In Jiu Jitsu, I love stirring trouble by challenging dogmas and absolutes and ushering everyone to challenge things that make no sense. Then, I smile with joy as I see people’s expressions when they start thinking and stop simply accepting. I will attempt to do the same today on a subject just as important as any technique or concept in the sport – homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu.
“It’s Only Gay if You Make Eye Contact”
This is a sentence most people involved in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu have heard and possibly said themselves. I have as well, repeated it as part of the culture. Somehow, just like many other “stereotypical” BJJ things, this one never made much sense to me, and I don’t like things that make no sense.
Even people outside Jiu Jitsu use this phrase, commenting on the fact that two people of the same gender roll around on the ground in weird positions and in such close proximity.
As a straight man, comments of this nature never got to me if they were intended to be insulting. If it was a joke, it failed miserably in that department.
Homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu is something that should not be discussed. Why? Let me draw it out for you: it is just sexuality with four letters added. And most people in any sport agree that sexuality should not define the experiences in any sport. Why should BJJ be different?
As biological beings, we have strong sex drives that allow us to reproduce. However, since we’ve evolved (on paper, at least) past most other mammals and have what we refer to as consciousness, we do have other things in life to do outside of reproduction.
That means our sexuality is just a part of us as individuals, and not the defining part.
And yet, sexuality often seems to be something people use to define others, and the mats are no different. It goes beyond just homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu, it also has to do with heterosexual relations.
Locker rooms are a very tough environment in every sport, but in combat sports, it goes beyond that. There is an entire bully culture hidden behind “jokes” and “buddy comments”, which are sadly no more than thinly veiled insults based on the insecurity people feel when they can’t identify as others, particularly sexually.
For a community that claims to be open-minded about everything, often saying things like “how can you learn if you don’t evolve and change? BJJ people are quite homophobic, as I have come to believe during my 12-year involvement in the sport, even if they don’t mean it negatively and insultingly.
“Fear” of Coming Out
I’ve spent many waking hours inside martial arts locker rooms and on mats for the past three decades. When I look back at things, I see patterns repeating themselves repeatedly.
Driven to an extent by Einstein’s definition of insanity, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” I have tried to learn from past experiences and make the training environment a neutral and safe zone for everyone. As a coach, that is one of my main priorities.
Unfortunately, creating a safe yet pleasant and fun environment is not easy. I am not a fan of the military type of training discipline, where people have to listen or get punished. I much prefer relationships built around respect.
And yet, on certain occasions, when I’ve had to address the issue (which unfortunately is still an issue) of sexuality on the mats, mostly in terms of male-female relations, I see people nodding, and I see those expressions of comprehension when they are listening.
The crowd mentality kicks in when the group is back in locker rooms. Although in most cases, people have gotten the message and will act accordingly on the mats, in a social setting, they won’t sacrifice their “status” by offering an actual individual opinion.
Many Jiu Jitsu students have openly admitted they are afraid to come out. In general, the nature of the sport, fueled by dumb memes like the one above about eye contact and the locker room bully culture, make it uncomfortable and even intimidating for people to come out.
People have said to me directly or to others that they feel cagy about sharing their homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu circles, particularly after being accepted as “one of the boys/girls” in the locker room culture.
In most cases, such fear is not warranted, given that most people, although unable to hide the surprise on their faces at learning about one’s sexual orientation, won’t act differently on the mats once they do.
Of course, geography and demographics play a role in this, as some parts of the world are still strongly opposed to homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu and every other aspect of life.
There have been examples given by students where they’ve heard threats like “I’ll never let go of a submission on a gay person” and even more gruesome stuff that I won’t care to repeat.
While there is not much we can do about changing an entire population’s approach to something that is biologically an integral and big part of us; we can certainly influence it in a controlled setting like a BJJ gym because Jiu Jitsu truly is for everyone.
The blame for open, or even worse, hidden homophobia in Jiu Jitsu gyms lies strictly with coaches.
Homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu: Roll Out!
I try to be as objective about everything as I am when analyzing techniques, positions, concepts, and the like. Personally, sexuality has never played a role in my interaction on the mats. When it is time for Jiu Jitsu, there’s nothing else in focus, and I have dated people from gyms on multiple occasions.
There is a strong community out there of people that will offer support to anyone thinking about coming out to their gym. In most cases I’ve heard of or asked gay friends and fellow grapplers about, the gym is the last place they come out to, or as an LGBT Facebook group says it: roll out to.
Let that sink in for a bit.
The one place we associate with openness, acceptance of everyone, and the will to experiment and learn from each other, is where people feel the least secure in sharing one of their most defining traits as both humans and individuals – their sexuality.
I am the first to say we must be doing something wrong on a global scale here in terms of accepting homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu for what it is – sexuality, which we all have and value quite a lot.
In almost every case where people either indeed a Jiu Jitsu gym openly gay or came out, later on, they ran into a very supportive environment. Even though people subscribe to the locker room mentality, they will act as they truly feel on the mats.
The issue is not accepting people. The issue is presenting ourselves as unwilling to do so by enforcing a crowd mentality that makes it difficult and even scary for people to share who they are.
While I salute projects like the Jiu Jitsu school led by the first openly gay Brazilian couple, Ana “Baby” Vieira and Luanna Alzuguir, in Boynton Beach, I am ashamed that the sport I love so much needs actions like this to convey a simple message that, inherently, we all agree on – you’re safe on the mats no matter who you are.
The Jiu Jitsu Oxymoron Syndrome
It is truly baffling how people can be so closed-mindedly open-minded. People choose a certain subject and tunnel vision their “open-mindedness” on it, using it as an example of how open they are.
Jiu Jitsu is the real epitome of the oxymoron syndrome, and I am not just saying it in terms of homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu.
We’re open to learning everything, evolving and entertaining every idea about “new” and “unorthodox” moves as long as facts back it. However, that is only true when we discuss it or try it once or twice. Then, we’ll go back to doing the same thing repeatedly, even though others seem to be proving it ineffective.
Only when the opinion of the crowd shifts do people allow theirs to follow, which is the complete opposite of being open-minded.
It is the same with sexuality.
We are here for the Jiu Jitsu only, and when you’re rolling, you’re not thinking about anything sexual or romantic with the other person. I’ve had girlfriends I’ve rolled with, and even though we’re both obviously very comfortable with each other sexually, the entire exchange is technical.
People are capable of this, and it should be the standard. Yet, females are often afraid that male training partners will take advantage of them, and there is plenty of evidence to prove that this happens more often than we’re ready to admit.
In terms of homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu, the tables are usually turned. People will fear that a gay training partner might be there “to cope with a field, ” which is scary. Well, now you know how many women feel when enrolling with men, so what will you do about it?
The duality of everything in Jiu Jitsu is often tiring, and I can’t see it ever going away because it has to do with one of the hardest things for humans – admitting something to themselves.
There is a reason why everyone wears a Gi or uniform in martial arts. It is to remove our differences on the outside in the real world and present us as equals to each other.
What matters on the mats is what we do on the mats, and how we treat everyone else. What we do in our free time off the mats does not define us on the mats. Someone’s job, material status, religious beliefs, political stance, etc., does not influence what they do on the mats.
So why should sexuality be different, and why should we try to deflect the subject of homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu by way of mean comments and dumb jokes and memes? We’d all be better off accepting people as they are, just as we should accept Jiu Jitsu as it is.
I am willing to discuss this and any other subject at length with anyone. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting great people in the Jiu Jitsu community, and I can safely say some of them have impacted my life hugely as friends and sources of motivation. Homosexuality in Jiu Jitsu should never, ever again, merit its own article, regardless of the scope.
That said, I will end by challenging another, more modern dogma: Going overboard on political correctness actually destroys the very concept of political correctness, on and off the mats.
It is all about balance!
Ogi is a black belt that does Jiu Jitsu full time and is very passionate about anything grappling-related.
He is also the head coach of Enso Jiu Jitsu in Macedonia and an aspiring Globetrotter.