Link to original Them.us article: https://www.them.us/story/mma-class-trans-inclusive
When I first approached an abandoned-looking building in New York City in hopes of attending my first MMA lesson, I found myself circling the area, searching for other people who may have been heading to the same free class for women and nonbinary people. It was getting dark. My palms started to sweat and my heart started to race. I double-checked the address on the flyer. This was it.
I ran through my internal defense checklist — I’m a trans woman, and I’ve been confronted in public about my gender before, so I’m always on guard and aware of my potential vulnerabilities. I held my bag close to my body to decrease the amount of area one could grab onto. I pushed my chin down to protect my neck and leave less of my face open to an attack. I looked straight ahead and prepared to spot any sudden moves in my periphery.
I then realized I was tapping into self-defense skills to get myself to a self-defense class.
I was facing a fear by going to Pop Gym’s free, weekly MMA class for women, trans, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary students. It wasn’t traveling alone while queer that I was afraid of; I was going back to an environment that was never welcoming to me or to other queer people, to a sport that re-enforced the internalized transphobia that I am still working through today.
Finally, someone showed up with a gym bag and a book I recognized from the LGBTQ+ section of the bookstore. I was in the right place. Another person arrived with Muay Thai shorts. They greeted us, taped a sign on the old weathered door, and we were in.
From the outside, I had assumed we were walking into an abandoned warehouse, so I was surprised to enter what looked like something between a scene out of Paris Is Burning and the ending of Enter the Dragon. There were mirrors, chandeliers, walls painted with murals. I could feel the queer magic everywhere. I started to imagine I was in an LGBTQ+ version of a Bruce Lee movie. Already, I was sold.
The instructor introduced themself as Grey, using the pronouns they/he. I was stunned. This person, wearing martial arts clothes, holding a bag full of boxing wraps and Muay Thai kicking pads, wanted to know my pronouns and introduced themself with their own.
This was a culture shock. It wasn’t too long ago that I was attempting to convince my friends and family that I was happy with the male gender I was assigned at birth. In my mind, there was a checklist of everything I was taught to be in order to be accepted as a “normal” cisgender man; for me, that meant creating an aggressive, hypermasculine persona. Mixed martial arts was my preferred method to achieve this.
Just looking the part of a trained fighter was a leap into the hypermasculine appearance I trying to sport. A shaved head, defined biceps, a thick wrestler’s neck, and facial hair was the baseline. My tone of voice was similar to a drill instructor without a platoon. I left most people with the impression that at some point we would end up in a fist fight. It was perfect.
I spent most of my 20s trying to be the strongest, fastest fighter I could be. I would ride my bike for miles to the gym. Once I got there, I would full-contact spar with multiple opponents. I was a master at Bas Rutten liver kicks, Georges St. Pierre double-leg takedowns, and the Eddie Bravo rubber guard.
Being a fighter was a way to convince myself and the rest of the world that I was a masculine person, a cis man who belonged in mainstream society. My ultimate goal was to fight in the UFC, believing no one would be able to question my masculinity if I fought my way to facing people in the Octagon.
Fast-forward to the fully actualized, feminine person I am today. I don’t need an outlet to prove my gender. My unique blend of femininity and masculinity is more powerful than any submission hold or right hook I could ever throw. My authenticity in the face of constant adversity is more fearless than challenging the toughest opponent in the cage.
At most, an MMA fight lasts 25 minutes. Fighting oppressive cultural norms is a lifelong battle. In the cage, all you have to do is tap out. There’s no way to tap out of discrimination.
At the MMA class, Grey made sure to include people of all gender identities. I couldn’t hear the first exercise instructions because one of my classmates was asking me for transition advice about hair removal. I followed the other students’ lead in a circle where we duck-walked around the portable wrestling mat. I couldn’t help but practice my voguing under the giant chandelier.
This was a far cry from the toxic MMA environment that I was used to. I was waiting to be misgendered, or for my femininity to be seen as a weakness. My mind replayed transphobic comments from Joe Rogan’s interviews about Fallon Fox, a transgender MMA fighter. I thought of Dana White, the president of the UFC, giving a speech in support of Donald Trump at the Republican Presidential Nomination. I remembered the existence of the alt-right MMA fight clubs that are increasingly popping up worldwide.
None of those things were present at Pop Gym. Grey, who reminded me of almost every member of the original Power Rangers, led us through different Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu jitsu techniques and practical self-defense escapes for different situations. I found myself teaching my training partner ways to gain the upper hand while scrambling with an attacker on the ground.
I hadn’t stepped on a wrestling mat in eight years. I’ve always loved the chess match that happens between two opponents who are similarly skilled in MMA, and I had missed the bonds that form after challenging your body and skill with someone. It’s hard for me to find it in any other sport. I didn’t realize how much I yearned for it.
Going to Pop Gym gave me a chance to face my fears and revisit a sport that has been a source of physical and emotional trauma for me. It gave me a chance to prove to myself that MMA doesn’t have to be toxic or transphobic. More importantly, the classes allow queer and trans people to feel safer.
As strange as it sounds, it helps to be reminded that a sport where the goal is to render someone unconscious isn’t necessarily gendered, at least in theory. A right hook isn’t masculine and a gogoplata isn’t feminine. They just are, the same as skin, hair, and halter tops. Taking this class helped me to realize that I had been projecting gender onto MMA. I was creating a problem before I even walked into the gym — each time I did so, I carried the cisheteronormative ideals I was trying to escape with me. I wanted to hurt people and I wanted people to hurt me. I wanted someone to choke out the gender roles that were forced upon me. I saw every person who hurt me on the other side of my fists. Being assigned male at birth, this was the only way I knew how to let out pain: with violence. But not anymore.
I plan to go back to Pop Gym to practice the martial arts moves that I once used as a badge of masculinity. I’ll return to the sport without the toxicity I previously used to hide my queerness. You can find me locking on a rear naked choke without gender and throwing the queerest liver kicks you’ve ever seen. I can be as feminine or as masculine as I want, and redefine what it means to be physically strong without regard for social norms.
One punch and kick at a time, I will overcome toxic masculinity.