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Title [Martial Arts Globe] Transgender Inclusion in Martial Arts

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  • Date
    03-12-2021
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Dr Anna Kavoura, University of Brighton


Dr Anna Kavoura (PhD in Sport Sciences) is a sport psychology specialist and a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Brighton. Her current research project focuses on trans-inclusive sport contexts in Finland and the UK and is funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation (2020-2022).



Martial arts and combat sports, up until recently, were considered a male domain, not particularly welcoming for women and LGBTIQ+ practitioners. Yet, a cultural shift has been noted over the past few years, and there has been a growing recognition of the importance of facilitating inclusive and welcoming martial art spaces for people of all genders and sexual orientations. However, despite positive changes, transgender inclusion poses a challenge for martial art coaches, academies, and federations.



In this article, I argue for the importance of making specific efforts to safeguard inclusivity and opportunities for participation for all. I offer a brief overview of some of the main problems transgender people face in martial arts and combat sports and make a few suggestions for things coaches could do to overcome them. I use the terms transgender and trans to refer to all people who might identify with a gender that is different from their assigned sex (e.g., trans men and trans women), or might resist gender categorization altogether (e.g., non-binary, gender fluid etc.).



The Importance of Facilitating Inclusive Environments

Being able to participate in sport and physical activity is a human right and nobody should ever have to feel stigmatized or fearful to take part. In addition, failure to facilitate inclusivity and to address incidents of discrimination negatively affects the experiences of all participants and might even hurt the reputation of a martial arts academy.  

Fortunately, research on how to address the needs of trans participants in sporting environments is growing. My own research on trans experiences in martial arts shows that where transgender people find accepting environments, martial arts can be a source for individual empowerment and resilience, and can offer a space of belonging, community-connectedness, and personal development. In addition, the presence of openly trans athletes in a team can have a positive impact to the overall team climate as it contributes to fellow team members becoming more knowledgeable and accepting of gender diversity.



Barriers for Transgender Participation in Martial Arts

Nevertheless, martial art academies and federations are not yet fully equipped to create the policies and training culture that would support trans practitioners. Part of the problem is that, similarly to sport in general, martial arts and combat sports are often organized based on the belief that all people are either men/masculine or women/feminine. People who do not fit this binary may feel alienated and unwelcome, and may even experience harassment and discrimination, unless the sporting environments make specific efforts to cater for their needs.



The transgender martial artists that I interviewed described several persisting challenges, such as the gendered nature of facilities (e.g., lack of safe and gender-inclusive locker rooms and bathrooms), the gendered language and practices in many martial art contexts (e.g., gender-based “jokes”, separating groups based on gender, etc.), the gendered rules of martial art organizations (e.g., gender categories), the lack of clear policies related to trans inclusion, and the lack of visibility and representation of trans martial artists. Coaches’ and fellow team members’ lack of knowledge on gender diversity issues further contributes to transgender martial artists feeling unsupported and marginalized.



Suggestions for Coaches

·       Use appropriate, gender-inclusive language: Coaches should try to be mindful of how they address people, respect the ways that they identify themselves and use the correct names and pronouns. They could also encourage other team members to do the same. In addition, it would be helpful to avoid gendered language in general (e.g., instead of saying “women’s push-ups” one could say “knee push-ups”).

·       Use gender inclusive practices: When planning the training, coaches should be aware that gender-based practices (e.g., separating the athletes in smaller groups based on gender) might leave transgender and non-binary athletes feeling excluded and marginalized.

·       Seek education on gender diversity: Coaches could also seek to educate themselves about gender diversity and equality (e.g., through participating in educational seminars and workshops, or doing their own studying on the topic).

·       Work against own prejudices: Coaches should also reflect on their own beliefs about gender and how these might be influencing their coaching style, coach-athlete relationships, as well as the experiences of athletes of different genders in their team. Working against our own prejudices is not an easy task, but it is necessary if we want to minimize the risk of reproducing gender stereotypes and inequalities or damaging people’s feelings and experiences in our training environment.

·       Acknowledge transgender martial artists’ additional sources of stress: All athletes deal with a variety of expectations and associated stresses and coaches need to be knowledgeable on how to support them in this process. However, transgender athletes face additional challenges, such as the stress associated with having to conceal their gender identity. Moreover, transgender people often have negative (even traumatic) past experiences related to locker-room situations, school PE and sport hobbies. Coaches need to be sensitive to this and willing to support them whenever possible.

·       Facilitate a safe space: Promoting a safe space in martial arts implies that coaches won’t tolerate any form of bullying, hate speech or discriminatory language and behavior, not even in the form of “a joke”. What might look as an “innocent joke” to some people, it might be very hurtful for others.

·       Provide choices: Coaches could empower transgender martial artists through making choices available to them (e.g., whenever possible, allowing them to choose which locker-room they feel comfortable in using, to choose with whom they prefer to pair up during practice, or with whom they want to room together during team trips).

·       Becoming an ally: Finally, coaches could engage in advocacy work (e.g., petitioning for gender-inclusive toilets and changing rooms, for clear policies and more gender-inclusive rules in their respective martial art discipline), so that trans people would not be alone in advocating for their rights.




Further Reading

- Jones, B. A., Arcelus, J., Bouman, W. P., and Haycraft, E. (2017). Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies. Sports Medicine 47, 701–716. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0621-y

- Kavoura, A., Channon, A., and Kokkonen, M. (2021). “Just Existing Is Activism”: Transgender Experiences in Martial Arts. Sociology of Sport Journal. https://doi.org/10.1123/ssj.2021-0004


※ Views in this writing are the author's own.