Meet the Activists Arming Trans People With Stun Guns and Pepper Spray

Luka Gidwani has always been a night owl. As a Latinx trans youth growing up in Los Angeles, he spent a lot of time navigating shadowy neighborhoods during his late teens. During these late night trips, Gidwani, who also goes by Isa, was assaulted, and frequently experienced cat-calls and misgendering from strangers. Scissors became his defensive weapon of choice. 

But now, the 21-year old student, painter, and jeweler is armed with a stun gun, pepper gel, a tactical flashlight, an alarm, a kubotan, and a spiked kitty keychain. The kit was free and easily accessible online, thanks to Trans Self Defense Fund LA, a mutual aid group that raises money to provide self-defense tools to trans people throughout the city.

“I was really excited about the stun gun,” Gidwani told Motherboard. “It definitely increases my feelings of security in public.” 

Gidwani is one of more than 500 trans people to receive a self-defense kit from the LA-based group, which formed two days after Eden the Doll and her friends were assaulted in LA last August. Activated by the summer’s Black liberation uprising, Nikki Nguyen created a fundraiser for self-defense kits—prioritizing Black trans femmes—and organized self-defense classes. She watched donations roll in, shocked. 

“It blew up,” she told Motherboard. “So many people were sharing it. We got $20,000 within one day.” 

Guerilla Davis, an Oakland-based artist and organizer with the Black-led queer artist collective We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, similarly said they raised tens of thousands of dollars for self-defense kits in the Bay Area within an unprecedented timeframe. He said that while the outpouring of support feels good, it’s a double-edged sword. “It sucks that we have to raise the money,” Davis told Motherboard. “I think the reason that it’s so successful is because people understand that this is very important. People know that this is needed so much.”   

Davis says the collective wanted to ensure Black trans people were represented during the summer’s uprising, as protests erupted in cities across the country following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people. As the protests raged, six Black trans women were murdered within the span of nine days. 

To change the narrative, the collective kicked off a series of art projects that prioritized Black queer and trans people, and imagined what trans self-defense looks like. Inspired by Chicago-based Thorn and Molasses’ trans self-defense mutual aid program, We Are The Ones started an “Arm the Girls” self-defense kit fundraiser.

Priding themselves on bringing flashy visuals to important issues, the group shot photos of armed Black trans people to accompany the fundraiser. Davis, formerly a photographer at a shoe company and a graphic designer in public health settings, wanted the project to be as visually appealing and memorable as a fashion magazine.

“If you go to a HIV clinic, to a hospital, you see information that’s really relevant to your life. It just looks boring,” he said. “You read it, it’s hard to retain the information.” 

Conversely, We Are The Ones’ kit has some flair: the self-defense tools are nestled within a designer Telfar bag, the iconic tote known for its affordability and popularity among young people of color.

Self-defense items sit on a reflective table in front of a pink and blue background, including a bottle of pepper spray, a stun gun, a switchblade, and a white Telfar tote bag.

The “Arm The Girls” campaign distributes free self-defense tools to trans people of color inside a chic Telfar tote bag. Photo by Guerilla Davis

Similar, but less high-fashion, mutual aid projects have blossomed across the country, from San Diego, to Portland, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Richmond, Eugene, Minneapolis, and New York City

Self-defense needs for trans people have grown in rural areas as well. In early March, the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, a trans haven and alpaca ranch in conservative Southern Colorado, raised enough funds overnight to purchase flood lights, cameras, armor and fencing—to accompany their assault rifles—after tweeting that local bigots and militia encroached on their property at night while armed with the intent to harm them. 

“I think it’s really inspiring and cool to see that happen,” said Nguyen, regarding other successful self-defense fundraisers. “And it’s like such a communal thing, because they’re [other groups] asking me for advice, and I’m just sharing my whole experience. We’re all just figuring it out together.”

The rise of crowdsourced kits for trans people represents a unique, organized blending of values around self defense and collective care, easily distinguishable from the individualistic mentality of mainstream “preppers.” It comes during a time of heightened distrust toward the State and police, and the growth of far-right violence. Over the last few years, Black people, anarchists, and leftists have armed themselves at an increasing rate. In some cases, marginalized communities have established armed patrols reminiscent of the Black Panther and gay liberation activities of the 1960s. 

While Gidwani ultimately feels more safe while armed, he expressed concern that police may react violently because he carries self-defense gear. Police are well-known for treating Black trans people in distress with “ambivalence, distrust, transphobic discrimination, and violence,” wrote Shawn E. Fields in a forthcoming paper in the Nevada Law journal. This has caused many Black trans people to take self defense into their own hands. “We don’t support propaganda or rhetoric surrounding a nonviolent, peaceful, or passive approach when people’s lives are being threatened,” Onyx, a founder of the Molasses collective, said in an interview with Them earlier this year. “We support [trans] folks fighting back and defending themselves.”

The carceral system often criminalizes trans people who defend themselves against attackers. CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman, was sentenced to 41 months in prison for defensively stabbing a neo-nazi who mocked and attacked her as she walked to the grocery store. Ky Peterson, a Black trans man, was sentenced to 20 years behind bars after defending himself against an attacker who knocked him unconscious and raped him. He was released last month after serving nine years in prison.

In the US, trans people must also contend with a legal system that excludes them from protection. 28 states have hate crime laws that don’t include protections for trans people, and several states recognize a “trans panic defense,” which protects attackers who commit violence against trans individuals.   

Despite the risk that comes with carrying weapons, trans communities often feel they are better positioned to build safety together, within their own communities, rather than attempt to change a system defined as hostile toward them.  

But the goals of these mutual aid groups go beyond ensuring physical safety. Ultimately, said Davis, groups like We Are The Ones strive to build support systems that allow Black and trans communities to support each other and thrive.

“We are more than our need to survive,” said Davis. “We also deserve dignity. We deserve our humanity. We deserve to be happy. We deserve to do things that feel good.”

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