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Sparring in the attic: Haymaker Gym hosts LGBTQIA+-friendly classes in church attic

Vibrant laughter and exhausted breathing echoed in the attic of the Second Unitarian Church, 656 W Barry Ave., as a Jiu Jitsu instructor and student grappled during their martial arts class.

“How’s this?” “You good?” passed between the two as they practiced their sport, giving consent for constructive criticism and checking in on their sparring partner’s health. 

After they finished their session, the two reflected on what they learned, starting with their preferred name and pronouns, if they chose to say them. 

Haymaker Gym offers donation-based martial arts classes for women and people who identify as queer or transgender in the Second Unitarian Church. 

Because of the sport’s use of close, physical contact, this exclusive training space is a comfort, members said.

“It’s such a close-contact sport that going into it for the first time, it may be a little bit of a shock to have someone, who you don’t know or are comfortable with, basically sitting on top of you,” said Terri, a student at Haymaker. 

The attic of the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago is home to Haymaker Gym. | Summer Hoagland-Abernathy

A common negative stigma for churches is that they do not welcome members of the LGBTQIA+ community, but the Second Unitarian Church accepted Haymaker Gym—who sought the church out specifically—and its LGBTQIA+ clientele with open arms.

“Churches should be spaces of community resource,” said Rev. Jason Lydon, minister of the Second Unitarian Church, in an email. “As a Unitarian Universalist congregation with a majority queer staff, it is essential that we create an LGBTQ affirming space. Any church that chooses not to authentically welcome LGBTQ folks is ignoring a call to love, justice, and compassion.”

Having a space that caters specifically to women and people who identify as queer or transgender is important to the members of Haymaker. Leslie, an instructor of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, said they are happy to have a space where their politics are accepted and where they can speak their political thoughts openly. 

“I’m a medical student, and Haymaker affords me a space where I can unabashedly … make space for my politics. It’s a space where me being a medical student isn’t all-encompassing … [and where] I can not feel concerned or anxious about expressing my political beliefs,” Leslie said. 

Felix, a student in several classes at Haymaker, agreed, noting important differences between Haymaker and more traditional martial arts schools. Commonly, martial arts schools do not go out of their way to acknowledge that some students may not be cisgendered— identifying with the sex they were assigned at birth—rather than another gender like nonbinary, which is an umbrella term for any gender that is not male or female. 

“I’ve noticed a lot of the self-defense and martial arts community does lean very much straight, cis man — lots of white men and a lot of conservative-leaning politics,” Felix said. “And with the rise of right-wing violence and hate crimes, in a lot of places, I don’t really feel that safe as a nonbinary person of color or someone with left-wing politics. … Training here at Haymaker feels a lot safer for me to be true about my political leanings, true about my identity.”

In 2018, 0.7% of hate crimes were based on biases about gender; 2.2% were based on biases about gender identity; 16.7% were based on biases about sexual orientation and 59.6% were based on biases about race, ethnicity or ancestry, according to a study by The United States Department of Justice.

Haymaker proudly boasts with the first line of text on its website that it “is an anti-racist and anti-sexist gym.”

Though Felix said situations in which they’ve had to use their skills are rare, there are times when they are thankful that they have the tools to defend themself or others because of the growing number of hate crimes.

They actually got in a situation where they thought they might have to use their training, they said. 

“Some folks were harassing a queer person on the bus, and it got to the point where these people were yelling at them and actually using the f-slur,” they said. “So it got to the point where I’m like, ‘Okay, am I going to have to have to put myself between this person and these people harassing them?’”

The person being harassed escaped the situation by exiting the bus, so Felix did not end up having to use their defensive skills.

Community self defense like this is an important concept to be able to grasp, said Capoeira instructor Amy.

“Community self defense is when we look at a community that’s under attack,” she said. “Here at Haymaker, we think about individual self defense but also community self defense. “Women, transfolks, people of color, anybody who is living where they are constantly experiencing micro-aggressions and oppression — we have to fight all the time. And so when we have spaces like [this], all we’re saying is, ‘You get to actually focus on the thing you’re trying to focus on, just for one hour, rather than trying to fight eight different things, while you’re also trying to learn martial arts.’”

Haymaker also tries to instill in its students that creating space between oneself and an assailant is just as important, if not more, than being able to fight one off. Leslie said they sometimes use distancing techniques instead of engaging as it is a safer option.

Several of the instructors train in more formal gyms outside of their classes at Haymaker, but many learn at and teach in Haymaker classes because of the types of comforts they offer, like body positivity, queer-friendly classes and the option to use proper pronouns.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor Yasmine said the community connections within the gym are what make it special. Because classes are donation-based — meaning attendees may go for free classes, but donations are encouraged — a tight community is important. 

“I think one saying I really like about Haymaker is that it’s … really a community effort,” she said. “We needed something to clean the mats with, and one of the students in my class just went and bought it. … Everyone pitches in a little bit to keep classes going.”

Haymaker gym does not follow the traditional martial arts school program of training for competition. The classes are geared toward students and teachers helping their peers learn new techniques, rather than training to be able to enact violence on others. 

“We are built on cooperation, not competition,” said Muay Thai kickboxing instructor Sonny in an email. “[That is how] it is in Thailand, where fighters laugh and play as they spar. Their coaches and team become a family to them.”

To protect members’ identities, some names have been changed by Chicago Talks.

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