Inclusivity and valuing human diversity is a growing movement. There are many examples of people who are working hard to ensure that anyone–of any religious practice, personal value, gender identity, sexual preference, or political view–is truly included in jiu-jitsu and beyond. However, there are still times that people are invisible, rejected, or disinvited. The forward progress all around has made it possible for bjj practitioners to examine gym “norms” and stereotypes in this male-dominated world. Sadly, not all BJJ academies have made the progress that is crucial in providing a safe, judgment-free place for all people to train as true teammates…our common desire to work together to help each other develop as bjj practitioners and epitomize what it truly means to be a teammate.
Riley Gray came out as trans about 8 weeks ago. After 9 years at her home gym, after a brown belt promotion, and after developing a close relationship with the coach and owner, she never expected that she’d be asked to leave the gym, a place she called home for nearly a decade. After that experience, you’d understand if she gave up on jiu-jitsu and became resentful. However, Riley is full of compassion, thoughtful reflection, and hope.
Riley is a 29-year-old sheriff’s deputy in Alabama. She was born in Texas and moved to Alabama when she was 3. Jiu jitsu has been a cornerstone of her life since she started in 2011. She describes it as a form of therapy, separate from the standard psychotherapy she also practices. Those of us who train can relate to her experiences and deep connection to the world BJJ. “I didn’t know what I was looking for until I found it. It takes me into the moment. It is the best stress relief; it teaches pain and discomfort tolerance. I know I’m going to be safe and I feel I can control something, that I’m claiming my personal freedom.”
Training has helped her in other aspects of her life, especially her career in law enforcement. Her training has helped her be able to take a step back, feel calmer, and less reactive when people are aggressive. It helps her focus on de-escalation rather than reaction.
It was an absolute honor and delight to interview her. I found her advice to the jiu-jitsu community immediately applicable and accessible. Even though the topic is heavy and the actual story is painful, Riley leaves us with hope.
Tell me what happened at your gym when you came out.
My instructor told me to get ready for my brown belt test. Meanwhile, I had decided to come out and had started coming out at work. Then, I made a post on social media about it. The brown belt test went fine. The whole gym went to dinner to celebrate. After I left, other people stayed to talk about me. This is my pet peeve; it’s betrayal. I have the right to my own voice and to challenge preconceived notions, but I didn’t get that chance then. Other people told my instructor about the social media post.
If I could do anything differently, I’d tell my instructor myself. He was a really important person to me, like a parent. He came to my mother’s funeral, taught me how to throw a baseball. He even let me live in the gym when I was homeless.
So, my instructor called me the next day. We talked for 2 hours. He said I should change my picture on social media, and then he said I should take some time off from the gym. I was floored. Very surprised. I knew we were in the Bible belt, but I thought at most it would be awkward. My instructor told me that other people were coming to him, uncomfortable with me and all of a sudden jokes or things I said for years were uncomfortable. Meanwhile, those same people reached out to me with support, so either he made it up or people were talking about it differently.”
The gym owner, himself, didn’t know what to do about changing rooms and stuff. It wasn’t about me being a customer or gym member. It was saying ‘You’re a problem to be solved.’ I felt like they were trying to shame me. I never felt it before. It was painful. They thought at the drop of a hat that I was a flamboyantly different person, a troublemaker, or that there was a personality shift coming.
Tell me about your journey as a trans woman? Who has been supportive in your life? How did this impact your work and relationships?
I remember in second grade that we used to have days where we could dress-up as the opposite gender and I felt a “rightness” to it. Then in high school I felt the same thing. Four years in a row I got all done-up and at the time I really didn’t understand the contentment, how I felt I could be myself. It was the most comfortable and charismatic I felt in all of high school. I tried to put it in the back of my mind. I had never even heard of transgender people in school; there wasn’t any internet stuff. After graduation, I supported it politically and then later through therapy helped me realize it.”
I’ve started telling people about taking hormones and it is like a burden off my chest, the most free I’ve ever felt. People are slowly adjusting. It’s somewhat dividing for my friends, some support me and some don’t. At work it’s not that bad; I thought that would be way worse, but it is business as usual.As far as my family goes, they are being careful to share concerns and to be supportive. They all took it as I thought they would. I have one sister who is very supportive, and one who is against it. My brother just doesn’t seem to care too much. He is just happy for me. My dad was confused at first, but he’s growing into it.
How has being trans impacted your training experience, both in the past and now?
I never thought I would come out. After I told my coach and he wasn’t supportive, I worried about a lot of things. I worried I was making someone uncomfortable. Did I need to move or change the way I grappled? I wondered if a grip was inappropriate or if they thought I was touching them in a sexual way. I felt nervous that I was going to offend someone.
At my new gym, I’m not the only trans person. People are friendly at this gym.
Just like in life, I’ve gotten more comfortable. However,I still feel like I have a target on my back. I don’t want to be taken the wrong way, too. I think people don’t always know what to think and that’s on my shoulders.
Switching gears now, I’d like to ask for some advice from you. What do you think the ideal response is from coaches or other students in jiu-jitsu? And what do you say to people who say they are uncomfortable training with someone who is trans?
Everyone can have their opinion. There’s no need to say much. It’s really important for people to address it though. Don’t sweep it under the rug. You can say ‘I’m supportive of how you feel. It doesn’t change how I look at you. Keep coming back.’ Verbal acceptance and reassurance is important. Acceptance is how to support trans people. It’s a fact. Move on. You might say, if someone comes out to you, ‘That doesn’t change my opinion of you. When are you coming back to train again?’ It’s like, no slowing down, nothing changes in the gym. As we grow as people, we change and that should be celebrated but it shouldn’t affect the gym.
I understand people need to think for a second. The in-between is especially hard for people, the new changes. I’m going from a strong man to a strong woman. Our perception of gender is usually like a light switch, man or woman. But now I’m a woman with a five o’clock shadow, and that changes people’s perceptions of me and of gender.
People need to know that it’s a lot for a trans person to come out. Validate. Be patient. Don’t go with that gut instinct of ‘I can’t accept it.’ I think if people think or feel that way, they need to soul search a bit and understand why they feel that way and deal with that.”
Any recommendations on how a trans or queer person can tell if a gym is a safe or inclusive place to train, whether they want to be out or not?
“Listen to how people talk. You can pretty quickly get a sense of someone’s views based on what they joke about. The warning signs are jokes that are disparaging, about “others”. This will tell you what they are okay with. It’s not necessary to have overt social justice language. See how the gym interacts and if cliques form.”
Any advice on how to come out as trans or queer, or how to talk with instructors or members?
“Tell the instructor before you come out on social media. I think my instructor was hurt by me not going to him first. The instructor’s reaction will paint the picture of what the whole gym thinks.
How can gym owners or instructors communicate to trans people that either the environment is safe or that they have trans members’ backs?
“Owners need to articulate that it is all inclusive. It should be in the contract/waiver that they don’t discriminate against anyone. No one should live in fear of who they are. Make it clear that it’s safe to speak up; let people know that they will be safe. Verbally state that the environment is safe. Knowing before you put the gi on that the place is behind you and supportive is really important.
Say something when a new member comes like ‘If you have anything on your chest, let us know.’ Correct any homophobic or inappropriate jokes. Role model that people need to speak-up if they hear that.”
What else do you want readers to know?
“I would say that no matter who you are or where you come from, there will be a place for you. If you come out and your gym rejects you, don’t assume that’s the end of the world, that you can’t do jiu-jitsu. There is somewhere else.”
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.