This Pride Season

A water bottle with a sticker identifying self as not "gay", not "straight", but "wibbly-wobbly-sexy-wexy"

I’ve always had an arms-length relationship with Pride. As a teenager who thought she was straight, I didn’t think Pride was for me. My social circle was aggressively heterosexual and often consumed by petty teen rivalries over boys, and we saw Pride parades as cool things happening somewhere outside of our bubble of interests. I had no idea how to be a good ally. In college, I made queer friends and came to terms with my own sexuality, but still kept my distance from public LGBT events and activism. I came out as bisexual to my close friends and family in my early twenties, and hadn’t made an active effort to hide my sexual orientation since then, but I also didn’t do any work to make it public or engage more actively with the broader LGBT community.

At first, I was scared I wouldn’t be welcome. I came out late-ish, in college, while dating a man. It was stereotypical and tacky and my path to self-discovery involved way too much making out with girls at parties because straight boys egged us on, and my lack of substantial sexual experience with women made me feel like a fake. At the time, it felt like all the lesbians I knew were complaining about college exploration and “Lesbians Until Graduation”, and Dan Savage was writing articles about how most bisexuals were actually straight and were just going through a phase (and this was a softening of his earlier stance that all bisexuals were liars). Who was I to jump into a community I’d never been a part of and announce that I was one of them? When the instructor of a course I was taking on Canadian queer literature casually mentioned that “most gay people don’t trust bisexuals” as if it were fact, I felt hurt and excluded, but I never questioned the truth of what she said.

As I got older, I kept my distance for other reasons. I worried about privilege, and appropriation. For 10+ years, all of my publicly visible, long-term relationships were with men. I’d been married to a dude. I passed as straight without any effort, and many coworkers, academic colleagues, and members of my extended family had no idea I wasn’t. It felt uncomfortable to claim my queerness in activist and celebratory spaces, when I suffered so few of the negative consequences of doing so. I didn’t want to appropriate experiences that were only kind of mine, or take a position I hadn’t earned through sufficient visibility and risk. So I stayed away.

Two years ago, we started building Valkyrie WMAA into a place, rather than just a teaching project. As Courtney, Randy, and I started pulling together our vision for a school of our own, and the kind of community we would foster, inclusion rose to the top of the list again and again. We’d all witnessed — or been subjected to — sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism within the martial arts community, and were certain that our space needed to actively push back against those forces. I was accustomed to being a publicly cranky feminist by then, and had no problem stepping up to talk about the role of women in martial arts instruction and study. I had weathered uncomfortable inter-school discussions where a dozen men would hold forth on how best to teach female students while the only other woman and I were ignored, and survived angry pushback against some of my writing about sexism in the broader HEMA community. I was ready, and excited to carve out a space for myself and women like me.

Courtney and Randy were just as aggressively committed to making Valkyrie a safe space for the LGBT community, and I agreed. Except that I got uncomfortable every time they suggested putting up a Pride flag, or publicly talking about queer issues. All of my fears about overstepping my place or jumping into conversations and spaces where I wasn’t wanted came flooding in. Luckily, my business partners were relentless. As soon as we signed the lease on our permanent space, Courtney turned up with a little cloth flag to stick in the window. We were posting about LGBT athletes, and cheerfully celebrating Pride month on Facebook under our business banner, and taking pictures of rainbows we’d made from boxing wraps. I went to my first Pride parade at the age of 28, flanked by two of my closest friends and some of the best allies I could imagine. I was sick from anxiety the night before.

Already, Valkyrie classes had been the only place beyond my own home where I was consistently out. In a momentary fit of courage (or something) I’d bought a vinyl bi pride sticker at a comic convention. It lived in my drawer for most of a year, before I put it on a water bottle that I would only take to my swordplay classes. In other spaces, if I happened to have the bottle with me, I’d use the palm of my hand to cover the sticker when I drank. During Valkyrie training, it sat out in the open on a side table or community hall stage with everyone else’s stuff. Occasionally, another queer student would point it out and quietly tell me that it made them feel a little more comfortable in our classes, especially once I became a teacher.

When we built our training space, that bubble of safety expanded and accelerated. We had unisex, single-stall changerooms and washrooms, bright colours everywhere (to push back against the dour black-and-white of 90% of martial arts gyms, and against the machismo that usually accompanied the serious colours), and a staff that had stripped their vocabulary of crappy gendered and heterosexist language, set aside their assumptions, and become champions of inclusion and safety for everyone. We had a lot of queer students, and female students, and our classes felt different from anything I’d experienced before. We shared all of our failures and triumphs, laughed at ourselves, gently corrected each other when we slipped into bad, old habits of communication or thinking, and built a space where it felt safe to be ourselves.

Last fall, we were nominated for a Small Business BC Award in the Best Emerging Entrepreneur category, which prioritized community impact and engagement over business growth. To move from the semi-finals to the finals, we had to make a presentation about our business and its values to a panel of judges. In our written application and the presentation, we talked a lot about inclusion. About making excellent training available to people from groups that had traditionally been marginalized within martial arts. About being safe for women and LGBT students in particular. We spent a lot of time thinking about our long-term vision, and confirming that being a safe, inclusive, community-oriented space was absolutely central to our goals for the school. We started re-designing some of our programming with that in mind, and came up with new outreach and accessibility projects that would make training with us available to larger sectors of the communities we most wanted to reach.

During our presentation, one of the judges asked how we knew that we were succeeding in creating a safe space for LGBT students. I talked about my water bottle and how students responded to it. About how we had a very high proportion of LGBT students, and how we’d had them invite their friends to come train with us specifically because we’re a safe space. That women, and queer women in particular, were coming to train with us after having faced abuse and prejudice at other schools.

All of this was true, but it felt like a bit of a dodge. It wasn’t until much later that I admitted to myself that my real metric for our success was much more personal. When I was at Valkyrie, I was myself. Completely. I didn’t try to hide any part of my identity from my students or co-workers, and started really owning my femininity and queerness. I hadn’t expected it to affect my training, but it did. It turns out that it’s a lot easier to make progress when part of your brain isn’t occupied with how you’re coming across to other people and what they might think of you. My movement changed, and became more sure and sensual in a way that was comfortable, and fun, and also tactically effective. I’d always thought of fighting as a form of self-expression — as important and personal as dance, or clothing — but it was only now that I actually managed to embody my self in my fighting. My teaching got better, and I won my first tournament. I felt whole in a way I hadn’t felt before, and my community celebrated that wholeness with me. And then my personal life shifted, in both small and enormous ways. I began a new relationship — one that would never have been possible if I hadn’t undergone the transformation wrought by training and living in a feminist, queer space. My life was full of the giddiness of new love, at the same time as my relationship with my existing partner grew stronger. Joy multiplied.

But contrasts also started appearing: where I hadn’t thought twice about kissing my partner in public, or holding his hand while walking down the street, or snuggling up when I got cold, I suddenly caught myself looking over my shoulder while doing the same with my girlfriend. In the heart of East Vancouver, walking down Commercial Drive (a hippie-influenced, progressive part of town often affectionately referred to as this city’s lesbian district), my heart would speed up in my chest and my shoulders would tighten if a passing man stared at us a little too intently, or for a little too long. When the Pulse shooting happened in Orlando, I was shattered. Someone had attacked my community, at the start of our season of celebration. It broke my heart and made me feel extraordinarily vulnerable in a way I’d never experienced.

It took some time to process why the massacre in Pulse had hit me so hard. I’d always known that homophobic violence was a part of my world and, realistically, I was a white woman living and working in a progressive neighbourhood of a progressive, Canadian city — a very far cry from the victims of the Orlando shooting. Nothing had really changed, except that I was finally experiencing all of what it meant to be queer. I’d gained a profound power and freedom from living openly, but also exposed myself to the dangers that came along with being out. I suddenly realized that I’d spent most of a decade living with one foot in the closet, not because of who I was or wasn’t involved with, but because of the distance I’d worked to keep between myself and the LGBT community. Yes, I’d been scared of rejection, and yes, I’d been wary of throwing around my privilege, but the truth was that those fears were excuses. I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I was utterly terrified of, and that put me in a lot more direct danger than gently correcting someone who assumed I was straight.

What had begun as legitimate fears had turned into a buffer that I used to avoid making myself vulnerable. I’d willingly walled myself off from community and from my own sense of self because I felt safer in isolation. When those walls were breached — by new friendships with other queer women who were secure in their identities, by a community that refused to exclude anyone for who they were and that actively celebrated queerness, and by friends and partners who insisted on loving me exactly as I was — I discovered just how much I’d been missing. I can take the pain of loss. I can take the fear of violence, and the vulnerability of leaving myself open to rejection and exclusion. I can’t take letting a part of myself quietly wither and die because it seemed easier that way. I can’t afford to pull back from all that I’ve discovered in the past year, and it would be a betrayal of what we’re building at Valkyrie and what I’m trying to instill in my students if I turned away from the truth I’ve found and that’s made its way into every aspect of my fighting and teaching.

So this year, I’m going back to Pride. And I’m attending in the spirit of celebration and aggressive wholeness and spitting in the face of fear that has always sat at the event’s heart, and that I finally realize that I’ve always had a right to.