Radicalizing The Gentle Art: Fighting Reactionary Culture in BJJ with Radical Softness by Carrion Toole


To most people, compassion and empathy might seem like qualities you wouldn’t associate with martial arts at first. Especially not in the current age of “just bleed” MMA fans and reactionary chud Jiu-jitsu. However, while I live my life in a way so as to be as gentle and kind to the people I encounter as I can be, I know that I have to hold a strength within me great enough to keep my softness safe. As a trans woman, my love for the world and the people I hold dear in it will always be something I need to be ready to defend. 

My love of martial arts and combat sports stems not from a desire for violence, but from a desire to be able to ensure that I and those around me will always have the safety needed to be vulnerable and caring. This care-first mentality also extends to a desire to be able to meet the needs that a conflict demands without causing unnecessary harm to someone who might be trying to harm me. In this way, a method of fighting becomes about how to be anything but violent.

My interest in combat sports started incredibly early in my life through exposure to pro wrestling and superhero comics, so I had a rather childish and cartoonish conception of fighting and violence throughout my early life. In these mediums, the stories being told through the conflict always involved strong feelings of camaraderie, sense of duty to the community, and a desire to do what’s right even if the odds are stacked against you. So when I was first introduced to the sport of MMA by my parents as a nerdy and isolated 13 year old, it was easy for me to see these athletes as real-life superheroes who were embodying the things I wanted to be in the world. It would only take another 2 years before I finally convinced my parents to let me enroll in a nearby jiu-jitsu school, and while a lot of my fighters and coaches have failed to live up to my teenage optimism, I still believe in the arts ability to foster these values in the right conditions.

When I began my training in earnest, I was still an unsculpted, undetailed outline of a person that I’m sure a lot of teens before me and after me have fallen into becoming. I had no idea then that I was a trans woman and that a lot of the dissociation from my body and the ensuing depression was due to this lack of understanding of myself and who I was. Jiu-jitsu was the first thing that truly managed to pull my identity into my body and allow me to understand what I had been hiding from myself. In the transient nature of grappling, and the out-of-body sensation that comes with the years of muscle memory taking over during hard sparring, I was unlocking questions I had never considered about myself while also receiving incredibly affirming answers at the same time. I am not my body, but my body belongs to me and loves me. If I train it well, it will do incredible things to save me and keep me from harm. However, the more I felt personally affirmed in my practice of the art and began to really inhabit my personality, the more I felt unwelcome and singled out by teammates and other competitors I had met along the way. 

Even though I didn’t have the exact words to name what I was as trans, I knew enough to sense that for me to not live up to the expected roles of a young cis male would be a problem for those around me. At the age of 20, I began to feel immense pressure to keep my identity as silent as possible on the mat. While multiple people would ask me if I was gay and try to assuage me by repeating that “it’s okay if you are!”. I had heard more than enough terribly transphobic, homophobic, and misogynistic things said in humid locker rooms with walls just off-white enough for your eyes to notice and in cold, heartless cars with the windows tinted just dark enough to keep you from feeling the sunlight between the men involved to know when people were lying through their teeth though. Even in this promise that felt still like a lie, I knew that even if they could accept the transgression of being a homosexual man, they still could never begin to process the thought of accepting transition.

Artist: Zuanna Maria Boscani
When I turned 21, I was hit with another hurdle. A sudden onset of something known as dysautonomia, a condition where the automatic functions of the body stop responding to the subconscious signals that keep them going while we’re all awake and trying to think about more efficient things. My heart rate was going from a 35 bpm resting rate to 195 bpm within 10 minutes of jogging, my blood pressure would plummet from 130/75 to 45/30, and I was often blacking out for minutes at a time just from standing too vigorously. My condition managed to stabilize enough for me to live a life nearly identical to the one I had lived previously, but after a year of trying to stay active in jiu-jitsu, I was still feeling the lightheadedness creeping back in while feeling more alienated than ever due to my differences. I thought the combination of bigotry and medical complications would be the end of my involvement with the martial arts world forever. A sad, pitiful burnout with nobody to see it smolder.

Artist: Lora Mathis
Now, as a 25 year old 1 year into medically transitioning and feeling a little less likely to pass out every day, I am desperate to get back on the mat and use what I love to do more than anything else to help others find their sense of self and develop their compassion. My worldview stems from a sense of oneness with not just the people in this world with me, but with everything this world has ever had to offer. As humans, we spend a lot of time fretting over when our inevitable death is coming. A thing I think we lose along the way is the truth that everything is dying at its own pace but so too is it being born. What you and I am, what we’re all made of, has lived eons of lives before it ever found its way to the here and now. To you. What is different about this particular lifetime though, is that we are cognisant and that in this life I can say I love you and you can hear me. This is something that you can learn from jiu-jitsu with the right mindset going in and the right environment to process the stimulus you’re receiving, because in jiu-jitsu every position is transient. No two bodies will ever be in the exact same half guard situation ever again and a full guard with one training partner can look nothing like a full guard with another. The only “real” position is the one you find yourself in, so what are you going to do with it?

Team Red Planet's Gay Fight Club
The world of combat sports and martial arts has a lot to offer the LGBTQ community and all other marginalized communities like it for whom self-defense must be a priority because they have no one to rely but themselves, but these arts offer more than just that valuable asset. These arts are forms of self expression and discovery that can rival the most spiritual of practices in the connections with training partners and the self that they foster. The spirit of reactionary violence and patriarchal dominance may feel like it has tainted martial arts beyond the hope of recovery, but that is not true and we can not afford to pretend as though it is. These tools are capable of too much good and beauty to throw them away just because we’ve seen them in the hands of oppressors before. A liberated martial arts is possible, but only if we do the one thing we’ve been training for our whole lives to do. We’re going to have to fight for it.  

Carrion Toole is a queer, leftist martial artist with 7 years training experience in the Midwest BJJ and MMA scene. She is dedicated to creating a safe and fun training environment for people of all marginalized backgrounds that meets their needs and concerns where they are at. Carrion is also hoping to bring their passion for martial arts and social change together to serve their community and communities in need. Carrion's IG is @pwrtoole