HARLEM — After the brutal beating death of transgender woman Islan Nettles, André St. Clair, an actor who identifies as a gender non-conformist, decided it was time to take steps to learn how to better protect himself.
St. Clair, who doesn't conform to society's expectations of masculinity or femininity, has often run into conflict with men on days when his appearance is more like that of a woman's.
"I'm often hit on aggressively by strange men who think I'm a woman," said St. Clair. "I've never been attacked, but as a queer person it's always on my mind."
To calm his fears St. Clair was one of 15 people who took a self-defense class for the LGBT community sponsored by a host of elected officials and LGBT groups and taught by the Center for Anti-Violence Education at the Ali Forney Center in Harlem Thursday.
Instructors taught participants how to be more aware of their surroundings and tips like how to use a jacket as a shield to ward off attackers. Varying one's routine and wielding hair spray or cologne like pepper spray was also covered. Participants learned about their options if attacked or threatened such as running or how to coax assistance from strangers.
If all else fails, attendees at the two hour seminar were taught how to strategically strike an attacker at a critical spot like the eye, nose or shins so they could escape to safety.
"None of us is safe until all of us are safe," said senior teacher Gabriella Belfiglio. "I'm hoping they leave this class with new tools and skills to deal with any scenario."
Nettles, 21, a budding fashion designer who had launched into life living as a woman, was beaten on Aug. 17 on Fredrick Douglass Boulevard near West 148th Street after she and two other transgender women ran into a group of men on the street.
Once the men discovered that the women were transgender women, they began using homophobic slurs, and police say, Paris Wilson, 20, beat Nettles unconscious and continued to pummel her as she lay on the ground.
Wilson denies the accusation and remains free on $2,000 bond on misdemeanor charges.
Both the NYPD and the New York City Anti-Violence Project say LGBT hate violence is on the rise. Last year, the New York City Anti-Violence Project received 470 reports of LGBT hate violence in the city, a 4 percent increase from 2011.
People of color and transgender people are especially at risk. About 53 percent of the victims were people of color and just over 14 percent identified as transgender
John Young 51, a professor who identifies as same gender loving, said he's wanted to take a self defense class since the shooting death of Mark Carson in the Village. After Nettles' death, he made sure he found an open class.
"I just wanted some techniques and different ways to protect myself," said Young who added that he wanted more time to practice the moves he learned.
The class started off with an exercise in awareness. Walking around the room as if they were on the street, the attendees were directed to stop suddenly and point out someone with sneakers, something that could be used as a weapon and the nearest exit.
The class then progressed to using one's voice and mannerisms to ward off an attack by sharply saying "stop" or "get back."
Participants then learned how to block an attack with a bat or a knife by learning what part of their forearm to use. Protecting the head is paramount, said Belfiglio.
If all else fails, including efforts to escape, the students were taught how to strike vulnerable areas such as the eyes, nose, throats and knees using the heel of their palms and sharp kicks with the balls of their feet.
"What if you're in a situation like Islan where she's outside on a sidewalk late night with a large group of people?" asked Young.
The class listened as Belfiglio showed how to attack the person closest to you in a group while maneuvering toward the nearest exit or escape route.
"This is the most serious time. This is when I won't mess around. I would use the primary targets to attack and think about getting out of the situation by running," said Belfiglio.
Vanessa Brown, senior pastor at Rivers and Rehoboth, a church which embraces the LGBT community, gave the eulogy at Nettles' funeral. She brought a couple of the parishioners with her to the self defense class.
"Coming away from the Islan Nettles incident, people are being more careful," said Brown. "Tragic incidents like this bring the importance of knowing how to be safe to the forefront."