Beneath the McKibbins Lofts apartment building in Bushwick sits the Traditional Okinawan Karate of Brooklyn. In recent years, this small martial arts studio has hosted a self-defense class designed for women and LGBTQ folks.
Head Instructor Jason Donovan, 45, has taught the class for four years. Donovan said he got the idea for the class after witnessing violent crimes toward women at both of the train stations near his dojo.
“I was getting upset because right between these two subway stations I’ve got a martial arts school,” said Donovan. “I thought, ‘how about I try to get these people into the karate school?’”
Photographer Keith Brooks, 33, has been a student of the dojo for more than a year and is now a co-facilitator of the course. Thanks to Brooks, what started out as a women’s self-defense class expanded to include those who identify as LGBTQ.
Brooks, who identifies as queer, said his personal encounters with violent situations reinvigorated his longtime pursuit of martial arts expertise.
While on a trip in Norway, Brooks said he was approached by three men who asked him if he was gay. They proceeded to punch him, kick him and shatter a glass bottle over his head.
He also recalled an incident on the subway on his way home from the dojo. “Someone just decided to randomly assault me based on the hat that I was wearing,” Brooks said. “I definitely felt targeted. I felt it was kind of unbelievable that this would happen to me or anyone.”
Monica Pedone, 64, an assistant instructor and student of the dojo since 2012, is a transgender woman who also had an experience on the subway when a stranger stuck his middle finger at her. “I put distance in between him and myself,” said Pedone. “One of the strangest things is when you come to study karate, you really hope to never use it.”
According to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an organization combating violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities, 2016 was the deadliest year for LGBTQ Americans on record. New York and Texas had the highest anti-LGBTQ homicides, with five victims in each state.
In 2016, the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services reported 123 incidents against LGBTQ people in its annual report on hate crimes, comprising 20.6 percent of all crimes reported. Hate crimes based on sexual orientation have increased 32 percent since 2012, when only 93 offenses were reported.
On a recent Sunday, the dojo welcomed six new students looking to learn how to protect themselves. One of those students was Nia Wilson, 23, who attended the class hoping to meet fellow queer people and those who share similar experiences.
Wilson recalled being approached by a man while alone on a train in Shanghai. It was clear to her that the man was planning to take her home. She handed him her email and escaped to her college campus to take shelter until she felt safe to be on her way home.
“I feel vulnerable, I feel angry at myself,” Wilson said. “I feel that I am being complicit.”
The self-defense course inculcated a newfound sense of confidence in Wilson, encouraging her to be a “louder and bigger” presence in her own life. She also had a realization after the course: “Kicking somebody [in the groin] is not that bad technically.”
Aside from the physical defense techniques, Brooks hopes the dojo becomes a safe space for those feeling threatened in their communities. “You have the resiliency and power within you to live without violence,” he said.