Self defence for trans* people

Trans* Jersey invited Roisin Pitman to write a guest blog about staying safe. Roisin was in the States of Jersey police force for over 10 years and is the sensei at Phoenix (Jersey) School for Therapeutic Arts, which specialises in Aikido. She has recently started up Red Zen (Channel Islands) that offers self protection and fitness solutions to women of all shapes, sizes and abilities.

SelfdefenceWhen a trans man or woman makes the decision that they are finally going to live and exist day-to-day in their true gender they are plunged into a world of excitement, fear, worry, uncertainty and self-doubt, all rolled into one.

As a trans woman I was told by a friend at an early stage of my transition that if I acted and went about my business as if I had every right to be a part of society then nobody would care if I was trans or not. There are always early fears and hyper sensitivity as we adapt to living outwardly in the gender that we know we are.

We can take every stare, double take, whispering as you pass, or laughing out loud, to mean that these are all aimed at you, when in fact that is your hyper sensitivity working overtime, which is quite natural. The stare may not have been relevant, the double take might be because they like your dress, the whispering – totally unconnected, and the laughing out load might just have been two people sharing a joke, not at your expense. This hyper sensitivity dies down as we become more comfortable in our ‘skin’.

In a recent conversation with a trans man it was agreed, broadly speaking, that he does not have to deal with some of the worries of a trans female. For example, women have been wearing trousers and masculine clothes for decades; there are many smaller guys out there so a small framed man would not draw too much attention; with testosterone there is often beard growth, an obvious male marker, and voices do drop after a while on hormone therapy.

If you are a trans female with a masculine frame, especially a tall build, with big hands and feet and a low voice it is much easier for you to be ‘read’, regardless of whether you are wearing a summer dress or a trouser suit. Often one’s facial features can give you away and affecting a falsetto voice is a sure giveaway, along with other male markers such as a visible Adam’s apple. Although, to be fair, there are many women with a protruding Adam’s apple, sometimes due to the slightness of frame, or the part of the world that they come from, or sometimes due to an eating disorder, which leaves the neck quite thin and shows all the blemishes and peculiarities. I was married to a woman with a prominent neck bulge and I can assure you that she was born female. I did wonder for a while!

It appears, therefore, that trans females have a lot more work to do to blend in than their male counterparts and sometimes, as we learn to be more female, the characteristics that were normal as a male, come back to haunt us as a female.

We are lucky here in Jersey that random violence is quite rare, although not absent. As a former police man in Jersey I encountered violence on an almost daily basis, but rarely was it a totally random act without warning. With the grace of one’s God or belief system, I survived twelve years on the street with little or no injury. Although, on three occasions, I was attacked with a knife, fortunately surviving without injury, partly due to luck and partly due to my training, not as a police officer but as a martial arts student of Aikido (a Japanese defensive art using the opponent’s body weight and aggression against themselves), without causing undue injury to the soon to be arrested felon.

I have now been studying Aikido for thirty-four years, twenty-seven of them as an instructor. I founded my own school in 1987 and now have Clubs in Jersey, Guernsey, UK, France and Italy. I currently hold the rank of fifth Dan black belt and rank among the top 2% of female Aikido instructors in the British Isles. I have blended my experience as a street police officer with that of a martial arts coach to create a unique insight into self protection and awareness that not only includes physical responses to a myriad of attacks, but blends with it the theoretical side of self protection by way of lecturing on a number of relevant subjects such as:

  • Self defence and the law
  • Decision making in stressful situations
  • How to read body language correctly
  • The aftermath of rape and sexual assault
  • Urban safety for both day and night
  • Travelling abroad in safety
  • Travelling by car and public transport
  • Drugs and their effects

I have attended many ‘self defence’ courses (put on mainly for women) as either an observer or guest instructor, run by numerous martial arts clubs over the last thirty years, and they have all disappointed me in the way that they were approached and delivered. Most martial artists teach their own martial style and dress it up as self defence when, in fact, although on the same spectrum, self defence and martial arts are at opposite ends. It is not just a matter of dressing in civilian clothes and teaching a martial art, it goes much deeper than that, requiring an in-depth knowledge of the human psyche and their behaviour patterns. Awareness is key.

If anyone attends a self defence course where they are told that in six, eight or ten weeks they will be able to deal with a violent altercation then they should run for the hills! There is no guarantee that any human will be able to deal with a violent situation, there are only tools that can be taught to make someone more aware and give them a little more knowledge to assist them. You might be, for example, a very highly ranked martial artist that people would consider infallible in a real situation but one thing alone marks the difference between the training room and real life: the fear factor, or the ‘flight or fight’ syndrome, when the body produces adrenaline in an effort to ready itself for combat. Some can handle the fear factor, many cannot.

Trans* people often feel even more vulnerable, especially in the early days of transition when often, especially male-to-female, they believe that every movement, mannerism and action is being ‘read’ by another person. They think everyone must just ‘know’ who and what they are. This is the hyper sensitivity that I referred to at the beginning.


Trans* Jersey would like to thank Roisin for her contribution to the website and sharing her knowledge. If you would be interested in attending a self protection and awareness course, set of seminars or informal talk with a question and answer session, Roisin runs all sorts of courses to suit your needs. It can be theory only or a mix of physical and theory. If there are enough people (at least four with no upper limit), Roisin can arrange for a special Trans* Jersey course or, if there is less interest, she can offer you a place on courses she is already running. Please contact Roisin Pitman on to register your interest in attending a self defence course and the sort of course you would be interested in.

The transition curve

John Fisher (Leicester University) is a well-respected business psychologist whose work on constructivist theory in relation to service provision organisations produced a model in 1999 of personal change, The Personal Transition Curve, which provides us with an analysis of how individuals deal with personal change. This was updated in 2012 and represents a development of The Change Curve, widely attributed to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her work on the process of bereavement and grief.

Business theory may seem a long way away from gender studies but it is relevant to us when we have to manage the effect that our transition has on those around us in order to retain our personal relationships intact during our transition. Understanding Fisher’s model and the phases that individuals go through when faced with change (of any sort) can help prepare us for the reactions of those closest to us around our transition. Take a look at Fisher’s 2012 model and there are probably some phases that seem familiar to you, reactions that you have witnessed in those around you to your news.

the-process-of-transition-fisher-s-personal-transition-curve-1Let’s examine the stages and apply them to the process of gender transitioning:

The awareness that events lie outside one’s range of understanding or control. Fisher believes the problem here is that individuals are unable to adequately picture the future. They do not have enough information to allow them to anticipate behaving in a different way within the new organisation. They are unsure how to adequately construe acting in the new work and social situations.

This is familiar to trans* people. The condition of gender dysphoria and the stages of treatment that trans* people have to go through is not well understood and outside most people’s experience. This breeds a fear of the unknown – what will life be like for the trans* person and what will life be like for those closest to the trans* person?

It is up to us to reassure those around us that we can see the future and it is going to be an improvement on the present. Using testimonies from trans* people who have gone before us, such as can be found on YouTube, can help those around us visualise our future.

The awareness that one’s viewpoint is recognised and shared by others. The impact of this is twofold. At the basic level there is a feeling of relief that something is going to change and not continue as before. Whether the past is perceived positively or negatively, there is still a feeling of anticipation and even excitement at the possibility of improvement. On another level, there is the satisfaction of knowing that some of your thoughts about the old system were correct (generally, no matter how well we like the status quo, there is something that is unsatisfactory about it) and that something is going to be done about it.

Trans* individuals may recognise this phase as the moment when people say, “We always knew you weren’t like other children”, and then congratulate you on having the courage to recognise it in yourself.

Fisher says that the happiness phase is one of the more interesting phases and may be (almost) passed through without knowing. In this phase it is the “Thank goodness, something is happening at last” feeling coupled with the knowledge that, if we are lucky/involved/contribute, things can only get better.

Significantly for trans* individuals, if we can start interventions at this stage we can minimise the impact of the rest of the curve and virtually flatten the curve. By involving, informing, getting a “buy in” at this time we can help people move through the process. This is where availability of factual information can help maintain the “happy” feeling. Collect a number of different sources for your family to read that underline the positives of transitioning so they can choose the medium that suits them: health leaflets, transgender biographies, sympathetic documentaries and Internet resources. Encourage your friends and family to talk to you about your transition and accept any help that they may offer in order to involve them in your transition.

The awareness of an imminent incidental change in one’s core behavioural system. People will need to act in a different manner and this will have an impact on both their self-perception and on how others externally see them. However, in the main, they see little change in their normal interactions and believe they will be operating in much the same way, merely choosing a more appropriate, but new, action.

According to Frances (1999), fear and threat are the two key emotions that will cause us to resist change.

The awareness of an imminent comprehensive change in one’s core behavioural structures. Here people perceive a major change to what they believe to be their core identity or sense of self. The realisation that the change will have a fundamental impact on who we are, how we see ourselves and what is key in our personality to us as individuals. This is the shock of suddenly discovering you’re not who you thought you were! It is a radical alteration to our future choices and other people’s perception of us as individuals. Our old choices are no longer ones that will work. In many ways this is a “road to Damascus” type of life-changing experience. In this phase, people are unsure as to how they will be able to act/react in what is, potentially, a totally new and alien environment; one where the old rules no longer apply and there are no new ones established as yet.

It is key for trans* people to combat these two phases by being clear and concise about what is going to happen to them physically, what the timescale is for their transition, when others can expect to see physical changes, when others need to start using correct names and pronouns, etc. Being clear about what you need from those around you creates the new set of rules that friends and family can use to replace the old rules that no longer apply, giving them some stability.

An awareness of a dislodgement of our self from our core self perception. We are not who we thought we were! Once the individual begins exploring their self-perception, how they acted/reacted in the past and looking at alternative interpretations they begin to re-define their sense of self. This, generally, involves identifying what are their core beliefs and how closely they have been to meeting them. Recognition of the inappropriateness of their previous actions and the implications for them as people can cause guilt as they realise the impact of their behaviour. Another of the emotions that may have an impact here is that of shame. This is the awareness of a negative change in someone else’s opinion of you from what you think it should be. The recognition of this shift in our own and other people’s opinion then leads into the next stage.

This is a particularly resonant phase for partners and parents who may have insisted, at various times in the trans* person’s life, that they dress or look a certain way. Depending on how forcefully this was done, those around the trans* person may feel guilty about this. It is up to us as trans* people to make it clear to those who love us that we understand they could not have known what they were doing and acknowledge that they meant well by their actions at that time.

Shame is one of the most destructive emotions for trans* people, when our family and friends feel ashamed of us because they receive, or think they will receive, negative opinions about us from others. Being out and proud of ourselves can help those closest to us to see that the world, by and large, is accepting of trans* people. Recounting your positive experiences of telling people can also help persuade friends and family that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

The awareness that our past actions, behaviours and beliefs are incompatible with our core construct of our identity. The belief that our past actions mean we’re not a very nice person after all! This phase is characterised by a general lack of motivation and confusion. Individuals are uncertain as to what the future holds and how they can fit into the future “world”. Their representations are inappropriate and the resultant undermining of their core sense of self leaves them adrift with no sense of identity and no clear vision of how to operate.

For trans* people this often manifests itself with declarations from friends and family that we are no longer who they thought we were or that everything they thought they knew about us was a lie. This, of course, is untrue. We need to remind them of all the things that have not changed about us. Gender is only one aspect of a person, it is not the whole. Undertaking activities with your friends and family that you have always done together can be a way to remind them that you haven’t changed and there are still lots of things about your relationship that are familiar.

Gradual acceptance
Here we begin to make sense of our environment and of our place within the change. In effect, we are beginning to get some validation of our thoughts and actions and can see that where we are going is right. We are at the start of managing our control over the change, making sense of the “what” and “why” and seeing some successes in how we interact – there is a light at the end of the tunnel! This links in with an increasing level of self-confidence and an awareness of the goodness of fit of the self in one’s core role structure, i.e. we feel good that we are doing the right things in the right way.

Moving forward
In this stage, we are starting to exert more control, make more things happen in a positive sense and are getting our sense of self back. We know who we are again and are starting to feel comfortable that we are acting in line with our convictions, beliefs, etc and making the right choices. In this phase we are, again, experimenting within our environment more actively and effectively.

It has also been suggested that there is also actually a final (and/or initial stage) of complacency (King 2007). Here people have survived the change, rationalised the events, incorporated them into their new construct system and got used to the new reality. This is where we feel that we have, once again, moved into our comfort zone and that we will not encounter any event that is either outside our construct system (or world view) or that we can’t incorporate into it with ease. We know the right decisions and can predict future events with a high degree of certainty. These people are subsequently laid back, not really interested in what’s going on around them and coasting through the job almost oblivious to what is actually happening around them. They are, again, operating well within their comfort zone and, in some respects, can’t see what all the fuss has been about. Even though the process may have been quite traumatic for them at the time!

Annoying though this may be, especially if you have had to invest time in supporting them through the transition curve, don’t allow yourself to get angry at their denial of the effort it has taken to reach this level of acceptance of your transition. Just be grateful that they are there!

Now, let’s look at some of the ways that the transition curve can get derailed into negative emotions that go nowhere:

This stage is defined by a lack of acceptance of any change and denies that there will be any impact on the individual. People keep acting as if the change has not happened, using old practices and processes and ignoring evidence or information contrary to their belief systems. In many ways when we are faced with a problem, or situation, we don’t want, or one that we believe is too challenging to our sense of self we constrict or narrow our range of construction. In this way we eliminate the problem from our awareness. The “head in the sand” syndrome: if I can’t see it, or acknowledge it then it doesn’t exist!

This one is horribly familiar to lots of trans* people. The constant use of old pronouns and old names is a classic example of where a person is in denial about your transition. Be patient with this one. Listen to them and attempt to understand where they are at that moment. Timing is important when managing change so don’t try to move them onto the next stage before they are ready for it. You will be ahead on them on the transition curve so you will know when the time is right to move the discussion on.

You have to listen to them and attempt to understand where they are at that moment. – See more at:
You have to listen to them and attempt to understand where they are at that moment. – See more at:

Fisher came to recognise over time that there seemed to be some anger associated with moving through the transition curve, especially in the earlier stages as people start to recognise the wider implications of change. This is not always present as it seems to be dependent on the amount of control people feel they have over the overall process. The focus of the anger also changes over time. In the first instance, for those where change is forced on them, the anger appears to be directed outward at other people. They are blamed for the situation and for causing stress to the individual. However, as time progresses and the implications grow greater for the individual, the anger moves inwards and there is a danger that this drives us into the guilt and depression stages. We become angry at ourselves for not knowing better and/or allowing the situation to escalate outside our control.

A lot of trans* people experience the anger of their friends and family at the changes being forced on them by the transition. Unfortunately, this anger frequently is directed at the trans* person rather than at the situation that those closest to us find themselves in. This is unfair but, if we understand why it is happening, we can recognise it for what it is and work through it. Hurtful and insulting remarks may be said in the heat of anger. We must try not to get angry ourselves and reply in kind but, instead, realise that they are not meant personally. They are a natural reaction to a situation that is out of an individual’s control.

The awareness that your values, beliefs and goals are incompatible with those of the organisation. The pitfalls associated with this phase are that the employee becomes unmotivated, unfocused and increasingly dissatisfied and gradually withdraws their labour, either mentally (by just “going through the motions”, doing the bare minimum, actively undermining the change by criticising/complaining) or physically by resigning.

The undermining, criticising, and withdrawal of support may be familiar to trans* people. Often this happens to a friend or family member who has previously seemed supportive of our transition. One way to re-engage them with your transition is to ask their opinion about an aspect of transitioning in order to involve them in the process again. It could be something as minor as asking them to go shopping with you for some new clothes and taking their advice on what might suit you, or it could be a more significant involvement such as asking them to help plan your travel and accommodation for a hospital trip.

The continued effort to validate social predictions that have already proved to be a failure. The problem here is that individuals continue to operate processes that have repeatedly failed to achieve a successful outcome and are no longer part of the new process or are surplus to the new way of working. The new processes are ignored at best and actively undermined at worst.

It is possible that some people in your life are not able to move forward and get stuck in the stages of denial, disillusionment or hostility. You may not be able to help everyone move through the change process, despite your best efforts. If this happens, your time might be better spent working with those who are moving through the curve and see your transition as a positive thing. These people can act as “champions” and may,in the long run, support those stuck in┬ádenial, disillusionment or hostility to reach the same view.

It can be seen from the transition curve that it is important for an individual to understand the impact that the change will have on their own personal construct systems, and for them to be able to work through the implications for their self-perception. Any change, no matter how small, has the potential to impact on an individual and may generate conflict between existing values and beliefs and anticipated altered ones.

To help people move through the transition effectively we need to understand their perception of the past, present and future. What is their past experience of change and how has it impacted on them, how did they cope, what will they be losing as part of the change and what will they be gaining? Our goal is to help make the transition as effective and painless as possible. By providing education, information, and support we can help people transition through the curve and emerge on the other side. Trans* Jersey has posted a page of change management tools that may help you manage your transition and the acceptance of those around you. Also, you may want to read around the subject of mechanisms for coping with change. There’s a good primer here from Mind Tools.

Each person will experience transition through the curve at slightly different speeds. Much of the speed of transition will depend on the individual’s self-perception, locus of control, and other past experiences, and how these all combine to create their anticipation of future events. The more positively you see the outcome, the more control you have (or believe you have) over both the process and the final result, the less difficult and negative a journey you have.

You can find out more about John Fisher’s process of personal transition here where the model’s history is discussed.

An open letter to our families

We know that being the family of a trans* person is not something you sought or ever thought you would have to deal with. We know that in coming out as trans*, we are also forcing you out as the family of a trans* person. We know that you are concerned for us, for our welfare, for our healthcare, for our relationships, for our safety, for all the reasons that you have seen as headlines in the newspapers, and that makes you afraid for us. We know that you can’t be sure we are doing the right thing, maybe we are just going through a phase. We know that you will get our name wrong and use the wrong pronoun sometimes, which may embarrass you in public. We know all of these things and that’s why coming out to our families is the hardest thing we have to do. We worry so much that, if we can’t help you find a way through all of these issues, we may lose you. We don’t want to lose you, we want you in our lives. Our love for you doesn’t change when we transition but, sometimes, your love for us does.

familyIn an ideal world, when we come out to you as trans*, at some point in the process, we would like you to give us a hug and say something similar to: “That’s great news. I’m so happy that you have reached a place where you feel able to express yourself in a way that is true to the person you really are. How can I best help and support you?” We know this is a big ask, but it’s not an impossible ask.

To our mothers and fathers: when the midwife placed us in your arms for the first time and said, “It’s a …”, would you have loved us any less if she had said our real gender as opposed to the gender dictated by our genitalia? To our partners, siblings, children and wider family: when you met us for the first time and were introduced to us, “This is …”, would you have loved us any the less if you had been introduced to us as the name that we have chosen for ourselves to match our true gender? If the answer to both these questions is “no”, which it probably is, then the problem with transitioning is not our gender or our new name, the problem is that we are changing from something familiar to something that seems unfamiliar.

Nobody likes change and our transition imposes a change on your life that you did not seek. Because of the process of transition, the news of this change is necessarily sudden for our families. Transitioning is never a spur of the moment decision and coming out to our families happens at the end of a process that may take years. Our families, therefore, receive the news of our transition with none of the preparation time we have had. Put like this, as the person transitioning, we have a responsibility to help those whose love and support we value to transition with us.

As the family of a trans* person, you have a right to ask them to accept this responsibility and to give you the help and support you need to manage the change that is happening in your life. This may include arranging for you to speak to a counsellor about your concerns or finding appropriate resources to help you understand the process of transitioning and why it is not a choice for the trans* person. To this end, we have added a post about the Transition Curve – the stages that everyone goes through when faced with change – that gives the trans* person in your family some guidance on how best to do this. You may also want to read it to understand a little more about why human beings don’t like change much and react in similar, predictable ways to it.

It is in our interests to help you cope with our transition. If we want you in our lives, we must make the effort. Communicating with you is, therefore, vital to the process. However much you might not want to talk about it, expressing your feelings is better than bottling them up. Please tell us how you are feeling. If you can’t do it face-to-face, phone us or write to us. If you need time and space, say so. We can respect that. Trans* Jersey’s post on communicating assertively applies to you as well as to us. Anger is a common reaction to change, especially change that is out of our control. Get angry, but please don’t get angry with us. Gender dysphoria is not something that we chose. If you need to get angry, get angry with the change, with the dysphoria, with the situation, but not with us.

To speak assertively: at some point, you have to accept that our transition is not just a phase, it isn’t going to go away. If you want us in your life, you must make an effort, too. Acknowledging this fact is the first step to accepting our transition and that goal of giving us a hug and saying something similar to: “That’s great news. I’m so happy that you have reached a place where you feel able to express yourself in a way that is true to the person you really are. How can I best help and support you?”

To answer the question, “How can I best help and support you?”, all we ask is that you are as proud of us as you always were. Be open and honest about our transition, don’t hide it. Be as proud that you have a trans* family member as you are of the other things we have done in our lives and the other members of your family. If you hide it, you are suggesting to those outside the family that there is a reason to hide it, that it is something of which to be ashamed. When people see that those closest to us accept our transition they, too, will take that attitude. After all, if those closest to us accept us, what right have others to find it “weird”? This also maximises our chances of staying safe from transphobic attacks – one of your fears for us. If we have allies who will step into defend us, we aren’t alone.

And that is what all trans* people who come out to their friends and family fear most – that they will end up alone as a result of their revelation. Please don’t do that to your family member, they will be much more vulnerable if you do and you will be the poorer for it.