*By Halisson Paes, from PIranhas Team

We met the oldest active LGBTI self-defense team in the world: the Amsterdam Tijgertje, which has inspired the group that offers self-defense classes to LGBT people in Rio de Janeiro, the Piranhas Team. Its story of fight is intertwined with Europe’s own LGBT rights achievement movement

In April 2017, straight Dutch men walked hand in hand in the streets as a protest to a homophobic assault against a gay couple who were holding hands in a country town in the Netherlands. This situation, so different from what happens in Brazil, depicts a country which is very liberal regarding customs and, for none other reason, was the first to pass a law allowing same-sex marriage with the same rights straight couples have. It’s worthy pointing out that, although other European countries recognized civil unions for homosexual couples since 1989, only Dutch law provided full equality of rights, just like straight couples, including adoption rights.

Heterosexual men waking hand-in-hand through the streets of Netherlands

Those who watch from afar and see how respected LGBTI people are in the Netherlands cannot possibly imagine the very context preceding the group’s struggles.

With the intent of getting to know the longest-running LGBTI self-defense group in the world, we stumble upon a long story of fight against prejudice, and for a more equal, respectful and diverse society.

Culture and Leisure

In 1946, the association that claims to be the oldest one to defend LGBT rights in the world was founded: COC – Cultuur en Ontspanningscentrum, which means, literally, Centre of Culture and Leisure. At a time when prejudice still abounded, the original definition tried not to disclose the association’s true goals.

Inspired by the Stonewall riots, the Dutch LGBTI movement began to promote pride parades known as Roze Zaterdag (Pink Saturday). It turned out that, in June 1982, during Rose Zaterdag, several gay and lesbian people who took part in that demonstration were seriously injured in the streets of Amsterdam by homophobic groups. Not only was that episode stained by violence against LGBTI people but also by the authorities’ neglect in containing the attackers.

From that point on, still in 1982, COC realized that the LGBT community could not remain defenseless and created KaraC (an abbreviation for Karate COC).


The Roze Zaterdag (“Pink Friday”) March from 1982

Back then, next to the location of the training classes, there was a neighbor who greeted the participants saying “What’s up, tiger?”, which has a similar meaning to the expression “fera” (“a fierce one”) in Brazilian Portuguese. Thus, two years later, the group changed its name to Tijgertje or “Little Tigers”.

The current struggle

The sport modality originally chosen by Tijgertje Self-defense was karate. But over the last five years, after an agreement with the International Krav Maga Federation (IKMF), the collective has started a division with Krav Maga training specifically developed for the LGBTI community. As it is a system specially focused on self-defense, the group began to use it in an effective and meaningful  way  in their training sessions.

The Tijgertje team gathered after one of their training sessions

Created by the Jewish community as a form of defense against anti-Semitic violence, Krav Maga is a system that combines various techniques of other martial arts. Its blows are designed to be learned quickly, even by those who do not have previous experience in other kinds of martial arts. In addition, this modality is suitable for people of every weight, age, height, or gender.

As a gesture of support to the LGBTI community, the IKMF has developed, over the last 5 years, a special program for this public: R.E.A.D.Y. – Responsibly Empower And Defend Yourself. This program focuses on more practical and recurring scenarios. The assaults to LGBTs, for example, are usually carried out by small groups of young people (two or three), and take place in the streets, or in bars. Therefore, the training provided by IKMF instructor and LGBTI division coordinator Stephan Wattimena is geared towards how to react and escape situations in those scenarios. The trainings are held every Tuesday evening in a school gym in the Zuidas neighborhood, in Amsterdam.

Stephan Wattimena

In addition to teaching self-defense techiques, the group talks and collaborates with NGO’s and public authorities in order to expand its activities. Last August, for example, Tijgertje LGBTI Self-defense/ Krav Maga, supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the IKMF, offered a self-defense workshop specifically designed for  trans people. To jin the group, people are advised to first attend (and preferably participate in) a free trial class. Should they decide to continue and become an associate member, they pay an annual fee of 200 euros for ca. 40 trainings.

At Tijgertje, the students learn self-defense techniques through krav-maga

The training routine

The rain and the near-zero temperatures at the end of November are not enough to hamper the excitement at the sports center where Tijgertje holds its activities. Amidst the cold, one of the first students to arrive is Anne Archibald, a Canadian trans woman who works in the Netherlands as an astronomer at the University of Amsterdam. Then comes Jan-Pieter de Lugt, the group’s organizer, and Reiner Gerbig, one of its oldest participants, part of the collective for at least 15 years. While some people play soccer, they laugh when they say that if they “waited for a moment without rain or without cold to train around here, no one would ever practice”.

The sports center where Tijgertje holds its activies

Soon the other students and trainer Stephan arrive. They go to their designated locker room, change clothes and then class begins. The class is composed basically by gay men and trans women, but there are also some lesbians and even a few cis female straight students who take part in the training because they feel more comfortable in that environment.

The sessions last about an hour and a half. The exercises alternate and combine punches, kicks, getting out of grapples, and running. The focus is clear: escaping dangerous situations.

Beyond training

Tijgertje, as Jan-Pieter explains, aims at teaching LGBTI people how to defend themselves and, above all, get empowered, feel safer and freer in society. But like in every other place focused on minorities, it also becomes a welcoming environment where people socialize and make friends.

Anne Archibald and Jan-Pieter de Lugt during one of Tijgartje training sessions

For this reason, usually after classes, the group goes out for drinks at a pub near the sports center. As I’m not an exception, I join them.

Amid the conversation in the pub, Anne says that she is aware of the difficult reality of trans people in Brazil, which is very different from the lives of these people in Canada, or in the Netherlands. She tells us, for example, that in her country, the ease with which trans people have medical follow-up for transition makes it possible for them to live as if they were cisgender, which somehow creates a gap in the militancy of the trans movement. On the other hand, she complains that in her experience, “most of the supposedly LGBT places are, in fact, GGG (gay, gay, gay)”, i.e. they are not truly spaces displaying diversity, but predominantly cis gay men.

The Tijgertje team during one of their training sessions

The group is also politically committed. Hans Verhoeven, one of the participants, is the organizer of Amsterdam Pride Walk, the LGBTI march held during the Pride Parade in Amsterdam, which takes place on boats through the canals around the city. He explains that in the Netherlands, despite great achievements in LGBTI rights, there’s a big concern about the political rise of religious groups that oppose those same rights.

He asks me where Brazil stands regarding that. I tell him we are going through a conservative wave, in which LGBTI Pride Parades face a possibility of being boycotted. He then asks where companies stand concerning those matters, since there’s a great articulation between companies and the LGBTI movement in the Netherlands.

He explains that the LGBTI movement in the Netherlands currently fights not only to preserve achieved rights, but also to gain ground on sensitive issues. For example, the creation of specific protocol for the police force in cases of violence suffered by LGBTI people, including those suffered at cruising spots. Similarly, there is an effort to exchange experiences with the LGBTI movement in other countries.

The Tijgertje training sessions use krav-maga as as a self-defense technique for LGBTI people

At the end of the conversation, when the bill comes, they say it’s on them. At this point, it is inevitable to comment that while there, in the Netherlands, they discuss the best way for the police to help LGBTIs who have suffered some kind of violence, including at cruising spots, in Brazil we still need to fight in an attempt to prevent LGBTs from being victims of violence by the very police, and that we still have a long way to go ahead of us. Nonetheless, the existence of successful experiences in the fight for rights is an encouragement for our journey, because of everything, and despite everything.