Now that I have your attention… Gender, people! Gender! What were you thinking?!?
Here’s where I’m coming from. For the vast majority of my life I have been hugely ignorant about the multitude of real live human beings who don’t fit the rigid definitions of “male” and “female” that I grew up with. This is actually pretty silly of me because my husband and I didn’t quite fit the definition of “normal.” The unkind labels given me were “tomboy” and “butch.” My dear husband was “sissy” and “fag.” And here we are now – a monogamous heterosexual couple with a little over 28 years of marriage under our belts and two grown offspring who are quite obviously our natural biological children.
28 years of marriage means my husband and I are “normal,” right?
What is normal?
One psychologist asserts that “normal” is merely a setting on the clothes dryer. The word is meaningless when it comes to human beings.
This is the lens I’m looking through as I write about gender and Karate.
Up until the class schedule was changed to a time that is incompatible with my work schedule, I helped out with the Karate PE class at the community college. This college is one of the most diverse in the nation, so my little white cysgender bubble has been expanded. Maybe two years ago, we had two students who, I saw, were at least friends. One day I happened to be eating lunch in the student union, and… Oh! It was pretty obvious they were more than just friends! I squished down some stupid ideas I’d learned somewhere along the way and decided to keep on being the best assistant instructor I could be.
It’s called respect, and it’s a key component of martial arts.
A couple of months later, one of these youngsters got a job at the grocery store. They were most definitely a part of my community for a season. I was sad when they moved away, as young people often do. Even when you’re just an assistant instructor, most of the time you form ties with students. Often you learn from your students, and sometimes the lessons are unexpected. My world was expanded by those two students. They were people I cared about.
I’ve recently finished an autobiography of a martial artist (Searching for Grasshopper by Cathy Chapaty). Her sexual orientation was an issue in a dojo she once studied in. That chapter was tough for me to read. Fortunately, years later Cathy and her former sensei reconciled. But oh, the pain of those lost years! I shudder to think of how much damage I could have inflicted on those two young college students. I read about the damage done to Cathy and I’m now very firmly committed to respecting every student.
If you think gender isn’t a big deal, think again. You need to see your student or your fellow karateka holistically in order to begin to comprehend where they are coming from. It’s the first step in seeing the world through their eyes. That’s called empathy. Empathy is the polar opposite of those careless remarks, those little hurtful things that might slip out when we are not thinking about the other person. The discipline of dojo etiquette is a great conduit of empathy. Communication between student and sensei and communication among students must be respectful, and brevity is encouraged. With such restrictions in place there’s less chance of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth. In other words, we have to think before we speak.
I can hear it now… “Oh, but they should have thicker skin than that, especially because they’re karateka. After all, I was only joking when I said…”
Stop right there.
A dear friend of mine explained this truth to me. Maybe I’ve been stung a few times in my life because of who I am. But she gets stung at least once every single day of her life – some days several times. Yes, Karate gives us strength of character to withstand that. But those stings shouldn’t come from our fellow karateka.
So, don’t discriminate. Right? Well… Here’s an uncomfortable truth for everyone involved. There are still practical things that must be addressed when it comes to gender and karate. What about tournaments? What about belt tests? What about training requirements? I have few ideas, and maybe I’m still ignorant about a lot, but I’m trying. Here are my opinions, for what they’re worth.
I am grateful for the fact that we’re making progress in accommodating transgender individuals in formal competition (Google search International Olympic Committee transgender policy). It seems like there are a lot of restrictions and rigid definitions in those policies. But it’s a start, and I see it as a positive development. There are no easy answers, so I’m sure the IOC is doing the best it can.
In the United States of America, this is strictly a matter for students and their sensei(s). Some organizations’ testing requirements differ for men and women. Some don’t. There is absolutely no interference from any local, state, or federal government agency. This is a good thing. It allows each organization to grow and develop as it sees fit. Lack of government regulation allows each student to discuss their upcoming tests with their sensei(s) confidentially. The last thing that anyone of any gender needs is to have to go to some stupid government office to file paperwork about their identity and their upcoming belt test!
I know what it’s like to run a class full of people with diverse physical types and fitness levels. The college PE class I used to help with gets an almost entirely new group of students every quarter. I’ve helped out at regular dojo(s) too. The best advice I have to offer is to simply think of your students as collections of strengths and challenges. Don’t think, “Oh, she’s female, her strength is in her legs but she won’t be able to do push ups worth jack.” No. You could be wrong on all counts. If you see a student of any gender who can do thirty push-ups but can’t hold a deep horse stance for longer than 20 seconds, you know where they need work.
And, ahem… As far as “equipment” goes… Protect yourself where you need protection. Mmmkay?
So. Maybe I’m still an ignoramus when it comes to gender issues. Perhaps I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth multiple times in this post. In my defense, I offer this. What would things be like if nobody were examining these issues? I grew up in an era when we didn’t talk, we didn’t form ties with people who were different from us. It was unhealthy at best, deadly at worst. The dojo is supposed to be a sanctuary for those who feel the need to learn how to defend themselves. We’re supposed to be building self confidence in our students and fellow karateka. Let’s do it. Let’s build those communities. Whaddaya say?