackers pattern of success and makes the assault more difficult and less likely. 

“This needs to be everywhere because guess what? If these fuckers that decide to pick on a trans woman got their blocks knocked off because you know what, she can fucking fight, they’ll think twice,” Gold said.

Gold understood what she was teaching her queer students was vital, but often doubted her validity as an instructor early on. Gold was afraid that in the same way men try to teach women in self-defense classes without necessarily experiencing the same situations, that her queer students wouldn’t be able to relate to her as a straight cis woman.   

“The [men] want to [teach self-defense], but they’re unrelatable to the student. When they demonstrate something, a lot of times the female participants will go, ‘Well, of course you can do it, but can I?’” Gold said. “And so in that same thought process, I thought, ‘Am I the person to be teaching these classes?’”

Martin Vitorino by Emily Monforte

Gold planned to share her story and express her allyship, but worried that she’d still fall short as an effective teacher since she wasn’t part of the community. One of her instructors, Martin Vitorino, a trans man, helped ease her doubt.

“Martin said, ‘Don’t sell yourself short.’ I think it’s really possible that if you come in with a great deal of openness and just really make sure that everyone understands that you’re not saying you know their experience,” Gold said.What I can say is I know this training and I know we can adapt it for [their] needs.”

Vitorino began like Gold had, as a student. After taking Gold’s class four years ago, Vitorino’s life was “transformed” and, as an active member of the community, he saw the good they could do for other trans people. Vitorino shared his interest in being an instructor with Gold, participating in training and eventually becoming an assistant facilitator.

“It just became really clear to me that this would be an incredible training to share specifically with our communities,” Vitorino said. “I just wanted to figure out how to learn as much as I could and be able to share it.”

Vitorino shared how easy it is to internalize the hatred being directed at the trans community. The violence experienced by queer people, specifically queer people of color, is inflicted so often that it becomes the norm. Trans people face all kinds of violence, from life-threatening violence like that reported by the HRC, to hateful rhetoric like that directed at trans athletes, to legislation criminalizing gender affirming care for trans youth like that in Florida. In some cases, Vitorino said, this violence can even feel deserved.

“If you just look at the current political and legal landscapes, our bodies are being debated and denied access to care and medical rights. So I think it’s easy to internalize,” Vitorino said. “Not only do I not have a right to my body, but internalizing homophobic and transphobic messages around in our bodies, being weird or immoral or sinful or wrong – all of these ways in which we’re taught to hate ourselves.” 

Being socialized as a girl in a small community and growing up facing physical discipline, Vitorino grew used to not fighting back or setting boundaries. Gold’s courses allowed him to overcome these harmful, learned behaviors and help him to realize that his body was worth protecting despite the overwhelming chorus of those saying otherwise. Having experienced his own trauma and sexual assault, training allowed him to relive the situation, puncutating it with a new, restorative ending.  

Though confronting his past trauma and completing the protective movements that would have prevented it proved difficult, Vitorino said the experience was transformative. Vitorino realized that he had the skills to fight back, but also had the right to fight back. The reality of being able to set boundaries he’d never had growing up, and have them be respected, moved him to tears.

“The training really kind of transformed my own embodiment because I got to experience what it was like to fight back, to set a boundary, to have practice verbalizing boundaries and even just shouting, ‘No,’” Vitorino said. “I kind of learned that sense of love and protectiveness over myself in order to motivate my desire to fight back.”

Gold and Vitorino ensured that their classes for the LGBTQ+ community were built around a comfortable environment, centering Vitorino’s presence as a trans man helping to instruct the courses. Representation among instructors, making time to share pronouns and not requiring students to disclose their names are a few of the ways they ensure their classes remain a safe space. 

“I think being trauma-informed is really important to what we offer. Just knowing that we simulate an attack and we have a verbal component that, for many people, is not the first time they’re experiencing it,” Vitorino said. “It’s likely going to trigger perhaps experiences with these kinds of assault.”

Mike Belzer by Emily Monforte

While the classes are designed to expose students to verbal assaults they’ll face in the world, they explicitly avoid the use of homophobic, transphobic, mysoginistic and racist language. However, Vitorino said, some students request the use of specific language to simulate and redo traumatic situations. This way, they can experience the same event with a different, redemptive ending using the self defense techniques they just learned.

“We never want to alienate someone who would benefit so much from the training, and I think that is what’s at stake for us,” Vitorino said. “I think for me, the first part is making sure that people get access to this and have a good experience so that they can make the most of that training incorporated into their lives.”

RAW Power currently has two courses available, their Introductory Workshop for $125 and Basic Tools Course for $500.  

While expensive, the skilled training and labor behind these classes makes the cost more than justified. Sadly, accessibility is not an easy feat to accomplish in such a highly skilled training like ASST and other self defense courses. Other trainers across California experienced a similar quest for the right self defense courses before finding one they felt could truly benefit them and others. For whistle instructor Dani Villalobos, this journey led her to IMPACT Bay Area, the sibling organization of Gold’s previous employer, IMPACT Los Angeles.

After growing up in a tight-knit Latino community, Villalobos moved away to attend a predominantly white institution, all while still closeted about her gender and sexual identity. Being in the new environment made safety a pressing issue.

“I went from something that felt safe-ish, or at least safe-adjacent to something like a very exposed nerve,” Villalobos said.

Villalobos tried many forms of self-defense and combat, including American Kenpo Karate, Krav Maga and Eskrima. While sparring with a friend in Kenpo class, Villalobos realized that they weren’t able to practice with total force behind their strikes, or else the trust they’d built as partners would be broken.

The restraint she practiced made her first experience in an IMPACT class that much more special. Striking the suited instructor with full force caused a “physiological change” in her body, allowing her to feel truly prepared for a worst-case-scenario. 

Villalobos’s transformative experience at IMPACT made her want to participate in its growth moving forward, leading her to become a whistle instructor. While the suited instructor wears protective gear and takes the full force of the students’ strikes, the whistle instructor demonstrates the actual techniques.

Like RAW Power, IMPACT strives to simulate reality with their training by triggering the adrenal response experienced in a real confrontation. 

“What IMPACT does is prepare for a worst case scenario so that you can walk forward with confidence. Think about something like an earthquake preparedness kit,” Villalobos said. “If you have an emergency kit at home, if you have an emergency kit in your car, do you not feel just an ounce safer driving or being in your home knowing that you’ve got that? There’s research that says that, yes, actually, it does.”

For Villalobos, the need for these courses in the LGBTQ+ community in preparation for a worst-case-scenario is vital. She mentioned an incident in June where a group of alleged Proud Boys interrupted a drag storytime at San Lorenzo Library in Alameda. Their behavior, described as “aggressive” by those in attendance, prompted the security guard to escort Panda Dulce, a founding member of drag queen story hour events, out of the room. 

The event prompted a hate crime investigation. 

“I think that unfortunately where we’re at today in the world is that there is still very much homophobia, transphobia and inequity out in the world. And it hurts,” Villalobos said dejectedly. “[IMPACT training] changed how I walked in the world. I’m working towards [changing the system], but I think it is important and fair for the LGBTQ community to think about their own safety and what makes them safe.”

For Villalobos, tailoring the class to experiences that queer people are most likely to face ensures that students get the most out of their classes. At the same time, understanding that the community is not a monolith, but instead composed of people of infinite backgrounds and experiences, is also important for creating a safe learning environment at IMPACT.

Elisabeth Kenneally by Emily Monforte

“I think a lot of spaces that are spaces of alliance where people have maybe not the same narratives, but understand that these narratives exist, really do create that safety,” Villalobos insisted. “I think having training, having instructors who are, if not members of the community, people who are really extensively trained to be aware and to be mindful is important because that safety helps us be able to do the work that we do.”

For Villalobos, this can look like adjusting the technique for substitutions or even a student feeling comfortable voicing whether a constructed situation is applicable to them or not. While she’s glad that the training exists for those that need it, Villalobos expressed how disheartening it is that it’s still so hard to come by.

“I love that I can be supportive and I can offer space. I hate that it’s been so hard to find. I hate that it took me two years to find. I don’t want that to be the case,” Villalobos said. “I would like this to be available. And frankly, another layer to that, I would like for this not to be necessary at all.”

“I feel so lucky that I get paid to do what I love,” said Sophia Anita Reyes of Sophia Anita Self Defense. “It’s so easy for me. I just, it doesn’t even feel like work.”

Reyes, who teaches Krav Maga in Orange County, had the opportunity to teach one of her courses for Trans Defense Fund LA free of charge. Reyes described teaching the small class for trans, nonbinary and intersex people as rewarding, with students showing up in skirts and nails they would wear every day. 

While it “breaks her heart” that queer people face disproportionate violence, Reyes said it makes learning to defend themselves all the more necessary. One of the best moments for her as an instructor came when they broke out the Krav Maga kick shield or “tombstone.” 

“We held the tombstone and we just let the folks go all at it while everybody else was cheering them on,” Sophia Anita Reyes said.

Since moving to LA at the beginning of 2020, artist and photographer Reyes Vazquez has been in at least three fights, none started by them. So when the Trans Defense Fund gave them the opportunity to brush up on their self defense, they took it. As a queer person, Vaquez said that people are more likely to antagonize with queer people in general because of how they present, making self defense techniques critical to the community. 

Reyes Vazquez uses he/she/they pronouns, but for the purposes of this article they will be referred to using they/them pronouns.

When asked what they would say to those claiming that “Violence isn’t the answer,” in this case, Vazquez described that thinking as “delusional.”

“I don’t see how that would make sense – they’re just very privileged [and probably] never encounter violence [that endangers them],” Vazquez said.

Vazquez recently returned to another self-defense course hosted by the organization, hoping to expand their skill set as well as socialize with those in attendance. They brought their partner to the most recent class, who also expressed interest in learning how to defend themselves, acting as support and a buddy for when the class pairs off for practice.

Vazquez said they hope the classes can become more frequent and thus more accessible for other queer people going forward.

“It’s just very important that they have the knowledge and the skills to know how to defend themselves, [whether that is just being able to get] away or making [quick] decisions,” Vazquez said.

The success and necessity of the courses prompted both RAW Power and IMPACT to expand their available classes, holding those specifically for the LGBTQ+ community more frequently to make the training more accessible. Self-defense courses continue to inspire those who attend them, like Polartropica, who said they’ve been thinking of ways to bring what she’s learned to others. Their ideas include teaching technique through coordinated dances, like those popular on TikTok.

Matt Harris by Emily Monforte

“It’s like taking back your own sense of autonomy and owning your experience and trusting your gut and listening to your body and working with the power that is within your body to respond to situations, to de-escalate things that could become more harmful,” Vitorino said. 

“And then if all else fails, to know that in your body you have the power to fight back in ways that have nothing to do with your body size.”