A video showing a group of men attacking and harassing three transgender women in Hollywood went viral last month, prompting concern over the safety of trans people in Los Angeles.
The attack happened on August 17. In the video, famous transgender Instagram influencers Eden the Doll, Jaslene Whiterose, and Joslyn Flawless were on the Walk of Fame around 2 a.m. when a man began to threaten them.
At one point in the 26-minute video, the man struck Whiterose over the head with a crowbar while threatening the other women. Meanwhile, a crowd of men heckled the women about their gender identity.
This week, the LA district attorney’s office charged Carlton Callaway, 29, and Davion Williams, 22, with robbery and assault in connection with the Aug. 17 attack on Hollywood Boulevard. Both men also face hate crime enhancements.
Despite the charges, the harm from the attacks has already been done, says Ryka Aoki, a self-defense instructor for transgender and queer people.
After watching the video, Aoki says she wished she taught the women how to escape from hair or wrist grabs, but she thought they did everything right considering the situation, especially since they are still alive.
“You have to understand that to get where they are required so much. They're so brave,” says Aoki. “They've exhibited bravery to keep themselves alive when many didn't.”
Aoki says she’s now using the video of the Hollywood attack to teach new self-defense techniques to students in her classes.
She adds that many of her students have been badly bruised or stabbed during assaults on the streets, but the most damaging blow is the mental trauma from these attacks. For this reason, Aoki says those wounds need their own form of coaching.
“There's nothing I really need to tell them about the existence of these horrible things,” she says.
Aoki adds:”What I can do is help untangle personal feelings, triage the threats, [address] the political abstract threat that we have to go vote [in] November, [and help them prepare for] what's the immediate threat when [someone’s] about to pull you into the car.”
Essentially, self-defense for trans women requires a second persona to live in public, says Aoki, almost like a Disney cast member. She describes how they have to play a role at all times, so when someone calls them out, there’s a barrier between the attack and their true selves.
Aoki says she wishes trans women did not have to live like this, but the shielding persona feels necessary.
“The world is so difficult for trans women. There's so many assaults that if you let things in and you're honest with your feelings, that leaves you [terribly] vulnerable,” she says.
In 2016, Los Angeles County had 31 reported hate crimes against transgender people, and the year later, the total was 38. Those are record numbers, according to the county’s Human Rights Commision.
The commission's latest report on hate crimes shows 25 incidents in 2018, and almost all of those crimes were violent. In addition, more than 90% of the attacks targeted trans women who were mostly Black and Latinx.
“We actually are hitting our largest number [of hate crimes against transgender people] ever, even though we think they're very underreported,” says Robin Toma, executive director of the county’s Human Rights Commission.
Toma attributes the low reported numbers to the lack of trust in law enforcement, but adds that the unreported crimes make it hard for the government to prevent more crimes.
The Human Rights Commission is hoping to bridge that gap with a rapid response support line through the city’s 211 hotline that they launched last week. Now people can directly report a hate crime and receive assistance.
But in the moment of an attack, reporting previous crimes does little to make a person safe, says Nikki Nguyen, a woman who raised about $20,000 to create self-defense kits, including stun guns and pepper spray, for trans women in light of the attacks.
She adds that she watched the video of the attack and was horrified that no one stepped in to help the women.
Nguyen goes on to say that she got the idea to make the kits based on supplies that she personally carries to ensure her own safety. Nguyen emphasizes that the victims also face gender-based cruelty on the street in addition to transphobia.
Ryka Aoki explains that people often to try to distinguish cisgender women from transgender women, although they both face similar acts of hate on the streets. She goes on to explain why attacks may target trans women for different reasons.
“I think a cisgender woman can make a man sometimes feel insecure as well, but it's more inadequacy. … Whereas with a trans woman … a straight man might look at them and feel a sexual attraction to them,” Aoki says.
She adds, “So what does anyone do when they're confused? They get frustrated. And if they're violent, they want to eliminate the problem.”
Aoki says that she has no control over whether the men involved in the attack will ever face jail time. All she can do is equip her students so they may stand a chance if they are targeted. She hopes they will be able to walk away with their lives too.