Big Gay Sword Day and Celebration vs Struggle

group photo of Big Gay Sword Day attendees

Last weekend’s big event for Valkyrie WMAA, Big Gay Sword Day, was created in a moment of frustration. Someone had posted in one of the biggest online HEMA forums and asked a simple question: were there any HEMA events aimed at members of the LGBTQ community? The resulting conversation thread was a shitshow. People scoffed at the idea, and loudly wondered how there could possibly be any value in such a thing. They went on at length about how events like this were divisive, and selfish, and unnecessary for — even harmful to — the health of our martial arts. They posted memes mocking the LGBTQ community. The forum moderators ultimately shut down the comments, but not before my friend Lisa threw down a gauntlet: she’d give at least $100 in sponsorship money to the first group to run an LGBTQ-centric event.

At around the same time, I’d been looking for a good topic for another multi-instructor workshop at Valkyrie. I saw Lisa’s callout and a few friends’ angry responses to the dismissal of queer events, and thought, “We could do this!” Everything happened pretty fast after that. I recruited two great local instructors (Jon Mills and Claire Wemyss of Vancouver Strength Collective), and then got a message from Beth Hammer of Lonin (in Seattle) asking if she could help in any way. We built a roster of four queer teachers (Jon, Claire, Beth, and myself), picked a date and roughed out a schedule, and started promoting the hell out of the event. Lisa and her awesome collective of progressive fencers and brunch-lovers, Team Mimosa, came on board as sponsors, as did Tanya Smith’s Rogue Fencing. The event itself ended up filling our modest training space with attendees from as far away as Los Angeles, and attracting the interest of people around the world. It was a success.

I’ve written the official review of the event already (it’s on the Valkyrie blog), but today I wanted to reflect on what it meant to me. And that’s led me to something that I think a lot of my peers don’t understand about queer events: that they’re not really about struggle, but about celebration.

The culture we live in paints us into a bit of a corner when it comes to talking about this stuff. There’s enough resistance to the idea of running a queer event, that we often have to make a case for why such things are necessary (as if any swordfighting event is “necessary”, rather than “desireable”). This usually means explaining how hard it is for queer and trans people to participate in HEMA. We talk about how we are bullied, harassed, and excluded. We talk about how the machismo of martial arts spaces can make anyone who doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles feel unsafe, or unwanted. We point to ugly incidents like the banning of a trans fighter from a women’s tournament for entirely spurious reasons.

We talk about how queer spaces offer a respite from these pressures. How we need to make time and space for queer and trans folks to feel welcome, and feel safe. How the value of these events is in the reprieve they provide from the challenges of being different. How they allow marginalized people to build community and to realize that martial arts does have space for them to participate. How they give us temporary freedom from harassment and bullying, from the distractions of trying to fit in, and from fear. In other words, we centre queer and trans people’s suffering and struggle.

And none of this is false. But it’s also not really the point — not for me. And it’s certainly not how Big Gay Sword Day felt from the inside.

When we were building the event, we didn’t focus on defending our attendees (or ourselves) from an unkind world. Instead, we put our energy into raising up and celebrating the queer and trans community that already exists in HEMA. We wanted to show off what our queer instructors can do: their knowledge, their experience, their teaching skill, and their passion. We wanted to make a space where queer and trans students could share their own knowledge and experience, and feed off of each other’s energy. We wanted to play. We wanted to have fun. Our planning sessions were full of glitter and terrible puns and cheesy music and obnoxious colour palettes. Our goal was to give our attendees the best learning experience they could possibly get, and to remind the broader community that queer and trans people are already part of HEMA, and that we matter.

See, there’s this weird thing that happens in discussions of LGBTQ events or issues in the HEMA community: inclusion is framed almost entirely as a recruitment issue. The assumption is that HEMA knowledge and leadership lies entirely in the hands of straight, cis people (usually men — though that’s starting to change), and that ignoring queer and trans issues will keep queer and trans beginners from getting access to that knowledge. The LGBTQ community is imagined as something that exists outside of HEMA, and events like this get positioned as a bridge from one community to the other. And sure, martial arts hasn’t exactly been welcoming to people like us, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not already here, and not already contributing.

For BGSD, I was able to pull together four queer instructors without any difficulty or any compromise on teaching quality. The least experienced instructor among us had a decade of martial arts experience under her belt, and a solid coaching background in another field. The rest of us had all taught at events around the world, and run martial arts schools or major HEMA events. Among our attendees were students with 10+ years of martial arts experience, some of whom held leadership positions at other schools. There were beginners, too, including a handful of students who’d never picked up a sword before attending one of our workshops, but this wasn’t a beginner event. Rather, it was a microcosm of the role of queer and trans people in the broader community: leaders, teachers, and students at every stage of their training journey.

We have always been here, and we have always held a portion of the community’s knowledge and skill. HEMA is ours as much as it is anyone’s, and the HEMA and LGBTQ communities are a Venn diagram with significant overlap, and not isolated entities with a tenuous bridge.

What queer events like BGSD do is allow us to celebrate that overlap, and to have an unseemly amount of fun in an environment that actively celebrates the things that we have to downplay or hide in other arenas. They let us be silly and irreverent, and flamboyant and colourful and weird, all while training our asses off.

Last Saturday, every class was filled with laughter — giggling, even. Beth gave a very serious demonstration of body mechanics while carrying another instructor in a piggyback. My workshop encouraged students to fight to music and explore the relationship between sparring and dance. Nobody wore black. Painted nails and brightly-coloured hair were everywhere. At the end of the day, the instructors all took home rhinestoned “little gay knives” as a thank-you gift and memento.

Body issues (including, but not limited to, dysphoria) and mental health challenges like anxiety were taken as givens, and our teachers respected them. Consent was explicit and clear, and students were given the autonomy to manage their own participation based on their physical and emotional comfort. In other words, this wasn’t a generic martial arts event that happened to be marketed at the LGBTQ community, but a space where the aesthetics, social touchstones, and values of the queer community integrated seamlessly with martial arts.

Big Gay Sword Day was a space to explore what being queer and trans means in a martial arts context, and to see what value it brings. In a conversation at our event, one of my long-time students used the metaphor of “straightening his wrists” to describe the kind of traditional masculinity he was expected to demonstrate in other martial arts schools. He’s a very skilled fighter with a long training background who had to waste a ton of energy making sure that he looked and moved the way that men are “supposed” to look and move in order to be taken seriously. In a queer space, his self-expression gets to be an integral part of how he fights, and I’ve seen him use it as a tactical tool. The same flowing, bouncy movements that would get him tagged as “gay” (in the pejorative) or “effeminate” give him a speed and fluidity that is absolutely deadly in sparring, and I’ve watched him literally prance out of danger in a textbook perfect display of timing and measure control. His fighting has evolved dramatically since he started being allowed to look queer when he spars, and he regularly gives our instructors a run for their money.

This is what queer spaces and events give us — not just freedom from censure, but the license to be our whole selves when we fight, and to draw on our entire experience and knowledge instead of limiting ourselves to the siloed-off bits that are “normal” enough to be welcome anywhere. They make us better students, teachers, and fighters, and enrich our entire community by expanding the boundaries of what a skilled martial artist or a serious event looks like.

Queer events aren’t just triage. They’re not simply a refuge from the dangers and difficulties of being queer or trans, but spaces to celebrate and fully explore what our identities mean and how they inform what we do. They are spaces of growth and innovation that let everyone come as they are and contribute all they have to the discussion. They’re a different set of rules under which to operate for a few hours or a few days, and offer a new perspective on our arts that’s just as valuable for cis, straight attendees (and yes, we had those too!). They are a reminder that there is a vibrant, established LGBTQ community in martial arts. They’re an invitation to unearth, celebrate, and join into the awesomeness that’s already here, and to show how it can be a positive and meaningful influence on the broader HEMA and martial arts communities. They’re important for reasons that go far beyond harm-reduction, and we need more of them.