Trans Brazilians learn how to fight back

Louis GENOT
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'Piranha Team' members participate in a krav maga self-defence technique class in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Next time someone tries bullying Brazilian student Maira just because she's transgender, they may get a nasty -- and painful -- surprise.

Maira, 23, is one of the newest students in a group of transgender and transsexual Brazilians and other sexual minorities taking lessons in the brutal Israeli martial art of krav maga.

They say it's about protecting themselves and no longer putting up with the kind of abuse that is common in Latin America's biggest country.

"I feel unsafe all the time. At any moment someone can throw stones at me or attack me from behind for no reason," said Maira, who like other students in the group calling itself the Piranhas Team, did not want to give her last name.

Krav maga, which was developed for the Israeli military, is a way for people like Maira to even the odds.

Combining judo, boxing and just about every other martial art, krav maga emphasizes real world situations and encourages ruthlessness, including turning everyday objects into weapons.

At the gym in Rio's trendy Lapa district, the more experienced participants wore kimonos, warming up with sit-ups and push-ups, while more recent arrivals wore shorts and T-shirts.

"Come on, move!" shouted the instructor, a young bearded man in a kimono with a blue belt.

Watching the action, with bodies slamming onto the tatami, Maira hesitated. She was just going to watch for now, but she knows how badly she needs to start learning.

According to Transgender Europe, a non-governmental organization, Brazil is one of the deadliest countries for trans people, with 900 killed between 2008 and 2016 -- close to half of the 2,264 deaths recorded across the entire world.

- 'Respect' -

The Piranhas Team -- named both after the fierce Amazonian fish and an abusive slang word in Brazil for women -- tried out several martial arts before settling on krav maga in August.

"We've got to now that we're capable of defending ourselves if attacked. If the fear shows on our face, it raises the risk," said the group's founder, Lara Lincoln Milanez Ricardo, a 31-year-old transsexual resident of Rio.

Alisson, a 39-year-old lawyer who is also one of the main organizers, says that training at the martial arts gym also marks another, more subtle victory in the gender wars.

"Beyond the idea of self-defense, this is about occupying a space traditionally closed off to LGBT communities," he said, referring to a macho streak in Brazilian fighting academies.

In fact, the gym is something of a haven for people used to being judged and abused on the basis of sheer prejudice.

"Here no one looks strangely at me or stops me from going to the toilet that I choose," Lara said.

Lara said that trans people used to be "interested more in dance, but they understand how important it is to be able to defend themselves now."

The classes take place twice a week right after a children's class in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

"At first, there was a bit of laughing from the children, but the instructors told them off at once. Here, this is a place of respect," Lara said.

"It's a place where you don't have prejudice, where we can be full of self-confidence, right in a society that considers us worth less than nothing."