I used to be a fencer. I hate to say that in the past tense, but despite my whole “all times are now” thing, it seems dishonest to say otherwise.
I used to be a fencer, and I was very serious about it. This wasn’t sport fencing, that thing in the Olympics that’s like tag, but fencing as part of the family of Western Martial Arts, in which we trained as if preparing for an actual engagement.
It appealed to me because of the way physicality informs my understanding of history, and because it seemed like a worthy and necessary addition to the list of gentlemanly arts I have pursued (which include horseback riding, social dance and, weirdly, walking (oh, Regency era!)).
But the question isn’t really why I fenced or what it meant to me, but why I left, and why I am telling you this now.
I left because the standards — social, technical, and ethical — were inconsistent.
Some people were praised for treating our pursuits with a sense of military discipline, while others were mocked. Some were allowed to be clowns on the floor because it was amusing to our instructors, when others would be snapped at for so much as speaking out of turn.
We were told we were modern people in the modern world enrolled in physical coursework. Yet we were also told we were essentially a mystery school and were never to speak of the salle on the Internet. We were told our school was the best in the world, while others were mocked; if the first were true (and it was), why was the second necessary?
And, and this is the really important part, for an activity that relies not on strength or size but on geometries and allows men and women to compete against each other as equals, gender and queerness were constant “problems” in my salle.
It was little things: like the oft said “Every fencer needs a good fencing wife.” Obnoxious not just to me and any queer person in the salle, but obnoxious to the multiple couples who fenced together with equal seriousness and skill. Or the grief one guy was constantly given about the way he kept his hair out of his eyes (with a barrette, deemed too feminine). And let’s not forget the way our fencing master would mock, with limp wrists, the male ballet dancers who had joined and then quit (maybe it wasn’t that they couldn’t hack it, maybe it was that they felt unwelcome). Or the way that, that master would always tell me how he’d get yelled at in his own ballet classes as a young man for chasing after the girls.
The problem with my fencing experience wasn’t that I was female. It’s that I was in an environment where it wasn’t supposed to matter that I was in order to pursue knowledge about the man I could never have been (I would have not been born to a class that had the right to swords) but wanted to know of, given the opportunity, and yet I had my perceived gender enforced on me at all times.
“Don’t be embarrassed, you should aim for the nipple,” an instructor once said. Who told you I was embarrassed? It was the first time I had hit someone. All I did was miss because it was a new skill. There are many things I am afraid of, but the flesh has never been one.
“Don’t be afraid,” I was told. And who said I was afraid? as I was learning to place my point.
There were other gay women in the class. Very well-liked by our master, who also quite liked me too. But they were of a different generation, and I don’t believe had the gender issues that I do. They were not wounded by an insistence they were something they were not there to be, and they did not struggle with finding the right tone to fit in.
I took up fencing before I met Patty, in what I call my Black Year. I was excruciatingly miserable, and the salle really saved me because no matter how bad I felt — whether it was depression or menstrual cramps or the effects of celiac disease or the damn flu — I went. Even when I looked like I was going to fall over and people told me I should be home resting. I went, because it was order and ambition and something I could subsume my will into. I went because it was a way to learn never to hesitate; I would be a fighter, yes, but it would also make me a better horseback rider and a better pilot and a better leader. I would give up my life to this thing; I would explain how Martha Graham said takes 30 years to be a dancer.
And, even when the homophobia and heteronormativity was driving me up the wall, I was writing essays trying to convince myself that the choice I was making was acceptable because the skills I was being offered were available to me no where else within reach or with that level of expertise — we are all, after all, fallible, and a rare skill and a willingness to teach it is worth the thorns.
But yet, eventually, one day, I just didn’t go to fencing. I was sick or tired or busy and not in the mood to see boys with only six weeks of training being allowed to use the saber because they were members of a small and obscure young men’s Catholic organization my master was friends with the founder of, while I was told, after well more than a year, that I was lucky to train in saber at all, occasionally, because women once weren’t allowed.
I had never felt like a woman in that room, and it was terrible to be told I was, when on the days I could not bring my own confidence and force to the morass of difficulty that was the salle, I pretended to be men from fiction, and then, suddenly, could disarm my partners over and over and over again.
I wasn’t a great fencer, and I wasn’t a terrible one. I was a hard worker and brutally determined; and I wanted, more than anything, to keep this art from passing out of the world. I was gifted in some ways, and relentlessly weak in others. I struggled against my celiac disease, my left-handedness, and my shyness. But I smiled when I fenced, grinning behind my mask, not in glee, but because I could feel myself in the midst of so many simultaneous and ruthless narratives; there are men I recall laughing with as we fenced, and I will never forget them or my gratitude. And I loved nothing more than to do our salutes crisply (and I loathed those who did not) or the narrative of the grand salute, which is complex and includes the dialogue, “To you the honor” and the response, “I obey.”
A popular topic in the salle was about why we started fencing. I, perhaps, made a mistake on the very first day when I did not say “because I am interested in the gentlemanly arts of the Regency era” and said instead that it was (and this was also true) because of a book, Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint (centered, I should note, on a swordsman and his boyfriend; and also the book through which Patty and I met, when I still fenced, and which continues even today as a narrative in our lives). But I did not name the book. Did not explain my own queerness. Was just instead a shy, mumbly girl nerd, who learned eventually what reasons were actually acceptable: A Game of Thrones, always okay. A background in the SCA? Only if you disavowed their fighting styles and hobbyism.
The degree to which we were all nerds, but engaged in a nasty hierarchy of acceptable nerd-ness was significant, and I felt like I had to do a lot to hide things like fannishness and my Harry Potter book and my various historical reenactment interests — not because these things were never okay, but because they were only okay in the salle from some people in some ways.
All of which brings me to why I am writing this: In the black year of my life, I found a thing to apprentice myself to, but not people. I was left, again, to be not only my own master, but my own advocate, a good, valuable, brutal lesson as it always has been, but one I received in an unfortunate year in an unfortunate place where I had allowed myself to be made mute.
I think, often, of telling these stories in far more extreme detail and with the naming of names. I think, too, of swallowing my pride and going back, of convincing myself it was ego that made me fail and not an environment that was a poor and impossible fit for my form (ironic, perhaps, considering fencing history like La Maupin). I think, finally, that I am loud and big and brave and strong enough to go back and speak, to challenge the master when he says things which I simply cannot bear, even as my love of formality and order cringes at the very thought.
Recently, I received an event notice for a conference run, not by the salle, but by a group of people, some affiliated with the salle, some not, designed to promote Western Martial Arts. It will include demos and instruction in various Western Martial Arts as well as panels and other activities relating to things like SF/F, pirates and steampunk. At present, the opening page of the website features men with swords, geek related things and women with a great deal of cleavage (one with a barely noticeable sword, one covered in blood, one sprawled languidly), while, meanwhile, not a single guest is female.
I realize they’re still booking people. I realize this may, and probably will, change. I realize that women I know will attend. And, of course, I recall that the other master in what was my salle is a woman, small and deadly. But the whole thing reminded me that even if I could be the woman they expected me to be who would then receive equality based on skill on the fencing floor — I wouldn’t. Not really.
Because when you mock male ballet dancers as limp-wristed, when you criticize a man on how he wears his hair; when you insist on telling women their technical problems as fencers are about fear or embarrassment or the immutable shape of their hipbones; when you talk about “good fencing wives” and invite virulently homophobic religious activists into our midst, you’re not just being homophobic, you’re saying it’s bad to be feminine; you’re saying women (who must be of a precisely single sort) can, theoretically, be equal to men (who must be of another precisely single sort), but yet never actually will be.
I never wanted to be honey; I just wanted to fight. I have so much gratitude and love for the people that taught me how, which is why, I suppose, in the year of my broken heart, I let them break it even more.