We all want our training partners to feel comfortable and safe entering our gyms: I am writing this essay under that assumption.
I have been a BJJ practitioner of 7 years. I also manage my gym so I am often considering the culture of our gym and crew, how to attract and retain members. I generally keep a pulse on the place. I’ve attended seminars, camps, and visited other gyms. I do not identify as LGBTQ but I do see myself as an ally. In that role, I feel it is my job to speak up when I see inequality or oppression of their community. I have been struck by the lack of visibility of the LGBTQ community in BJJ. Surely this is not because they do not exist in our ranks, though if that *is* the case, then we have a lot of work to do to make our gyms accessible and welcoming. It is not incumbent upon them to prove their existence or ask to take up space. Rather, it is incumbent upon me, us, and our community at large to ensure our spaces and community are inclusive and safe. June was Pride Month and so it seems apropos to stir the minds and hearts of our community to consider whether we are celebrating and making space for our LGBTQ brethren.
To train BJJ, you must trust that your partners have your best interest and safety in mind while both of you practice implementing deadly force. I wonder how this feels to someone who identifies as LGBTQ but who is not sure of whether their identity is truly accepted let alone celebrated in their gym? Further, if you are not sure if a community gym or business supports LGBTQ people, you will be less likely to walk in, to try to join the community, to take those risks that are already significant in BJJ.
There are a variety of ways that LGBTQ people may feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I certainly have heard—and corrected—homophobic language used to describe our sport. It ranges from telling men they look “gay” when rolling to using gendered language and derogatory terms to describe men losing to women or losing at all. Many of those behaviors reinforce heteronormative culture and communicate to LGBTQ people that their identity is not welcome and is explicitly rejected and mocked. We must correct the behavior when it occurs and communicate explicitly to members that this behavior is not tolerated.
Rarely do I see expressions of pride in BJJ gyms. No rainbow flags or symbols denoting safe zones. I haven’t seen any LGBTQ pride rash guards though military and other identity/cultural norms are represented. To be fair, I have only my anecdotal experience but it seems notably absent and invisible in this realm of my life compared to the others. We could rectify this situation.
There are ways we could be not just inclusive but perhaps positively contribute to the lives of our LGBTQ training partners. Consider the impact of learning BJJ for people of marginalized communities. People who face discrimination and violence every day may really benefit from the self-defense and confidence that come from training BJJ. This is not to say that marginalized communities are responsible for their own oppression; real change is required at the societal level. But teaching ways to be physically safe may be a concrete way that our community can contribute to social justice and a change in attitudes towards marginalized communities.
There is a culture of invisibility, a version of color-blindness, in BJJ in general around issues of diversity. It is one thing to simply tolerate the existence of different others. It is another thing entirely—and what we should strive for—to invite, witness, and embrace all parts of our training partners’ identities.
I love my training partners who come from many walks of life. I want to know them if they want to be known. I want for them to feel not just safe but to know they are included, loved, and supported at least in their jiu-jitsu community. We can create and hold a safe space for them and it is incumbent upon us to do so if we truly care about our community.
Jess Buckland is a purple belt training at Raptor Academy of Martial Arts in Central PA. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice and mom to a 13-year old. When she’s not training you can find her riding her bike, walking her dog, writing about jiu-jitsu or doing NYT crossword puzzles.