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Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Swords do not discriminate. Neither should swordsmen.

Are testicles really an advantage in a sword fight?


I first met the illustrious Christian Tobler in 2003. We were sat chatting about something and I casually called him “Chris”. He politely replied “it’s Christian, actually”, and with a modicum of effort, I stopped shortening his name, and have called him Christian ever since.

If he’d asked me to call him Christina, I’d have done the same.

This is basic politeness. Unless somebody asks you to call them something that puts you in an awkward position (somebody you don’t really like wanting you to call them “darling snookums”, for instance; or somebody who is not your boss demanding to be called “Boss”, for another instance), the only reasonable thing to do is respect their wishes about how they are addressed.

Y’all can call me “Jedi Master Guy the living sword god” if you want. Go on, I dare you.

We have had a small number of transgender people in one or other branches of my School over the last 15 years. In every case, School policy is absolutely clear: respect their preferences. It really doesn’t matter a damn whether the person you are training with is male, female, trans, or even (gods protect us) Swedish. It matters what their weapon is doing and why.

Likewise, within the school, our tournaments are not segregated in any way. If you are smaller or weaker, or taller, or stronger, you are expected to deal with it as best you can and learn from the experience. That’s it. Weapons do not discriminate and neither should we. In our most recent tournament, students even had a free choice of weapon (axe, spear, sword, dagger or unarmed); the best fight of the day was one student with a dagger defeating another with a pollax. You gain honour in direct proportion to the difficulty of the fight.

I understand that there is an argument made regarding high-level competition having gender categories, and a stated policy regarding what is required to gain admission to one category or the other. With millions of dollars on the line, it makes a sort of sense, I suppose. And in some arts, such as MMA or wrestling, weight categories make sense. But in combat of any kind, they just don’t strike me as martial.

This is topical because a student of mine has recently been denied entry to the women’s longsword tournament at an event in the USA. This student has gone through all sorts of difficulties to become who she is meant to be; it seems perverse to me to add to those difficulties deliberately.

This is the whole point of training swordsmanship. You start out wanting to be something that you are not (yet): A swordsman. You train, and sweat, and bleed and suffer (in my classes, anyway), and through the alchemy of practice you become the person you aspire to be. For any swordsman to fail to see the similar but vastly more difficult course that trans people go through strikes me as a pathetic failure of imagination and empathy.

Training is all about personal growth, and respecting the efforts that our fellow students make to grow, in all aspects of their lives.

Frankly, I don’t care what you think about a transperson’s gender. The only polite and decent course is to respect their choice regarding how they are identified, and to respect the courage it has taken them to live as they do in a world so sadly full of people slow to love and quick to hate.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

18 Responses

  1. I agree with your point on the artificiality of Competitions, for the continuation of that is that one will then have other artificial situations, gender divisions, then one will have situations like this.
    Also another angle on the situations is that if your student shoudl compete in the “male” division while looking and feeling herself to be a woman, then perhaps it gets us one step closer to competitions where gender division are removed altogether…

  2. Hi Guy! Long time reader, first time commenter.

    First, no disagreement from the discrimination angle. I, personally, am not afraid of of the nightmare scenario where men decide for a weekend they prefer to identify as women to enter a Women’s tournament. Sounds to me like the start of a heartwarming romcom.

    Second, Open tournaments are super important, I agree there. If we start to segregate we’ll start to lose the Art in favor of the Sport. Tournaments are for learning, not for winning. If you win, what have you learned? If you lose every fight, you’ve probably learned a lot! Who is the real winner? (Which is also why it would be good to keep too much money from creeping in for winning…)

    I do have a teensy caveat though. I really like Women’s tournaments. My first tournament was a Women’s tournament and I probably wouldn’t have done a tournament if the option wasn’t available. Maybe the true problem is that I had the wrong mindset. However, I can’t be the only one. What I think a Women’s tournament offers is a small amount of exclusivity that encourages women, who tend to be a minority in HEMA, to do tournaments in the first place. I don’t see it as a physiological needs kind of separation, which is why any sort of trans discrimination is ridiculous. It’s primarily cultural and psychological, and ultimately comes down to a quasi-marketing scheme to get more women invested and involved in these events. As soon as HEMA is around 50/50 gender distribution, there really wouldn’t be a need for it, and the community would be better served by segregation along Advanced/Beginner or Open/Beginner tournaments.

    The point is the sword, as you say, is a labor-saving device and there’s enough physical diversity in HEMA in the first place that saying women need their own tournament because they’re is silly. However, that does not preclude the careful social conditioning that shapes and separates men and women into their own (mostly bullshit) molds. Women can benefit from a separate tournament environment because they’re already attached via social bungee cords away from HEMA-activities, and every bungee we can remove is good.

    Yes, it’s a little like spray-painting a sword pink so your niece won’t think swords are a “boy thing.” But, dammit, my niece loves her Frozen-duct-taped pink boffer and, dammit, you do what you have to to bring the Art into people’s lives!

    1. Just trying to understand your last paragraph. Are you arguing that women’s divisions provide an inclusive environment for women that may otherwise feel out of place or unwelcome surrounded by dudes? Cause I’m with you as far as schools or classes are concerned.
      My background is in sport and classical fencing, and all the classes and open spar sessions were co ed. I appreciate how this prepared me for many different types of fencers, and I was a tomboy growing up, so this didn’t bother me, but I understand my experience is not universal. As you pointed out with your niece, there are many young women who, despite a strong interest in traditionally masculine hobbies, will get discouraged if they don’t see anyone like them in a class (whatever age, we all want to make friends, and many people gravitate to their own gender). However, once most students get to tournaments, I think they should be acclimated to sparring with a variety of opponents. Then we wouldn’t have situations where someone feels too intimidated to even enter (not sure if that was your feeling, just an example.

  3. I’m a long time SCA fighter and shorter time HEMA fighter. When I came into HEMA the idea that folks would want separate divisions rankled me. After all the tournaments where I fought against all who came, male or female, where I faced and almost lost to a woman half my size or when I had beaten my own mother in a tourney fight, the idea that we had to step backwards and have womens only divisions just rubbed me wrong. I thought I had left that behind in the Taekwondo (and not for nothing my Dojo had you fight by rank, not sex). One of the coolest things I ever got to see was my friend Mary Bloomster win a Cynaguan Coronet Tournament in the SCA and become Princess-in-her-own-right defeating many KSCA and, in finals, beat a man that had a few inches and the better part of 150lbs on her. She won that day in a 10 round double elim tournament cause she was the best. Because, just as you say, swords don’t discriminate.

  4. If I’m reading you correctly, Guy, this is a moral issue (“failure of empathy”, “quick to hate”, etc.). If it’s a moral issue, why then does the height of the level of competition and the existence of a major financial prize change the morality to “sort of” make sense to you? It seems to me that if those competitions have a logical point to their policies, then a competition at any level may have the same point, but if supporting someone’s Self-Identification trumps that point for moral reasons, a million dollar prize shouldn’t buy your way out of right and wrong.

    1. As I see it, recognising transgender people as the gender they prefer is a moral issue; the existence of male/female segregated competitions is much less so; I can see the logic even if I disagree with it. So if there are such segregated competitions, then people should be allowed to self-identify the category they feel they belong to.
      Does that clarify my position for you?

  5. As a trans woman and longsword fencer, I *love* this post. You’re spot on. I am far from the strongest woman in my club, and have no advantages that any other tall person wouldn’t have. And even then, height is hardly an insurmountable advantage in longsword.

    Any medical professional with a current knowledge of transgender medicine will attest that the physiological differences between trans and cis people exist on a spectrum and are not largely relevant to athletic competition. Hormone replacement therapy reduces muscle mass and bone density in trans women, increases it in trans men. Under hormone replacement therapy, our hormone levels are within normal ranges for adults of our identified gender.

    While I can see requiring a minimum period of treatment before allowing one to compete in gendered events at a high level, it is disrespectful and uselessly squeamish to ban us entirely.

    If that student of yours wants to bitch with someone about that tournament, you point her my way. 🙂 I’m going to be competing in a women’s tournament local to my state soon, and hopefully will have a more welcoming experience.

  6. I thought this blog was very well presented, and I find that I agree with the ideas put forth. I don’t have much experience with the HEMA world itself, I spend most of my time with my nose in the books and working with a local historical group. I hadn’t realized there was such a divide in regards to Tournaments.

    Honestly, its a bit of a let down to hear that Tournaments have gender roles applied to them. It seems quite contrary to the theories presented in many of the historical texts. These past masters referring to the sword as the equalizer, and thus its appeal to those attached to the Martial world. Yet, here we sit in the modern era placing limitations and restrictions based upon gender of all things.

    To me, the only divisions that should be applied are the divisions of weapon types. This makes the art about putting skill against skill. It’s never about how hard you swing, but the control and manner in which you deliver it.

  7. I was a competitive sabre fencer (sport variety), beginning in a time when we women had to assert our way into local competitions and pushing forward to the full inclusion of women’s sabre as an Olympic sport. So I fenced in open competition and in tightly-qualified single-gender competition up to the national level. Over those years, rules changed, equipment changed, and attitudes changed — for men and for women.

    In open competition, quite a few men were faced with the new experience of meeting a woman in combat on a level playing field — no quarter asked and none given. Rather, if the man stayed his hand or took his opponent any less than seriously, he stood to lose — because the woman would take advantage of that opening. (At least, I did, with glee.) Within very few years, in mixed competition, we had women fencing sabre and winning, consistently. We had men who, in the interest of their own victories, took those women very seriously. And, as always, each of us learned to fence the opponent in front of us — as is, as opposed to as imagined to be or assumed to be.

    I like to think we’ve made a difference in a small corner of the world.

  8. No, why? Tradition. I will not stand by as the worlds morals degrade into nothingness, this is why the club I run is separated between males and females and body weight classes because plenty of times I’ve let women spar with men only to have them get their asses kicked by larger (and sometimes even smaller) guys. Men, in general, have greater cardiovascular reserve, with larger hearts, greater lung volume per body mass, a higher red blood cell count, and higher haemoglobin. They also have higher circulating clotting factors, which leads to faster healing of wounds. Men also are physically stronger than women, who have, on average, less total muscle mass, both in absolute terms and relative to total body mass. The greater muscle mass of men is the result of testosterone-induced muscular hypertrophy. Men also have denser, stronger bones, tendons, and ligaments. Women are built for being in the game for the long run, men are the opposite. Women have more slow twitch fibers making them more fatigue resistant on average while men have more fast twitch fibers making them good at expending a lot of power and giving a lot of output compared by women.

    1. Female genital mutilation is traditional in some places. Slavery was traditional world-wide. I refute the notion that traditions are inherently good. Some are, some aren’t.
      While at the extreme ends of the scale men out-perform women, I know many women who outperform many men. Can you lift like Ielja Strik? (Squat 250kg, Bench 160kg, Deadlift 220kg– multiply by 2.2 to get pounds.) I certainly can’t.
      I’ve run mixed classes since I started teaching, and it has never been a problem. How segregation can be ‘moral’ as you suggest, I just don’t understand.

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