How Brazilian Jiu Jitsu became a safe haven for my trans community

For us, it's a more physically demanding version of group therapy.

Our Space
ByLara Americo

It was 5 a.m. in the West 4th Street subway station, and there weren’t enough people on the platform to scare the rats away. The smell of exhaust and mildew was strong, and I noticed a man approaching me from behind. I started scanning for things to put between us. I searched for an exit, and I moved away from the edge of the tracks. These were all things I’d learned in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a gentle art that has given me an inner confidence. I often it take for granted.

There is a beauty in peacefully subduing an opponent who’s stronger than you and in using patience to find a way to avoid danger. It reminds me of Royce Gracie, in the early days of UFC, being physically pummeled by larger opponents but somehow winning in the end. Being alone in a subway with a stranger who makes you feel unsafe feels comparable to when a large opponent is on top of you in the ring. The pressure on your ribs crushes your lungs, forcing you to fight for every breath.

Back on the subway platform, the man closed in and my heart started to pound. “Hey, where are you from?” he asked. He was tall with long arms, and he was placing most of his weight on his right foot. Strangers don’t usually approach me in the subway, so I prepared for the worst. Different scenarios started to play out in my mind. “If he grabs me, I can sweep his right foot, throw him to the ground, and run. As long as the police don’t stop me, I could go home,” I thought. This was the only outcome I could imagine, where I’d be okay if he tried to attack.

See, a trans woman can’t get in a fight and expect the police or bystanders to be on their side. In a violent situation, you have to both avoid damage injury and make it appear as if you never attacked. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is the perfect martial art form to achieve this.

When the man started to ask about my ethnicity, I pretended I didn’t hear him. Forty-five excruciating seconds later, my train arrived, the wind of the speeding subway car blowing my hair back. I got on the most crowded subway car I could find.

The man stood at the doorway and asked, “Hey! Where are you going? Can I come?” I prayed for the doors to close with him on the other side. I realized he was holding them open with his foot. He ignored the intercom system and the passengers who pleaded with him to release the train. He sized up the situation, smirked, and slowly released the doors. He winked at me, and the train sped away.

As I reveled in the feeling of relative safety, I thought about all the things that could have gone wrong. I considered my background in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the reality that, while I may be safer because of it, I’m never truly safe. All the hours of escaping joint locks and choke holds in a controlled environment could easily have ended in a knife wound in real life, or a trip to a men’s cell in Rikers Island.

Lara Americo

Still, there aren’t many forms of martial arts that can neutralize a physical threat from a person more effectively than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. While other martial arts can help you carry out devastating attacks, Jiu Jitsu allows you to appear like you’re not doing any damage at all. This is vital for a trans woman in public.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was developed in Para, Brazil in the early 1900s. The intention was to help a smaller person gain leverage against a larger opponent without having to depend on strength. I personally adopted it as a teenager because I was tired of getting beat up for being an obviously closeted queer at my conservative southern high school. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gave me a sense of safety that followed me for the rest of my life.

Lara Americo

Recently, I acquired a small gym space in the West Village, in a run down basement between Stonewall Inn and the Police Department — the two parties responsible for the Stonewall Riots and Gay Pride as we know it. My first move was to hang up a rainbow flag and invite a group of trans women to practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with me.

Tara Bankoff, a purple belt from Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, became our instructor. I found her after learning about her LGBTQ self-defense classes at a Midtown Karate Dojo. She was the only one among us with a colored belt, and it quickly became clear that she could wipe the floor with any of us, whenever she wanted. Her gender transition began at a time when videos of physical violence against trans women spiraled into a trend of horrific viral videos. “After I transitioned and started finding myself in various unpleasant situations and very close calls, I decided it was time to start doing something. Basically, I’d just become terrified all the time. So the primary goal was, and remains, self defense,” Bankoff says.

Tara Bankoff

Photo by Lara Americo

After leading us through a technical demonstration, we started to grapple against each other. Tara quickly locked me in a triangle choke, wrapping her legs around my head and arm. In this position, you begin to lose consciousness very quickly because blood to your brain is cut off. I started to black out, so I tapped her leg and she immediately released me. As the lightheadedness subsided, I realized how lucky we were to share this space, where violence was being transformed into love and compassion between people with similar identities. We turned our individual trauma into physical expressions of solidarity in a strange, somewhat painful version of group therapy.

It’s important to acknowledge that we live in the uniquely progressive city of New York. We are lucky. I think of another trans woman grappler named Molly Price, who lives in Fayetteville, NC. She’s had many challenges in her Brazilian Jiu Jitsu journey. She’s been pushed out of gyms by homophobic owners and had instructors turn a blind eye when cisgender men were purposely rough with her in practice.

She’s a veteran who used her U.S. Army training to endure occasional transphobia, for the sport she loved. Eventually, she competed in local tournaments against cisgender women. The bits of euphoria she found on the mat came at a much higher cost as anti-transgender aggression toward her increased. Against all odds, and even anonymous threatening messages on social media, she continues to train and compete.

We turned our individual trauma into physical expressions of solidarity in a strange, somewhat painful version of group therapy.

Further west, deep in Mitch McConnell country, lives Astrid Marigold. She identifies as trans feminine and gender queer and runs an inclusive strength and conditioning program at a gym called Rough Hands. Before coming out as transgender, she was a circus performer who demonstrated feats of strength like metal bending and ripping phone books in half. After coming out as trans, she realized she wanted to find a more affirming way to express herself physically. Rough Hands gave her that outlet. “Jiu Jitsu helped me reground after transition and get used to this new form,” Marigold says.

Astrid Marigold

Contrary to her surroundings, Marigold found a home gym that supported her. This is a rarity, especially in her deep red, Trump-loving, Kentucky hometown. But her joy expressed physically, is a stark contrast to the deeply violent, anti-transgender rhetoric that surrounds her. She’s able to turn the hate she receives into power by being an example of joy, despite so many voices who want her gone. “This is my sport. It’s something I love. It doesn’t make me any less queer or any less feminine. You have to do what you love,” says Marigold.

Outside the gym, trans people are routinely attacked by conservative media and growing anti-trangender violence. Most of the energy that could be used for things like competition are wasted on survival. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, in its purest form, is a physical chess game. The early pioneers of the sport weren’t wealthy, and they weren’t athletically gifted. They wanted the same things the trans community is looking for now: a way to level the playing field and a way to feel safe.

But just like then, safety is a luxury afforded by wealth and by people with identities that society deems acceptable. In a violent world, a room full of people viciously attacking each other can become the safest place. Something magical happens when you’re able to take control of the violence around you and turn it into a bonding experience and a means for protecting what's sacred to you. Until our world evolves, I hope all transgender people can find a place where they can feel the euphoria of taking control of their physical space. Like we do in our run down basement, near Stonewall Inn. One triangle choke at a time.