Recently I have gone back to judo, a sport that I trained in until I was 17, and have only sporadically revisited since. It's been a long time, and I thought I anticipated the challenges of returning to it. I anticipated that I'd get horribly out of breath, and struggle to remember techniques, not to mention their names. I anticipated that my adult body would take longer to adapt to and recover from training than my adolescent body had. What I didn't anticipate, although I perhaps should have done, was how engaging with sport would highlight my gender.
It began immediately. A woman arrived who hadn't been to the Sportspark before, and when she asked where the women's changing room was, the men all looked blankly at each other, making helpless faces. So, I had to choose between pretending not to know (or hear) in order to shore up my potential claim to not being a girl, or doing the decent thing and telling the newbie where to go. I picked the latter option; there was nobody else who was going to answer her question. Sure, she could have gone back to the front desk and asked. Perhaps I should have let her do that. Alternatively, I could assume that it wasn't as big a deal as it felt like. When I step back and look at it rationally, I know that nobody, in the event of my coming out is going to stop and think "wait a hot second! that guy knows where the woman's changing room is! they're not a guy at all!" I am, as is my wont, overthinking this.
In such an aggressively gendered arena as sport, how can I not overthink my gender? How can I not be aware, every moment, of how meaningful my physical appearance is? In a way it's no different from arriving in any new place, and meeting any new group of people. Most people, rightly or wrongly, search out gender-signifiers in new people that they meet and categorise them accordingly. Does that person have breasts? A woman, then. A moustache? Bloke. Long hair? Girl. Oh, they turned round and they have a beard? A man.
For most people this process isn't even conscious. We are so used to splitting people into two categories that we don't realise we're doing it until there is some discrepancy in the sorting process - like assuming from someone's clothing that they're male, and then feeling that jolt of surprise and realisation when they turn round and you see from their face that they're not.* I'm not really complaining about this, despite the fact that I don't like its roots or its possible implications (such as: once I know this person's gender I will know how to treat them). I do it too, although for me the process is very conscious - I know I'm searching for signs of subversion, of rebellion, of community. So I know that that process is being applied to me all the time, and that's ok. It's uncomfortable, and I wish it weren't happening, but it's bearable.
When it comes to sport, however, gender is at the front of peoples' minds, and I have to deal with the results of peoples' assumptions right out in the open. I can't pretend they're not happening. I can't pretend it's nothing to do with me. The amount of genderedness I encountered on Sunday night was stunning. There was that first incident, with the new judoka. Then one of the new boys told me he would have to work to overcome his conditioning of being gentle with girls. There were the fifteen times that I was partnered with the new girl, R, who made a beeline for me so we could work together, telling me she was so glad I was there, as there hadn't been any "other girls" at her previous club. And etcetera and etcetera.
I found this distressing, as you can imagine. What gets me down about it is how immediate, casual, yet incontrovertible the gendering is. In most other spaces, I am often ambiguous enough to merit a second glance - a few moments of wondering. In judo, though, I have to wear a t-shirt under my gi, while 'boys' don't. (This is on account of having breasts, which apparently boys don't.) So not only am I forced to (inaccurately) gender myself right out of the gate, but I also have to deal with the fact that everybody else is reading that gender signal too. I'm not going to start every introduction with " ... and I'm a boy, by the way." My t-shirt does it for me, except it's saying "and I'm a girl, by the way." No amount of short hair or binding will overcome my t-shirt.
This is made more complicated for me by the fact that, on the other side of the coin, I want to be flying the flag for women in male-dominated spaces. I want to be an ally to R, who was clearly so pleased to see me. I want to lower that ratio and prove by my participation that girls like martial arts too - that girls can be good at martial arts too. So perhaps this is a bright side. Perhaps, since they all assume I'm a girl, and I'm not comfortable with putting them right, I can console myself with the fact that R doesn't look like the only girl in the club. That she or I could take the night off from representing womanhood in judo; that if another girl were to turn up and R or I weren't there, she wouldn't feel alone, or like this wasn't the club for her.** If it weren't such a blatant lie, and one that makes me feel sad and disjointed and unreal, I would let that be my consolation. Women deserve to be represented in sport, and they deserve to feel welcome in sport, and they deserve to participate in sport if they want to. But for that matter, so do trans* people. And I don't know how to advocate for that when I can't even advocate for myself.
Sport needs to change. There has to be space for gender non-conforming people in sport, and not just because the world will be deprived of my martial-arting if there isn't. Kids at school need to know that they're welcome to participate in sport no matter what gender they are. Kids at university need to have somewhere to go when they can't join the women's rugby team or the men's rugby team. Sport can be fun and energising and sociable and healthy, and it should be available to everyone. Above all, gender shouldn't be something that restricts us. I went back to judo because I love judo, and because I didn't want to have to choose between the men's team and the women's team. And yet here I am, two hours in, fixating yet again on my gender, when I'd much rather be concentrating on relearning some of those elusive techniques. Sport needs to change.
*All caveats in place here - you better believe I know that clothing/facial hair/body shape etc does not define gender!
**But what if another queer/trans* person shows up, you guys? Perhaps they'd feel comfortable joining the club if I was there. But how would they know I'm trans*? Especially if I don't tell anyone. This shit is complicated.