There’s an Elephant in the Dojo: Part 1

We’ve all heard the expression, “There’s an elephant in the living room.” The implication is that there’s something going on that everyone knows about but will not mention. There are “elephants” in dojos too.  At the moment my list includes: gis that need to be washed more often, nages who have to throw “hard,” and tough guy war stories that are blatantly homophobic.

Let’s first take a look at the big rainbow-colored homophobic elephant on the mat.

In my years of practice I have been part of several different dojos. Small talk starts in the men’s dressing room with an inventory (status and update) of ‘current injuries’ often followed by off-color jokes with juvenile comments about women, sex and gay men as the punch lines.

Homophobia also works its way into the banter during warm-ups where, though more subtle than in the locker room, it is an established part of that dojo’s culture.  My approach before practice is to tune out, warm up and focus on the upcoming class by repeating the mantra, “May I not be injured and may I not injure someone else.”

There is a specific move that caused me to think about the relationship between the homophobic comments and martial arts. There’s a jujutsu throw named, Osoto Gari. In brief, you throw your partner over your hip and follow them down to the mat.  The person you’ve thrown is on his back, the “thrower” close beside almost cheek-to-cheek.  At this point we are very sweaty, body touching body, yet unlike in the locker room, we simply accept this as part of the practice.  It’s no big deal.  I have yet to see or hear any of the ‘uber-macho’ guys refuse to execute this move, or others like it, because it’s too physically close.  Instead, in the face of sweaty male intimacy, there’s silence.

I remember a line from a Wendell Berry book about how farmers working in the tobacco fields ‘took the measure’ of the others by how much they sweat; that working side by side was the one way to really know a person and their character.

Sweaty work, sweaty sex, sweaty workouts…. see the ‘disconnect’ between the practice and the homophobic comments? Is it the commentary or the sweaty work that reveals character?

What would happen if we all took a look at the reality of a martial arts practice, the moments of intimacy and adrenalin? If we lose the bias can move on to the next elephant?

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