Greatist Journeys explore amazing stories from extraordinary people. This post was written by Becca Borawski, Managing Editor of Breaking Muscle. The views expressed herein are hers. For more on Becca, follow her on Twitter. For the first month I trained in Brazilian jiu jitsu, none of the men in class would speak to me. Thankfully at that time there were two other girls who belonged to the gym. One of the girls, Felicia, approached me on day one and told me which nights she trained and therefore which nights I should attend class. Most of the first month of grappling training, I only communicated with Felicia and the instructor, and from the rest of the class I became intimately familiar with a brand of locker room talk that would cure me of all modesty at any gym I attended for the rest of my life. After a month or so, one of the brashest men in class, Scott, came over to me and started chatting. Like really, just started chatting away with me, offering advice, asking me questions. And then he said it.

He said, “We don’t talk to girls for the first month ‘cause usually you don’t stick around. You just come here wearing make-up, trying to pick up guys, and you don’t take training seriously. I don’t have time to talk to those fucking girls. I don’t care if they think I’m rude. But you’re still here, so you must be OK.” The gym I trained jiu jitsu at was Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet, back when it first opened up, and we were inside a smelly little kickboxing gym. Most girls prefer not to train no-gi, so the female population at our gym almost always peaked out at two or three in those days. After I’d been at the gym for a while I witnessed the thing my teammate had ranted about, those girls looking to pick up guys. Felicia and I would see the girl walk into the gym, with her painted nails and mascara. Felicia would take her under her wing, just as she did me, and we would ask her to remove her earrings and tie back her hair. She would pay us a bit of attention and then take frequent water breaks that required walking by the men on the other end of the mat. “Oh,” I thought. “That’s what Scott meant. Those are ‘girls.’” The girl in question would stick around for a few days, maybe even a week or two, and then disappear. Sometimes with a new boyfriend, sometimes not. Who knows. Mostly during that time that we trained with the new girl, what went on in my head was, “I don’t care how good you look, little girl, if you scratch me I will hurt you.” Not very generous, I know. But try getting scratched up by a girl more interested in flirting with the instructor than she is in learning jiu jitsu. Or try asking one of your teammates a question when he’s thinking, “Oh my god there’s a real, live girl five feet from me.” Class productivity is severely hampered, and even I started thinking, “When is she going to leave?” But, wait a minute — aren’t I a girl? No, as it turns out, I’m not.

It’s (Not) a Man’s World

What I discovered, once I was accepted into the fold following those initial thirty days of silent treatment, was that females who stick around and take training seriously stop being females in the eyes of their teammates. But, they’re not men either. Instead, I wound up in a DMZ of androgyny. Guys didn’t want to date me, but they liked talking to me. They would say all sorts of horrendous things about women in front of me, and then randomly check their language when they remembered I was female. And that’s the thing — I think it just ceased to occur to them that I was a girl. Eddie Bravo told me one time he felt very protective of me. He also told me he was confused by that feeling. The other guys were protective, too. I think we women ended up like sisters to them. A precious member of the team, one they valued, one to be bragged about even, and most definitely one not to be screwed with. Eddie used to like to have Felicia and I grapple with new guys when they would show up to the gym. He liked it when his female students could put a guy in his place – he thought it exemplified how badass our gym was. In retrospect, I think it was perhaps more humiliating than necessary, given traditional gender conceptions. I remember one time tapping some guy out over and over again. He was a nice, quiet guy, just ignorant to jiu jitsu. When he came back the next week, he was angry and aggressive. Eddie told me he thought I mentally broke him. Another time it didn’t go so well. Eddie had me roll with a guy who was visiting, but he turned out to be an experienced judo player and he was quite a bit larger than me. After a bit of time went by and he couldn’t catch me in anything, he grew frustrated, aggressive, and ultimately injured me quite badly, causing damage to my collarbone and neck that persists today. He made his point, that he wasn’t going to let a little girl out-grapple him. And then all the boys remembered I was a girl, too. My teammates liked that they could send me out to kick other guys’ butts, but they didn’t like me coming home hurt. “Don’t worry,” one of them said to me, “We’ll take care of this.” For the remainder of the evening, the judo player got pummeled by every guy in class. He never came back again. For a brief period of time, ancient gender roles were remembered, the pack circled and the females were protected. And I, too, didn’t so much mind the sudden remembrance of archaic roles. I was glad they kicked his ass. Before long things would return to “normal.” The boys would talk about porn and I would patiently wait for them to finish their locker room tales. They would compliment me on my technique, and we’d go back to training. Men, women, or whatever lies in between. In the end, when I thought about it, I found a strange comfort in androgyny. I could define myself without judgment. I could act however I saw fit. I could be strong. I could be intellectual. I could be plain or pretty. I was not good “for a girl.” I was not expected to be man or woman, or compared to archetypes of such. After a point, I too sometimes forgot I was the girl in the room. I forgot that there was even “boy” and “girl.” I was free. I was free to be the essence of me.