My son recently used his martial arts training to defend fellow students from someone who would use predatory behavior on children. I couldn’t be more proud of him. I don’t always fit in with my fellow progressive white cis het ally peers regarding use of force. I’m not a pacifist. The simple act of saying that often gets me accused of suffering from toxic masculinity. But I know that there are some who literally want to hurt and kill my child and others like him simply because they are LGBTQIA+.
On social media we have seen certain types of people wishing the worst upon immigrant children in what are more or less concentration camps for children on U.S. soil. Some scare female entertainers off social media saying vile and terrifying things. We even have pastors calling for the execution of LGBTQIA+ people in the United States. There is also the reality of all the murdered transgender people.
My Karate Kid and Passing the Torch
From the time I was 10 and into young adulthood I quietly studied Karate, Judo and Taekwondo. When my child was nearing middle school, he started experiencing bullying. It was hard to see the skip in his step he used to have going to school turn into a fearful walk of terror. One day we had seen “The Karate Kid” together and he was inspired to inquire about martial arts. I was so very excited about this possibility.
I called a few places and asked questions. I did not want him attending a suburban belt mill. I wanted him to learn good Eastern philosophy and have the same type of community I had. It was my escape from childhood abuse and not fitting in at school. After a few calls we found Master Kang.
His Dojang would soon become my child’s second home. It was a good home. Master and a community of friends got him through the divorce his mother and I had and gave him the courage to come out to me.
One time, when I was a pastor, I told Master about the level of bullying many of the LGBTQIA+ kids and young girls have been through. He hosted a free emergency self defense course for them, gave them all certificates for free lessons and each teen got a free gi.
Exposed to the better parts of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism interwoven into Taekwondo philosophy, my son developed respect for himself, others, and a philosophy that would get him through hard times.
My son also excelled at it. He was far better at sparring than I was and earned more medals in competitions that I could have dreamed of. This was not belt mill junk. This was work and discipline.
Sometimes in high school my son would be bullied for being trans. I’d ask him why he didn’t use his martial arts skills and he would tell me, “Dad, I didn’t have to. If I ever have to, then I will. He just had words. They hurt a lot, but my life wasn’t in danger, there’s no need to hurt him just because I can.”
The day he would know to use it came last week.
The Day My Son Used Physical Force
For ten days, my son was in Madrid, Spain. This wasn’t a vacation. This was an Advanced Placement Honors trip that is applying towards credits as he enters college this fall. He was the oldest student of 9 on this trip and the only Transgender one. Each day they would walk as many as 8 miles and at least 4 hours of intensive classroom time.
On day 6 of their journey, something went wrong on the Cercanías commuter rail. My son noticed a man walk into the train wearing a jacket despite the 90 degree day. He was on alert. He watched carefully. The man eyeballed the American teens and deftly approached one of the girls. My son saw him moving his hands from under his jacket as he started to reach for her. Was this going to be a pickpocket or a sexual assault incident?
My son was the only one who seemed to be seeing this and it was happening right now. So, in control of his movements, he performed a quick elbow strike on the man. The man exhaled loudly as the wind was taken out of him. All eyes on the train car were now on this man as he avoided eye contact with everyone. As soon as they hit a stop, the man ran off the train clutching his side. Others in the car made sure the young lady was all right. She was. My son was there.
What He Learned Mattered
In his training I have seen him break as many as 3 thick boards effortlessly with an elbow strike. To put that in perspective, a medium board at his old Dojang was the thickness and tension of a human rib. He was in control of the philosophy and was not out to harm, just to quickly prevent harm.
I was reminded of something I heard Master say about rape. “If someone tries to hurt you that way. It is merciful to break his arm or leg. It is a mercy to you because he cannot hurt you and it is a mercy to him because you did not kill him.”
I hope my son never has to use it again. In my adult life, especially when I was a taxi driver, I did have to use physical force. The older you get, the more scary it gets. I think force is a complicated issue and a lot of people will have simple things to say about it. I am proud of my son and no one from any nation or continent faulted him for what he did in that moment.
For me, I feel a little safer knowing that he can defend himself and others if push ever comes to shove.
Why Martial Arts on TransParent Expedition
For Trans parents, there is a very real danger of assault for our kids. There is depression and anxiety and dysphoria due to a cruel world that is not getting any better in the current political climate in the United States. There are also many trans youth that do not get to participate in gym/physical ed and school sports team for a variety of reasons. Some are discriminatory issues and others are pragmatic matters like a trans boy having to remove his binder to do athletic things.
In martial arts, more schools are becoming accepting every day. Most of the competitions I saw my son in were not gender specific. There is a philosophy that aids in self awareness and self esteem while respecting others. A Gi uniform is gender neutral and loose fitting. Finally, it is not only good fitness, but it may save a life in a violent world.
I don’t have a crystal ball, but had my son not taken the classes, he may not have recognized potential harm and not known how to handle it.
Interview With a Martial Arts Expert
Like my son, I’ve taken classes. I’ve defended my own life in a taxi and helped others once or twice. I’m not an expert. I wanted an expert’s opinion on this. I’ve known John Jensen since 2010. We were both Outlaw Preachers when I was a minister and a Christian. Some of my friends who de-converted will not associate with people of faith. I do often. I have friends who are of many faiths, nationalities, orientations, gender identities, and economic classes. I don’t have to be like you to like you.
I like John. I respect John. And I trust John. Of all the contacts I know from martial arts, he is the only one who competes in MMA, trains, and owns a school.
John Jensen is a pastor, a prophet (wait for the definition), a martial arts instructor, an activist and an artist. He believes that in everything he does he is to work for the empowerment of others. As a pastor he takes in those that are rejected, cares for them, and help them grow past their struggles. As a prophet, he challenges power and educates people about systemic injustice and oppression. As a martial arts instructor he gives people skills and training to be stronger, more confident and able to defend themselves. As an activist he supports others with a history of helping those experiencing homelessness, pregnant single mothers, and others. Finally as an artist he is very deliberate in making invisible truths of the world visible through various mediums.
Today he is an instructor in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (which he holds a second degree black belt in) who also teaches MMA, kickboxing and wrestling. Starting his school was an organic result of his concern about injustice. That school is Ojai Valley MMA and BJJ located in Oak View, California.
John, do you have any direct experience with LGBTQIA+ people and martial arts?
Why yes Pat I do! My eldest child is a non binary trans person and we found a gym for them to train in, though they have not actually started to do so. My second daughter is bi, and not only trains here at my gym, she is one of the kickboxing instructors. My own experience will probably differ from others, but what I experienced is even people that don’t like you, or “people like you” at first, generally change when they get to know you. But the owner of the gym has to make a safe environment for that to happen first.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a derivation of Judo. After Jigoro Kano developed Judo, which included techniques standing and on the ground, one of his top students taught people the system in Brazil, including, but not exclusively, the Gracie family. Over the years it focused more on ground wrestling techniques and fighting, as Judo became more of a sport. The main aim was to make leverage and technique overcome size and strength disparity, which is why I think its great especially for women, men or LGBTQ people who are not big and athletic and are often the target.
When did you first hear about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and what attracted you to it?
I saw UFC 3, and signed up soon after. I had always believed wrestling was the most effective art, but this was like wrestling plus. I love to wrestle, this was a different kind of wrestling, and included submission techniques including sleeper holds and joint locks.
How has Brazilian Jiu Jitsu changed you?
BJJ made me a strong lean machine. Made me more humble. Gave me amazing experiences and friends all over the world.
Is there an achievement or contribution in BJJ that you are most proud of?
I had a major role in the development of BJJ in New Zealand and go to teach seminars there every year. I think my greatest achievements have been in the gym, learning something new, catching someone better than me with something, etc.
What has BJJ and martial arts taught you?
Humility, always someone that can whup you. Also, I learned to embrace people as family. My school is as much a church as I have experienced, even though I don’t sing or preach.
Can you tell me about a specific person, like a young person who was bullied or did not fit in or was different, who has used this program?
We had a young man about three years ago who was training with us that has a form of muscular disease that makes it hard for him to walk normally, and severely inhibits his ability to move. He was picked on at school and we focused not only on giving him skills to defend herself, but helping him develop physical strength, balance and confidence. He sure seems to be doing better.
What was his emotional state like when you first met him?
He was very introverted and withdrawn. He was scared and worried he couldn’t do it. But we worked with him slowly and encouraged him a lot. He can do much more than he thought he was capable of. He particularly liked the kick boxing. I hope he continues so he can become more competent at Jiu Jitsu.
What is his outlook for the future?
Thats up to him. If he keeps training I think he will just grow in confidence and personal power.
Have you seen a progression in acceptance and diversity in martial arts?
Yes, a bit, my sport is still very macho though. I am hoping to change that. I confront sexism in my gym at times. I will confront other issues if they come up.
Have you ever had to use force outside of competition?
Never. When I bounced I lost it once and was going to hurt someone, but my other security jumped in and handled it. It was a bad day. I was always the nice bouncer, I usually stopped the other guys from getting physical. I was, and am, embarrassed.
Never used it outside the gym, though?
Honestly I have never used it as an adult. Helps being 6’2″ and 230lbs.
Are there any challenges you face regarding physical force?
I have a bad temper, I can severely hurt someone, even kill them. I don’t want to ever lay hands on someone. If someone was hurting or demeaning someone in my presence, I worry about my reaction. I call myself a theoretical pacifist. I believe it’s the best way, but in truth, if someone touched your kid in anger, I would smash them into the pavement.
What would you say to someone who would challenge Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or any martial arts as toxic masculinity or encouraging violence?
I believe its a good critique and one to wrestle with. Tony Campolo wrote a book called “Partly Right” where he explains our harshest critics often teach us a lot about ourselves. The thing that I do say is that violence is often a result of fear. When you train in Martial Arts you often gain confidence. Confidence allows you to act, rather than react. So I believe it allows us to stop, think and make decisions rather than strike out in our adrenaline dump. As to toxic masculinity. I have seen a lot of shitty schools that are the definition of it. But when a 115 pound woman whups your ass legitimately, its hard to feel like such a bad ass.
Anything that concerns you about martial arts?
How many complete shams and bullshit there is. Even in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu you have stupid crap like “you can’t train anywhere but here” or “I won’t tell you the price till you come in” or “everyone has to wear our uniform which we sell for a 100 dollar mark up”!
If the art fosters hero worship leave it. If they charge for belt tests don’t bother. If there are 11 year old black belts, in my opinion, there is a false confidence. In BJJ you can’t even have an adult belt color till you are 16.
John, my son studied martial arts when he was not yet out. Are there any concerns or questions a young person who is transgender or gender non conforming or gay should ask or consider when seeking a group to join?
Look you are going somewhere to have intimate contact with people. You are going to do something very hard, challenging and fear confronting. So start it out the same way, walk in and tell the owner, hey this is who I am, I don’t want special treatment. I want, deserve and demand respect. Will this gym accept that? And then be gentle with the idiots, most will come around when they realize your humanity.
So what would you ultimately say to someone considering Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, martial arts, self defense, or MMA?
Make sure the gym is a safe place, trust your instinct. You will be afraid, do it anyways. Make a commitment once you feel good about a place for at least a year.
Why should a parent or teen who is LGBTQIA consider Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
What I like about Jiu Jitsu is its control based not injury based. In most martial arts you are trying to injure. A kick, punch or wrist lock is meant to injure. Though we have very injurious techniques, with the kids I can teach them to control rather than attack. I teach them that we as humans are not meant to hurt other humans, and that when we do, we hurt ourselves too. And that when we control someone and then hurt them, we switched places and are now the bully. However, there are times when you need to fight for your life, in which case a sleeper hold puts opponent to sleep without any lasting damage to them.
Is there anything else people should consider?
Martial arts is two things. One: It’s a sport. Two: It’s a self defense system. Make sure you know why you are training and go to a place that will give you what you want, even if its a bit of both.
What do you think other people should know that they likely do not know about martial arts?
The relationships you build are awesome. Community is encouraging, challenging and supportive.
Finally, what inspires you?
Rothko paintings, the wild landscapes of my watershed, people fighting against all odds to break free of oppression, to reach a goal, or attain a skill. I cry all the time at people achieving their dream.
If you live near Ventura County, California. Check out his school! http://www.ojaivalleymma.com/
Full Circle of Acceptance
A few weeks ago I bumped into Master. He asked how my son was, but he used my son’s dead name. I informed him that my son is my son and told him my son’s chosen (and now legal) name. Master, without missing a beat, said, “You tell him I said hi and I miss him, sir.”
The banner pic was of my son and Master sparring. Below is my son receiving his first tip towards his 2nd degree black belt with Master.
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