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Free clinic offering self-defense kits for transgender and nonbinary clients

The Health Brigade's clinic
The Health Brigade's clinic in Richmond's Museum District. The nonprofit recently began a pilot program, giving self-defense kits to gender-nonconforming people, who experience violence at disproportionate rates. (Photo: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

A Richmond-based health clinic started offering self-defense kits for people who are often targeted for their gender expression. The public safety initiative aims to provide more resources to transgender and nonbinary people.

A study from the Williams Institute School of Law at UCLA found transgender people are more than four times as likely to experience physical attacks than cisgender people.

For Leigh Guinty, moving through the world as a transgender person is dangerous. He says the feeling of being watched never goes away.

“You literally walk around with a bull's-eye on your front and back every day, all day,” Guinty said.

Guinty is a transgender, nonbinary person of color with indigenous heritage. He said he’s survived multiple acts of violence motivated by transphobia. In those moments, he said having something to defend himself with might have made a difference.

“If I had something to protect myself, I probably would have used it,” Guinty said.

The Health Brigade has been monitoring violence against gender-noncomforming people in the region. Earlier this month, the Richmond-based free clinic began a pilot program that gives self-defense kits to these clients who are in need of protection as part of a pilot program. The program is an extension of Health Brigade’s approach to health care, according to Cristina Kincaid, Health Brigade’s director of health outreach.

“In having conversations with folks in our intake or during ongoing case management, we realized that a good number of our clients … were experiencing situations where they felt unsafe, or had experienced some type of violence,” Kincaid said.

So far 25 kits have been put together, funded by a donation from a local attorney. Kincaid said they come in a crossbody bag for easy access by those in dangerous situations. Inside, clients will find a can of mace, a whistle and a keychain about 5 inches long with a blunt end and grooves to help users grip the tool.

“Providing someone with self-defense items is just another way that we can work with folks, meet them where they are, and help them with the things that they may need in their everyday lives to feel safe and then hopefully, also healthy,” Kincaid said.

In Virginia, the rate of violence against transgender and nonbinary people reflects national trends, according to Olivia Hunt, policy director for the National Center for Transgender Equality.  A 2015 survey of more than 27,000 transgender Americans conducted by the center shows 9% of respondents reported being physically attacked for being transgender in the year prior.

“The numbers for Virginia are pretty consistent with the national numbers,” Hunt said. “These numbers are significantly worse … for trans women of color and nonbinary people.”

Across the U.S., indigenous, transgender people are most likely to be targeted for transphobic violence, with 19% of respondents to the 2015 survey reporting that they were attacked for being transgender within the past year. Fourteen percent of Middle Eastern respondents reported the same experience as did 12% of multiracial, transgender people who participated in the survey.

Transgender people are also less likely to seek justice for attacks against them. Hunt said many don’t report these crimes to the police for fear of further mistreatment and discrimination by law enforcement.

“The thing that we do see a lot with trans people is that in addition to a much higher rates of suffering physical attacks than the general public, [they] also tend to have very negative experiences with the police,” Hunt said.

She said the survey found that in 2014, 58% of respondents who interacted with police said they experienced mistreatment, including harassment, misgendering, physical assault, and sexual violence.

Clients of Health Brigade can request a self-defense kit by meeting with their case manager.