HEMA, we need to talk

About nothing in particular. We simply need to talk.

We need to converse, to communicate. Some people say there is no actual “HEMA community”, and that is true to an extent – we spend 99% of our HEMA time with our own groups, clubs, schools.

But HEMA is growing and a community exists, even if it is mostly centered online on a handful of forums. And that community affects HEMA – it affects the gear, the tournaments, the international events, how we present ourselves to the world…

It’s impossible for such a community to thrive without communication. And recently I see communication stifled, topics ignored, key questions of what HEMA will be tomorrow deleted.

Long story short – I was banned from the HEMA International Discussion forum for agreeing with one of the mods.

How did that happen? Well, the popular topic of the Blood & Iron review of Neyman’s Armadillo gloves was brewing some side-discussions. Besides being criticized for the quality of their review, the Canadians were also called transphobes and “nazis”, cause apparently you cannot be one without the other. Suddenly there was a warning from a mod against someone for posting transphobic shit. No such thing in sight. The mod deleted it.


Knowing that fencer, I doubted that he would publish something hateful and asked what it was he posted and why the conversation on a topic is being censored. Some topics should be censored, was the answer.

No, actually. Hateful speech should be dealt with. But no topic should be automatically censored on an international discussion page.

Blood & Iron did refuse a trans woman entry into a tournament a few years ago, Guy Windsor wrote on the topic at the time. Yet there is still no discussion. Why? Because it is still clearly still going on, inside and outside of HEMA.

I believe that trans people should be allowed to compete in sports as their own gender. However, the topic is not black and white or entirely simple.

The International Olympic Committee is still requiring trans women to undergo 2 years of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and to have testosterone under a certain limit. Many non-Olympic sports around the world, including in places where there is HEMA, still do not allow trans athletes to compete as their own gender.

While the science is pointing out that after HRT, trans women really lose their advantage from the testosterone before their transition, numerous scientists point out the data is still not enough for a definitive answer. The fact that men and women have on average about 10% difference in athletic ability is still a fact.

Yes, HEMA is an amateur sport and the degree of physicality between different individuals does not matter to such a degree. We don’t have weight classes (except in wrestling), there are plenty of smaller men and women winning tournaments, there are plenty of big men and women winning tournaments, and we don’t say to a big guy or girl “you only won cause you are too freaking big”.

And yes, we cannot test just trans people without properly testing all women – and consequentially everyone – for doping, which an amateur sport like ours doesn’t have the resources to do.

On the other hand, allowing trans people who have not even undergone HRT to compete – as the previously mentioned admin insisted whilst continuing to discuss the topic with me – may be problematic for some women. One of the reasons there are both tourneys for women and Open tourneys is because women sometimes prefer to fence against women for various reasons. One of them is the fact that they stand a better chance (but not a sure one) of facing someone who is more equal physically.

Imagine how bad it would be if a trans woman was allowed to compete in a woman’s tourney and 70% of them opt out in protest. It would be awful for her, for them, for the organizers and for HEMA. I doubt such a thing would happen nowadays, but it did happen in 1977 in tennis to Renée Richards, after she won a key court case that allowed her to play as a woman and paved the road for trans athletes in the future.

By the way, the same Renée Richards said years later:

“Having lived for the past 30 years, I know if I’d had surgery at the age of 22, and then at 24 went on the tour, no genetic woman in the world would have been able to come close to me. And so I’ve reconsidered my opinion.”

Aside from being a growing sport, HEMA is a growing sport that goes across borders. Right now the West and the East in Europe and the Americas are meeting more and more. And this topic is still not decided so firmly in Central and Eastern Europe as it is in Western Europe and the States. People from the latter see censorship and refusal to discuss a topic – not an attempt to limit hateful speech – when an admin deletes an entire discussion.

I was eventually banned in the following weird exchanges, where I told my opponent that I am not one of the “idiot cis-male transphobes”; that I agree with her, but I just don’t think the debate should be silenced. I think some of the arguments from our side are not satisfactory, and that they should be better presented and talked about, so trans people are more accepted. I was banned without a warning and the whole thread (including the discussion on the gloves and the review) was deleted.

This was on a public HEMA forum, so I am not blurring anything. It was deleted a couple of minutes later.

To the credit of the admin team of HEMA International discussion and my opponent in this debate, they did not just ignore the situation. I talked to the admin that banned me and explained myself further – I was not pushing for a discussion to satisfy an intellectual curiosity or for fun, I just think that such a discussion should happen.

She explained her side too – she felt that any debate on whether trans people should compete as their own gender is discriminatory, it forces them to defend their right to exist, and it is used by people to hurt others.

It may be so, and I understand why she got frustrated with the discussion and even more so when she found out I am acting as a devil’s advocate because of the importance of the debate. The ban was lifted, but I was warned that any such discussion again will lead to another one.

And the admin team agrees with this. While I respect their decision, I think it is a terrible one. To entirely forbid a topic that will surely pop up again in HEMA, that is not something the community is in agreement on (I really hope they will be in the future), and that on a page called “HEMA International discussion”, is a big mistake.

We should be talking more, not less. We should discuss civilly, without hate, without hurting others, but this decision – to block a topic from being discussed – does not help tolerance, acceptance and inclusion of trans people or any minority. It doesn’t help understanding between HEMAists around the world.

“We don’t want politics in HEMA” – I also don’t want outside politics in HEMA, but be realistic – any community generates its own politics when it gets big enough. That is inescapable. We shouldn’t hide from it.

HEMA, we have to talk – talk more and not stay silent.

B. Krustev

7 thoughts on “HEMA, we need to talk

  1. This is quite a good article.
    It does, however, much as this discussion as a whole, suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding:
    I don’t know of any sport, anywhere, which has a _gender_ category.
    The distinction has nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with _physical sex._
    It is purely, and very explicitly, about physicality.
    Physical abilities, capabilities, potential…

    Yes, there are some social reasons, for why women may want to go against fellow women, too (though not at higher levels, mind you), but those aren’t the reasons why such categories were invented, nor anywhere close to the main reason they continue to exist
    …and some women might not be fine, in terms of those issues, when going against a trans woman. (well, one who hasn’t fully gone through corrective surgery, that is. I don’t imagine there would be any issues, after such a procedure)

    Yes, it’s called “ladies'” or “women’s” (both terms, which refer to gender), but that doesn’t mean that the reason, motive or logic behind the distinction, isn’t purely about physical sex. Though you could, quite justifiably, complain about the naming, as being misleading and/or insensitive/offensive to the trans community.

    As such, gender identity is completely irrelevant, to the issue.
    I get why trans people would think it does, and why they’d be angered by it and see it as yet another example of unfair discrimination, but…
    It’s just not so.

    The cited requirements of the Olympics, seem fairly reasonable, if the science is as you say …but the science is not so certain on this, and those requirements are quite out of the reach of HEMA groups, anyway (and, BTW, would involve trans-women having to provide private medical documentation, while no one else has to), so…
    Just saying that trans-women can’t compete in the women’s category, is far from unreasonable.
    Letting any and all trans-women compete, however, would be completely unreasonable, and would go against the whole point, of having such a category.

    I’m all for more understanding of, respect and equal rights for, and no more discrimination against, trans people. I quite agree with pretty much everything in Guy Windsor’s article on this (except in how it relates to who should get to participate in the “womens'” category, of course)
    …but on this issue, there is no undue or unjustified discrimination.

    On the contrary, there is occasional undue discrimination against cis-gendered women, who are expected to compete against people who are, pretty much (in the relevant ways), physically male.
    This is quite unreasonable.
    The fact that it is unreasonable, is the very reason for why there are separate categories, in the first place.


  2. Borislav, I respect how maturely you treated this whole situation. This story shows my main reason why I’m trying to avoid forums. I don’t have this level of patience and calmness.
    For today, you are my hero.


  3. Hey Borislav.

    Good article. While I get where you’re coming from it seems to me you’re a bit oblivious to where the person you’re talking to is coming from.

    It’s just one dialogue about trans people for you, I assume you didn’t have this conversation many times with its point directed at your throat. It’s probably novel for you. However, trans athletes have this discussion well, all the time. Furthermore, the discussion pretty much never goes anywhere, and it usually turns into trans athletes trying to explain stuff to people (who are usually unwilling to learn and often hostile). This person is doing having this conversation for the 50th time. If anyone challenged me in discussion about how to make the double hit rule for 50 times, I probably wouldn’t not be so receptive either, as I’m sure you understand.

    On top of that, people make tired, old or just false arguments all the time in any debate regarding transgender people. Let me assure you, nobody knows about being transgender than transgender people. Not even medical professionals, most of the time. It’s absolutely plausible for a transgender person to shut down an argument they know is false already that’s been explained before in the current forum. Especially if the person making the argument isn’t doing it in good faith. So while I wouldn’t choose to ban you for this (I don’t think you were arguing in bad faith), I can see why this type of conversation, especially one that dragged on so long, sets off red flags for transgender people.

    I’m a sports scientist for some time now, and LGBT issues have always been close to heart for me, so I have seen enough of the relevant literature to know the scientific evidence about this particular issue is plentiful. There has been hundreds (probably close or even maybe above a thousand) articles, posters and tens of books about transgender athletes and inclusion issues. If you’re not a sports scientist focused on this issue there is absolutely no reason for you to do that kind of literature review. I also didnt, since that’s not my focus, but I read about 40-50 of the most cited articles to get a approximate opinion. However, some transgender athletes (and their coaches) would have done that literature review to an acceptable point, and they would know categorically which comment is wrong in which way or not. If I were you, I’d approach this issue in the future while bearing in mind transgender athletes probably know more about being a transgender athlete than you do.

    We do need to talk, but we don’t need pressure certain people so much that they just cannot do it over and over anymore.


    1. Hello, Kerem!

      I am well aware of what you are talking about. I am a political journalist and one of the topics I cover is LGBT issues.

      Now, I am perfectly aware that trans people have to deal with some debates over and over again. However, if they want society to change and be more accepting of them, that’s unavoidable.

      About the idea that trans people know most about trans people – to some extent that is probably true. But trans people also have an inescapable bias in trans issues. They may tend to ignore any study that might go against them, or they look for a way to pronounce it flawed. Yet they will rarely check if a study in their favor may have some flaws.

      I have also read plenty of the literature available. I, however, have no such bias, as much as I want society to be more inclusive of LGTBQ+ people in general. I simply have less of a personal stake.

      The idea that I should accept immediately when a trans person says something is wrong because they probably read more on the topic than me is flawed. That’s appeal to authority, and a flawed authority at that.

      And I know the original discussion is not available yet, but I assure you, I was extremely delicate and careful with my words.


  4. That was a good read. Thank you, Bobo, for bringing up the subject.

    I see two lines of reasoning that go into this discussion (and most other such discussions I’ve seen) that do have plenty of contact surface, but still, deserve to be differentiated:

    1. The technical side of ‘What advantages, if any, does a transgender _female_ (clearly the subject is female transgenders, as the opposite is of no concern in most sports) gets against genetic females?’
    2. Given transgender people’s right at a normal life, does openly discussing the subject incur unnecessary emotional or other damage to them?

    Technically, and more essentially, historically, physique-focused sports have always had sex segregation, based on well, the evolutionary realities of the male vs female physique.

    That said, IMO when seeking for ultimate objectivity and fairness, the jury of a sports event could (should?) always categorize based on body weight and perhaps age, less so on sexes. That does not reject the possibility for ‘free for all’ kinds of competition, but the differentiation should be made, nevertheless. ‘Best among equals’ is one principle, ‘best overall’ — another. Female competitors have all the right to be discontent if forced to wrestle twice-their-muscle-mass male competitors in a ‘free for all’ wrestling event, no? (just giving a not-necessarily HEMA example)

    Now, weapons have traditionally been a great ‘equalizer’, but we clearly need to figure out to what extent does that apply to the different categories of HEMA weaponry. Onto the ‘does such a discussion translate to unnecessary damage’ question..

    Unfortunately, the first part of the matter can be resolved only via a mature and technical discussion based on objective evidences. In this aspect, even though at a superficial level it does go against the right at normality of transgender females, their ‘enduring’ through that discussion is the only way toward an improvement of the situation. Not talking about it is the equivalent of making matters worse — ignoring issues don’t make those go away, ever. On the contrary, those issues galvanize to the point where no party involved gets unharmed.

    My to 0.02 euro.

    ps: forum bans are cheaper than ever these days, and hardly a reason for concern, unless an echo chamber is sought ;p


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