On its surface, Brazilian jiu-jitsu was not a sport that I belonged in. To say that it is macho is an understatement.
On its surface, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) was not a sport that I belonged in. To say that it is macho is an understatement. With deep roots in traditional Japanese martial arts, it is both intensely disciplined and, at times, chauvinistic. Its audience is predominantly male and it tends to attract men who like mixed martial arts (MMA), Joe Rogan, and protein powder—that is, men who embrace their cultural license to engage with violence as entertainment, as self-improvement, and as a way to bond. Even men who have never thrown a punch know violence as their birthright. Under the right circumstances, the sweetest milquetoast believes he can go John Wick on the person who threatens him or his loved ones.
I am not a milquetoast, but I do know my limitations. My real-life experiences with fighting taught me that the only way to win was to hit first, with the goal of disabling the other person as quickly as possible. I won each of these fights, but only by hurting the other person so severely that they lost the desire to keep attacking. Deep down, I also knew that I was helped by the social contract that says to “never hit a girl.” When I stopped living as a girl, I lost that protection—and became vulnerable to physical violence in a way I had never been before. Jiu-jitsu is not a striking art, but it does make it possible for smaller practitioners to survive against—and even defeat—bigger, stronger, and taller opponents, even when the fight goes to the ground. In the first UFC fight on November 12, 1993, black belt Royce Gracie—who weighed 178 pounds—beat former boxing champion Art Jimmerson, who outweighed him by twenty pounds. Royce was nicknamed “The Giant Killer” for fighting competitors who were much larger and heavier, beating them by applying submissions that did not require muscle, but skill.
Jiu-jitsu was created in Japan, perfected in Brazil, and marketed in the United States. Japanese jiu-jitsu is the root art of judo and focuses on throws and joint manipulation to take away an opponent’s desire to fight. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a type of grappling that focuses on ground-fighting and forcing the opponent to submit through chokes, joint locks, or other holds. Rarely flashy, jiu-jitsu is the most challenging martial art; it takes ten to twelve years of dedicated, consistent practice to earn a black belt. For comparison, it takes about five years to earn a black belt in karate or Tae Kwon Do.
The combination of discipline and discomfort that jiu-jitsu offered felt irresistible to me. So did physical contact. I first noticed this complex craving during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we stood six feet apart. I was surprised to feel a longing for a very specific type of touch. Not sex, not gentleness. Violence. I watched videos of fights and rigorous dance choreography and felt a physical hunger when I saw the participants collide.
I missed feeling strong and capable, in command of myself. I missed the way my body felt when it slammed into someone else’s. I missed mosh pits. I missed the rugby bruises that decorated my elbows and knees like uncut sapphires. I missed being lifted in the air, all six feet of me, and folded over a friend’s shoulder. I missed punching, being punched. My life was suddenly devoid of conflict, and it left me lonelier than I’ve ever been.
In the pandemic and its absence of skin-to-skin contact, I also lost touch with my capacity for conflict altogether. I had always been drawn to tension, disagreement; I am not one of those queers who is into holding space. I agree with Sarah Schulman, who wrote that conflict is an invitation to intimacy. The nuanced dance between two fighters—whether they’re arguing about a poem or grappling in an octagon—fascinates me. I am never more myself than when I’m in conflict with someone.
I knew from experience, and was relearning in my gender transition, that if I wanted to live, I had to be willing and able to protect myself.
Tenderqueers? Not for me. More like tenderized. I sought out conflict the way some people seek sex. It made me feel alive and connected to the people around me. It also made me feel prepared to cope with the non-consensual violence I faced, first as a queer person, and then as a visibly transgender one.
During the pandemic, I was focused on survival, like so many others—but for me, that meant I could never let myself be defenseless. I knew from experience, and was relearning in my gender transition, that if I wanted to live, I had to be willing and able to protect myself. From the moment I knew myself as queer—and later, nonbinary trans—I knew a simple truth: Every queer person should learn how to fight.
The gym near my apartment was an open, welcoming room with pristine mats in primary colors. It was March of 2021, just days after I got my first round of the Pfizer vaccine. Preparing to touch a total stranger for the first time in ages, I found I was nervous. I suited up in a borrowed white cotton gi and an N-95 that covered everything but my eyes.
Though I was starved for human contact, I was unprepared to reenter binary spaces. Gender is a social construct, and in isolation, I had forgotten that I was a minority. In my mostly-virtual social interactions, I talked with people who already knew my gender identity. But there were no name tags here. Looking around the circle of strangers, I realized that for the first time in over a year, I was in the presence of cisgender people who had no idea I was nonbinary trans. My voice, lowered by a couple years on testosterone, was muffled by my mask. My post-surgery body was masculinized even further by the unisex boxiness of my gi, a kimono top and pants. Partially covered, the facial expressions and body movements that signaled femininity were muted or erased. (In no-gi jiu-jitsu, practitioners wear wrestling spandex that leaves nothing to the imagination.)
I would later learn that the gym I’d chosen was exceptional for a number of reasons. For one, it was immaculately clean, well-lit, and fresh smelling. Trophies and shiny championship medals glinted in the lobby. I also noticed that it wasn’t a bro show: there were more women present than men, even among the upper belts. Many academies begin class with militaristic warm-ups that arrange students by rank. Instead, my class sat in a circle to stretch and check in.
After shaking my hand and introducing himself, the black-belt instructor—who went by “coach,” instead of the more traditional “professor” or “sensei”—began the lesson. We gathered around while he demonstrated a throw called a seoi-nage on an uke, the person assisting in the demonstration. The coach’s enjoyment was palpable as he swept his partner off their feet. Decades of practice and hundreds of tournaments smoothed his movements into a single, elegant gesture. The uke’s toes brushed the ceiling. After a few repetitions, the coach turned to us with a smile.
“Seoi-nage is a razzle-dazzle move,” he explained. “In tournament jiu-jitsu, you would never turn your back to your opponent like this. We’re learning the shoulder throw today so that you can have the experience of kuzushi.”
Kuzushi, I learned, is the sense of momentum that is created by pulling or pushing somebody. Yank on your partner’s arm, and they either fall toward you or resist. Either way, kuzushi is present—a subtle sense of flow that links the two fighters as they test one another’s balance.
We divided into pairs and practiced twisting our opponent’s wrist outward, as though looking at their invisible wristwatch, then throwing them to the ground. My back hit the mat, making me burp out a puff of air. My skin stung and my spine tingled. After months in near-total isolation, the impact was a shock.
“You okay, man?” my partner asked.
“Let’s do it again,” I said. I reached out, he hoisted me up, and we started from the top. My legs sliced through the air in a perfect semicircle. This time, I welcomed the crash. I felt alive for the first time in months. Within an hour, I was hooked. At the end of the class I staggered to my car in a daze and sat there for a long time, looking at the way my hands grasped the steering wheel. My fingers, once strong from squeezing a mop handle, had weakened from disuse. My cuticles were ragged from grabbing the gi’s rough fabric over and over. My partner was heavier than me, more experienced. But it didn’t stop me from putting him on his back. Is this what I’m capable of? I asked myself.
But I already knew the answer.
For me, choosing to transition—and live as an out, nonbinary trans person—meant sacrificing my safety for my happiness. When I was a woman, I learned firsthand about the risks of walking around in a female-looking body. I’ve experienced rape, physical and verbal assault, and intimidation. But I could still hide inside my whiteness, my femininity. I could still claim victimhood, deploy my white-woman tears, and be believed. Living as a white woman, fighting back was encouraged. Praised, even. I might not get justice following an assault, but I would get sympathy and support. But when I started looking like a man, the rules changed.
Now, I was visibly trans and afraid of the consequences. Onlookers don’t intervene to help trans people when they’re attacked in public. If we survive, we are blamed for somehow instigating the attack. The FBI ranks Oregon, the state where I live, eighth in the nation for the most anti-LGBTQ hate crimes—and, as though to confirm it, I was threatened by a group of six drunk men outside a bar in broad daylight the same week the stat was released. As a trans person, I was painfully aware that I had nobody but myself. My ability to defend myself was a pressing question of life and death—and I didn’t want to be on the list of trans people who lost their lives to violence. I didn’t want to be a hashtag.
At the same time, I wasn’t going to live in my victimhood or walk around feeling like I had a target on my back. Pre-transition, I put at least one man in the hospital for attempting to harm me. I kicked another one down a flight of stairs after he tried to corner me at a party. I was willing to fight. What I needed was a safe place to practice—and specifically, to practice fighting men who were bigger, stronger, faster, and more aggressive than I was.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, with UFC helping to put it into the mainstream. The rear naked choke, a blood choke applied from a back-take, is now part of the American male lexicon. The merits of different strategies or holds are debated on innumerable BJJ-themed Reddit threads; in jiu-jitsu forums, even the greenest practitioner ventures his opinion on everything from heel hooking to Joe Rogan’s latest podcast. Rogan himself—a stand-up comedian, BJJ black belt, and UFC commentator—claims an audience of 11 million listeners and 200 million monthly downloads of his podcast. For better or worse, he is an ambassador for the sport and its virtues.
However, Rogan’s ignorant and irresponsible comments about transgender people—especially trans women athletes, such as Fallon Fox, the first out trans MMA fighter—are as popular as the rest of his opinions. This gave me pause. Would I be rolling with a dozen mini-Rogans? Going to my new gym, I feared that transphobia would be hard-baked into the culture. In that case, I could have simply tried to pass. It’s true that masculine-presenting trans people can blend in this ultra-male sport, competing in the men’s divisions and passing as men on the mat. (Many trans women don’t have that same ability and are unfairly targeted by tournament guidelines, ignorant teachers, and community members that push them out. Without an international governing board, events are privately run, which places trans competitors at the mercy of their promoters’ personal opinions. Still, trans people form groups, train together, and share the art of self-defense in safe spaces all over the world.) I didn’t want to stay closeted just to acquire some self-defense skills.
As it turns out, I didn’t have to. This extremely traditional, binary, macho sport had space for me, too. Rogan may be one of the best-known faces of BJJ, but he isn’t the only one; the sport includes brilliant strategists like John Danaher, swaggerific stars like Eddie Bravo, and international champions like Xande Ribiero, Roger Gracie, and others. There are as many styles of jiu-jitsu as there are competitors; my own coach assured me that if I kept showing up, I’d find my groove, too.
While “inclusivity” as my corner of the internet understands it is new to BJJ, I was accepted at my gym without question. I feared being singled out or treated differently, but from my first class I was treated with the same respect as everyone else. As I got more comfortable, I showed up more often and felt safe enough to disclose to my teammates. They know me as a nonbinary trans person, a competitor, and a friend. Over the past eighteen months, I’ve gotten more confident in my skills and while I know I’m barely scratching the surface of what this practice has to offer, I am less fearful in public than when I walked in the door on day one.
Ever notice that plenty of people talk shit, but none of them know how to fight?
Claiming my space on the mat was never meant to be a political act or a statement of anything other than my right to protect myself and my loved ones. However, in practicing, I have noticed a subtle shift in my relationship with my body and my willingness to fight. Hours of practice taking down an opponent, choking them into submission, or dislocating their limbs will do that, I guess. I stand with new confidence now. I don’t worry about what others say to or about me—ever notice that plenty of people talk shit, but none of them know how to fight? I am not afraid to go places alone or at night, and when I’ve faced aggression in public, I knew how to deescalate the situation instead of panicking. I don’t seek conflict, but I’m not running from it, either.
After almost two years of spending 8-15 hours on the mats every week, my relationship with conflict has changed. I now understand it as a way of navigating life and its unexpected challenges. Jiu-jitsu provides a safe, supported space to develop the resilience I need to live as a trans person who refuses to hide.
At my gym, the rounds of mat time are five minutes. My partner and I slap hands, bump knuckles, and collide in an explosion that ends with my legs around his ribs. He stands before I can sweep him off his feet and bends over me with his forearm bearing down into my neck. I should do more than grab his elbow, but I am thinking—about whether the pain of my crushed trachea is motivating enough, about whether he’s closed off my carotid arteries with an Elvis choke, about angles and levers and how much time I have left to make my next move.
I have been strangled in different contexts by other men—with my permission and not—but a Brazilian jiu-jitsu choke is different. This time, I am not afraid. I am happier than I have been in years.
I swivel my hips to one side and turn, looping my right arm around his ankle. His forearm’s pressure vanishes, and with a push, I unbalance him with a handstand sweep. He goes down, I come up on top of him, and in a moment, my hands are in his lapels, forcing him to tap. We grin at each other, both glowing with sweat.
“Una más,” he says, and we climb to our feet to find our wrestling stances again. I am newly alive and aware of every sense. Here, on the mat, I am myself—strong and vulnerable, self-assured and still learning. Here, I get to begin again and again. I feel the flow of kuzushi moving me from one position to the next. Instead of struggling, I give into it so that I can fight without fear, discovering comfort in the discomfort of being alive.
C. R. Foster is a queer, nonbinary trans writer from Portland, Oregon. Their critically acclaimed short story collection Shine of the Ever is available from Interlude Press.