Hackney history: ‘Why I set up a self-defence class for gay people in Dalston in the 1980s’
- Credit: Bishopsgate Institute
Toni Blake has donated memorabilia to the Bishopsgate Institute about a gay self-defence class that launched in Dalston in the 1980s. She tells Emma Bartholomew how being attacked while walking home one night gave her the idea to launch the sessions
Getting punched in the throat by two people on her way home in Dalston one night spurred martial arts expert Toni Blake into setting up a self defence class especially for gay people.
"I think they were on drugs and they could barely stand up, but I was paralysed," said Toni, who is transgender and was living as a gay man at the time.
"I'd got all these skills and I wasn't able to use them," she explained. "I was scared I would get hurt or they would get hurt, and it seemed rude to injure them. I realised I had work to do if I was going to make martial arts useful."
She has no idea whether she was targeted because she was gay, but realised there was no self-defence group specifically for homosexual people at the time.
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"People were being beaten up really badly. If you kissed in public or walked along the road holding hands, it was like taking your life in your hands," she said. "I used to think, 'Who are these idiots who want to beat us up? and I went around with such a sense of outrage all the time, but a lot of the people I knew didn't dare to go out. Some of the activists were on the National Front hit list."
An ad ran in Gay News publicising the first class, and the chair of Milton Keynes Martial Arts Commission, Tony Allen, travelled down to teach it. "Tony did nasty things to me to demonstrate how you can deal with an attacker," said Toni, who is now in her late 60s.
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People were interested to learn more, and the first course began soon after in January 1981 at The Factory in Matthias Road, off Newington Green. Graduates of the beginner's class attended an advance group and became instructors themselves after a year or two.
Classes were also held in the basement of Centerprise in Kingsland High Street, and it became so popular they started classes in south London too.
"The classes were very busy, and we charged a non profit rate," said Toni. "We paid Tony his expenses. On one of the old posters, it says it was a pound entry or 50p for unwaged.
"I don't remember any of the different gay groups being run for money," she said. "People did it out of need and out of love."
Toni taught the classes herself, "for lack of anyone else to step in", but after a year her then lover Bobby - a stunt man with a black belt in Ju Jitsu - took over.
"He was an amazing artist, and he drew those cartoons," said Toni, referring to the an old poster she has donated to the Bishopsgate Institute archives in Shoreditch, along with photos and newspaper cuttings.
"I was killing myself laughing before I dropped them off," she said. "They were comic strip things, and in the last picture the two men walked off hand in hand and the attackers were lying on the floor groaning." Within two years they trained 200 people and about 10 instructors, plus 250 more on one-off day workshops. Toni doesn't know if the classes helped, but she, for one, was never attacked again.
"Subconsciously an attacker attacks someone who they think might be an easy target," she said. "That's an idea that can get twisted around, but generally people who look more confident, carry themselves in a certain way, walk a bit faster and don't look like they will allow people to hit them seem to get attacked less.
People said they felt more confident, and whether that kept them safe from attacks is hard to judge. Probably the most we ever did for people was to make them feel ok about running away and being more aware of what was around them, and to trust their instincts."
After four years Toni stood down as chair and in 1986 set up a training agency for council staff on how to manage violence and aggression.
"None of that would have happened if I hadn't been mugged that night," she said.
"Back then it was a lesbian and gay self defence group but these days groups would call LGBTQ+, because the people most at risk are trans people and in particular trans people of colour - and there are frequent attacks.
"A lot of these things don't get reported because victims don't think anyone will take it seriously.
"I think things have got a lot better for lesbians and gay men but there's a long way to go and sometimes it feels like there has been a step back in the last few years, with social media and Trump and right-wing politicians.
"But there have also been a couple of generations of young gay people thinking there's nothing weird or wrong with this - and that's made a massive difference."