Are you a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu coach with a transgender student? If you’re reading this, it means you’re looking for advice on how to support them at your gym, and we’re grateful that you’re here.
The Short Version:
- Use the student’s pronouns openly & casually, so that others will follow suit (but don’t out them).
- Watch your trans student’s demeanor & body language while they’re training, and ask them often about their training experience.
- Be genuine in your support of their training and goals, make them feel included instead of just tolerated for being a paying student.
You can focus on those 3 things as a start. If you’re ready for more specific advice, read on.
If you find this guide useful, and would like to see more resources like it, please help us solicit donations for Traction Project. A quick mention in your classes can do so much for a small organization like us.
Note that this is a lot of information, but you don’t need to master it overnight, as long as your student feels that you are genuine in your support of them. Try only a few of these things at a time, and revisit this list as you get more confident.
Table of Contents:
- Lead by Example
- Connect with Students
- Manage Conflict
- Handling Dysphoria
- Changing Rooms
- Pronouns / Names
[This advice was written by Traction Project’s Scout Tran in December 2023, based on informal interviews of a dozen trans BJJ students, and several trans black belts. It will be updated as conditions change, and we all learn more.]
1. Lead by Example
- Use your coach authority to integrate & introduce new trans students into the group, don’t let them be last picked.
- Try to use your trans students as a demo Uke. It lets you demonstrate their pronouns in front of everyone, and shows other students that you explicitly support them.
- Specifically mention trans people in your gym’s intake agreements about respecting each other.
- Be explicit and vocal about your support of trans people in front of the whole class, like during check-in, at the top of class, during lessons, or at the cheer-out.
- Say that you have a zero-tolerance for hate and harassment.
- Give your own pronouns when introducing yourself to the class.
- Without outing specific people, say that the gym appreciates its trans students.
- Hang pride flags and other symbols of inclusion (this is more effective than it may seem).
- These decorations don’t need to be street-facing, they are to reinforce your no-harassment policy among your students, and to bolster the spirits of your trans students when they are considering quitting.
- The specific trans flag (5 stripes) is a stronger statement than the general LGBTQ pride flags (full rainbow or Progress Pride Flag).
- Get aggressive with the broader BJJ world. This is absolutely how you make your own gym culture safe for trans people.
- If you hear negative concerns about trans people, always interject with your positive opinion of trans people.
- Proactively tell your students, other coaches, and competition organizers about where you stand, to imply that you are watching their behavior.
- Pick fights: ask people how they feel about trans women in sports, just so that you can give them an earful about your positive opinion of trans competitors.
- Contact Triangles Everywhere (or a local queer BJJ group) and host them for an LGBTQ open mat. If no clubs exist in your area, ask your trans student(s) if they want help starting one.
2. Connect with Students
- Keep telling your trans students that they have your active support, to balance out the hate they get in their daily lives.
- Have a sensitive chat with each new (or newly out) trans student, to get to know them. They’re a diverse group with different experiences and needs.
- Would introductions help, and what sort?
- Are they okay with you intervening in conflicts on their behalf?
- Do they prefer to not be treated any differently from other students?
- How and when do they want you to use their pronouns?
- Ask what they want from their coaches, and from the curriculum.
- Check in with them periodically about whether their needs are changing.
- Many trans people are primarily interested in BJJ for self-defense, not for sport, so:
- Be ready to offer no-gi techniques and self-defense modifications.
- Consider how the gentle application of BJJ is useful for intimate partner de-escalations. Further information on this subject can be found through Queers Never Die.
- Trans people may be nervous about training with your students who work in law enforcement, because of how police have treated trans people in the past. Be up front, so that they can make informed decisions about their safety.
- Without prying, be accommodating with how medical transition affects a student’s training.
- Expect trans students to start taking time off for physical and emotional reasons.
- Be sensitive to any embarrassment over an increase/decrease in their strength, stamina, and emotional durability. (A student who is starting HRT will be experiencing physical and emotional changes, similar to students going through puberty.)
- Transition surgeries are major medical procedures, requiring months off the mat. Like with a major injury, encourage them to visit, watch, take notes, but don’t allow them to participate before their body is healed.
- Educate yourself on the side by reading clinical papers and talking to other trans people.
3. Manage Conflict
- Monitor your trans students on the mat, turning up your people skills and intuition when they’re in class.
- Watch their body language and demeanor with different students.
- Watch how other students act towards them (not just men, but also women, and also other LGBT people). Read the room, watch for tension.
- Intervene early (but sensitively), instead of waiting for problems to happen.
- Remember that most harassment is subtle.
- Break up sparring if something is going wrong. Take people aside, say you noticed something. Even if they’re not intentionally malicious, tell problem students that they must change.
- Be ready to intervene on deliberate transphobic harassment or groping. Expelling a problem student will improve your whole gym culture, not just the trans student’s experience.
- Keep an eye on rumors or bad opinions circulating about a trans student, and intervene earlier rather than later. It’s possible the trans person can make adjustments, once they know the situation.
- If there are serious complaints against a trans person (especially a bigger trans woman), you can assume that some amount of prejudice is affecting people’s feelings, and we encourage you to investigate further before deciding whether to expel that student.
4. Handling Dysphoria
- Besides pronouns and presentation, trans people often also have some amount of gender dysphoria about their body.
- Do what you can to just avoid it. While you can use a body-positive approach with students who have discomfort with weight, disability, beauty or physical standards, the same body-positivity isn’t effective at soothing trans body dysphoria.
- Avoid relating your own feelings about your own body discomfort as a way to connect to your student over their gender dysphoria, it will make their situation worse. You will never fully understand a trans person’s dysphoria, and that’s ok.
- Anticipate your trans student’s body dysphoria in the language you use in lessons.
- Generally avoid talking about bodies in a gendered way.
- ie. instead of “men have high center of gravity and are easier to sweep”, just be specific by saying “people with a high center of gravity will be easier to sweep.”
- Be ready to offer modifications for moves involving the chest and groin.
- ie. chest-to-chest pressure techniques can be adjusted to sternum-to-sternum or shoulder-to-shoulder
- Other difficult techniques: log-splitter pass, positions that scrape across the chest, face-in-crotch positions, chest-smother chokes.
- Use care when describing these commonly sensitive attributes: height, body size, hand/foot size, being strong/muscular, wide hips, wide shoulders.
- Try being more specific (ie. instead of saying that “tall” people can capture a body triangle, say “long-legged”).
- Try being less specific (ie. instead of describing how the size of a student’s body parts are helping make their choke tight, just focus on that their choke is tight).
- Allow and encourage trans students to modify techniques without giving you a detailed explanation.
- Generally avoid talking about bodies in a gendered way.
- Grappling arts can force trans people to contend with this dysphoria in ways they’re not used to.
- Expect that your trans students will have emotional breakdowns related to this issue, despite everyone’s best efforts.
- Watch for students who excuse themselves to the bathroom in the middle of an activity, or who freeze up, become distant, sluggish, or show other distress.
- When this happens, be careful and sensitive with them:
- Discretely offer to talk.
- Ask if they have a personal support network.
- Ask for their thoughts and advice.
5. Changing Rooms
- Have some single-occupancy changing rooms.
- It’s a benefit for more than just trans students, and it’s one of the safety features that trans students look for in a prospective gym.
- Curtained stalls (like some fitting rooms) are cheap and easy to throw up.
- At the very least, have a non-gendered bathroom with a locking door.
6. Pronouns / Names
- A coach using a student’s pronouns (or new name) in front of the class is more effective than just stating policies.
- Hearing a head coach use pronouns also helps other coaches/students who are struggling with using pronouns, just by giving them an example to mimic.
- If a trans student is about to meet someone new (ie. a visiting coach), be present for the introduction and casually use their pronoun in a sentence (ie. “She’s been training with me for a month / You should watch out for her triangles”).
- If a coach avoids using pronouns altogether because they’re afraid to make mistakes, the trans student will be misgendered by other students by default. Some extra notes:
- Try not to rely on using “they/them” if you can’t remember a student’s actual pronouns, because it signals that you don’t see them, sets no positive precedent, and outs/excludes them.
- In a pinch, you can avoid using any pronouns at all, by saying “the arm” or “your training partner’s arm” instead of saying “their arm,” but do start using people’s actual pronouns when you can.
- You can practice difficult neopronouns (ie. ze/zir) on your own with your pets or a stuffed animal, which will mean more to your student than you can ever imagine.
- Mistakes happen.
- Just repeat the sentence with corrected pronouns/name and move on.
- If someone else makes a pronoun mistake (and the trans person is out to them), just use the correct pronoun when you speak, and they will follow suit.
- Trans people get further embarrassed if you seek their apology, or try to aggressively correct other people’s mistakes in front of them.
- If you start asking all your students for their pronouns, you will discover many more than you realized. Try these things:
- Discretely acquire pronouns via your intake forms, and then don’t make a big deal about it.
- Introduce yourself to new students using your own pronouns (“My name is Jack, she/her, I’m an assistant coach here”) rather than awkwardly asking any person with a weird hairstyle “what are your pronouns?”
- Don’t force pronoun disclosure (like during big group introductions), as it can press a trans person to out themselves before they were ready to.
- Gym legal forms will usually ask for “Name” and “Preferred Name”. Change this to “Name” and “Legal Name” / “Name on ID”.
- Few trans people have ever competed, and many competitions’ rules are currently in flux, so this is new material for everyone.
- Trans women / trans feminine people are currently having a very hard time with BJJ competitions, and will require a lot of work from their coach.
- Help your trans student understand the competition scene:
- Competitions are run as private corporations, so are difficult to negotiate with.
- The organizers’ priorities will be with cis men first, with some accommodations for cis women, and no interest in the problems of trans and nonbinary people.
- Trans women should expect online harassment if video of a match or photos of the podium are released.
- Trans women could risk being physically attacked at events.
- Disclosing trans status:
- Early disclosure is a general trans strategy used to prevent panic, but creates a situation for discrimination, harassment, hate crimes, and can cause the trans person internal distress.
- Trans women disclosing their status to organizers before a competition will lead to them being asked not to compete. Students should be made aware of this before writing to a competition.
- Connect with other coaches, administrators, and referees to argue for trans people in competition, but don’t out your student.
- You can introduce your student to their future opponents to build familiarity and reduce the chances that they will be rejected, but don’t out your student.
- Some trans competitors would prefer to be out to their opponents before a match.
- If this is the case, offer to facilitate this, and make sure everyone involved knows how much you support your student.
- A trans women competitor will likely be disqualified at this point.
- Your student may prefer you to set them up with a superfight or exhibition match, rather than enter the open competition. This is much easier to manage, and some competitions already offer this for trans women, but it is not a fair alternative if your trans competitor wished to be in a normal competition division.
- No trans hate-crimes have yet been documented at BJJ tournaments, but this may change as trans people start competing in real numbers. Safety concerns from trans athletes are consistently of these categories:
- Being attacked or assassinated in a bathroom. Counter this fear by using safety-in-numbers:
- Trans students should attend competitions with a large team from their gym.
- Also bring non-competing friends and family.
- The team should not allow the trans student to enter isolated areas or walk back to their car alone.
- Intentional injury during matches, either as a panic response, or a pre-planned coordinated action from an opponent/referee/coach. Counter this fear by using coach intimidation:
- Before any matches, talk to other coaches/referees/opponents about how much you like that particular student (without outing them), to show that they have support at the event.
- Aggressively corner the match, so that the opponent feels closely watched.
- Aftermath harassment (doxxing, death threats, inducing suicide).
- Make sure the trans student has a strong emotional support network in place, outside the gym.
- Stay in close contact with a trans student in the days after a competition.
- Have the gym community give praise to the student when they return to normal classes.
- Confront other coaches who show transphobia after a competition, before it reaches your student.
- Being attacked or assassinated in a bathroom. Counter this fear by using safety-in-numbers: