Friday, September 11, 2009

feint, disengage

I started fencing again last night, for the first time least 8 years, maybe closer to 10. It was wonderful. I fenced with enormous gusto from about 7th-9th grade, and some of 10th grade, i think, but then I moved off to college and then NYC and despite a few attempts at forming a club in college, never really had a chance to fence again. I'm very excited to reinvigorate my fencing career!

Plenty of interesting thoughts to think about my gender, though, for sure! When I was last fencing, I started with foil, as beginners ought to, and then quickly switched to sabre. Of the three weapons, sabre is in some ways the most physical, as it involves cutting attacks with the edge of the blade as well as thrusting with the point. It was a male-dominated sport for years (still is, in plenty of ways), and it only became an Olympic sport for women in 1996. So in the late 90s, when I took up the sport, it was very much an exciting thing to be a girl sabre fencer. Not a lot of women were fencing that weapon yet, and it was still seen as primarily a male weapon.

I was doubly excited by that, both because I was proud of being a trailblazer increasing the number of women in the sport, and also because I was thrilled as always to be doing something that was perceived as masculine, surrounded mostly by boys and men. And, of course, it was my favorite of the weapons, with what seemed to me more excitement in the slashing, and more variety of attack and defense. It's something of a fencing trope that boys get excited about sabre and being able to whack as well as jab at people, so make of it what you will that I, too, wanted to hack 'n slash my way across the strip.

Now, though, I find myself a bit bemused. As a male, I'm no longer a rarity as a sabre fencer. Of course, fortunately, women sabre fencers are much more prevalent now themselves, so that's great! But it means something a little different when I say that I started fencing sabre in the mid to late 90s, because any number of guys were fencing sabre then. It was an especially exciting time for me to start fencing sabre because it felt like the beginning of a new era for women in fencing, and that was definitely a draw for me.

I wasn't the only girl in my hometown to start fencing then- just across town, at the more elite fencing academy, was a young woman just my age who had also just begun fencing sabre, and who is now the world champion, multi-gold medal winner, best woman sabre fencer in the world. I even fenced her once, at a small local competition, and while she beat me, it was close: 5-4. When I was watching her dominate at the Olympics on TV, I had some pangs of what-if. There were a few months when she and I were quite evenly matched. Clearly, she has astonishing physical talents, but she also plunged headfirst into the competitive world, trained intensely with world-class coaches, etc. Clearly, I didn't, whether out of lack of money (all the equipment and private lessons get very expensive very fast) or opportunity (I was fencing at a much more recreational club, and didn't feel like I could switch allegiances to the other, also much more expensive, studio) or what. But sometimes I wonder what if I had? I know I have some natural skill, and I certainly love the sport. I could certainly have fenced in college, and probably competitively on a national level, though who knows if I'd ever have made it to the Olympics. But I never did pursue that, and there's part of me that really regrets that.

On the other hand...I wonder what would've happened had I done so? Fencing, like almost every sport, is rigidly structured by gender. One might have friendly practice with anyone, but men and women never compete against each other. Had I become a competitive athlete, I wonder how that would've affected my gender identity, and dysphoria, etc? I wonder if I would've developed a strong identity as a female athlete...athlete by choice, female by circumstance, but the two would've been by necessity strongly tied together. I wonder what that would have done in terms of providing a positive association for me with being identified as female. Might it have led to a stronger coping mechanism, and caused me to live as female longer?

For that matter, if I'd been dedicating all of my time to training and fencing and competing, would I have had the time to get involved in the LGBT community to the extent that I did? That was when I first met other trans people and my eyes were opened to the possibility of transition, which of course set the gears turning in my head about my own potential for transition.

If I had been a successful competitive fencer, would I have felt like I had more at stake when deciding to transition? If I had been established with a career, history, win-loss record, etc, would I have been willing to give that up? The fencing community is not that big, and it's always difficult to transition within a small community...and that's without the added trickiness of gender segregation and sports, and all of the arbitrary or un-thought out positions about whether and how transsexual athletes can compete.

And not to mention, I wonder how being a serious athlete would've affected my relationship with my body? As I've mentioned before, I believe I had a huge upswing in my dysphoria once I started paying close attention to my body...that is, once I had to fully inhabit my body in extremely vulnerable situations, etc, etc, you know what I mean. Puberty! Romance! S-E-X! Prior to that, I hadn't paid tons of attention to my body, and as such I think hadn't been as bothered by its ever increasing 'femaleness.' But athletes, I'm given to understand, are much more in touch with their bodies, since they spend so much time shaping and tuning and training them, and of course rely on them to do their sport. I wonder whether having an athlete's vivid relationship with my body so much would've caused my dysphoria to crop up sooner, or whether getting such use out of my body would've cause me to develop positive associations which would've counterbalanced the dysphoria, and let me cope longer?

I'll never know, of course. All I know is that I didn't, and I transitioned, and now I'm delighted at a chance to re-discover a sport that gave me such joy in my early teens. There isn't much I'll need to relearn...the equipment is essentially the same, though I'll need to order a new jacket that fits my newly broad shoulders, and doesn't have the pockets on the front for plastic breast protectors. And from my brief experience last night, I think the athletic prowess that comes from being nearly 24 and full of testosterone as opposed to 12 and NOT on T will serve me in good stead.

Still, there is one small matter. I used to like to brag a bit about that one bout I had with the Olympic gold medalist, and how I got 4 touches on her in our one competitive bout. I can't tell that story now, without delving into my transsexuality, since men and women don't fence each other in competition.

Of course, one might say that this is the perfect opportunity to come out. Why NOT tell everyone that I fenced her, because I used to be a woman, and now I'm a man? It's a great opening, an opportunity to do a little community education and visibility raising. The only way to advance equal rights for trans folk is for more trans folk to come out, to end the myth that we're rare, freakish weirdos. Right?'s the classic bind that illustrates so clearly why "You Gotta Be Totally Out or Yer a Coward!" is such a false dichotomy. I am SO happy and excited to have found an opportunity to fence in my little New England town (and kicking myself for not discovering it for the past year, but oh well). The two teachers are in their late 60s, having been teaching and coaching and officiating since they were undergrad fencers at NYU in the 1960s. I have no idea how they would react to my disclosure, nor how the roomful of 14-17 year old boys who make up almost all their other fencers would react. I really don't want to close this opportunity, by dint of awkwardness or transphobia or anything else. So I think I'm going to keep my mouth shut, which really, just means that I have to refrain from bragging about one essentially meaningless bout that I had with a fellow teenager who now happens to be the best in the world.

Unless of course I am just a coward.

1 comment:

c. said...

Have you been following the Caster Semenya story at all? It really raises some interesting questions about whether the whole professional (if not also amateur?) sporting world needs to be restructured with regards to gender.

(Which issue is of course aside from the fact that the way the media and sports officials have treated her is completely wretched).