My heart was racing as I heard my name called by the referee -- my first match as a blue belt was about ready to begin. I listened for my opponent and it was a teammate, the very one whom I tested with for this belt. Then, my nerves kicked in hard, the adrenaline dumped and my hands went cold.
Taking a deep breath, I looked back to the bleachers and saw my boyfriend at the time looking out at me, his camera at the ready to take photos and cheer me on and I felt a sense of comfort and determination wash over me. I was going to give him a good show. Everyone on my team knew who he was in relation to me, and they were the ones who had suggested I bring him to team events and to that tournament. They enjoyed talking to him and seeing how happy I was with him around. To me, it was another clear sign that times are changing within the jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts world.
I'm Nick. I go by Rush among my team and most of my friends. It's a nickname I got from my first martial art (Kempo) where I went in too fast and spazzy while sparring, and it just stuck over the years. I'm also an openly gay fighter; my main focus is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but my secondary art is Muay Thai. Both come together with my ultimate goal: to enter the MMA world. There aren't many of us openly gay fighters out there, and unfortunately my sport has a pretty bad reputation that seems to scare many away from training. In my experience, sexual orientation isn't a big deal these days and at my gym nobody has really cared. It's just another facet of me as far as everyone is concerned -- one that is talked about like anything else, but isn't made into a huge issue.
My coach was the first person to actually bring it up. We had just finished a team dinner after a local tournament -- my first tournament ever -- and were on the way back home to Spokane, Washington. He looked into the mirror making eye contact with me and asked, "You said you haven't been back here since you and your ex broke up, right? Why didn't things work out with him?"
This subtle use of the correct pronoun caused the discussion to begin. Another teammate turned around with a knowing look on her face, and the one next to me also turned. They listened carefully, and there was a genuine feeling of happiness that I was able to be open about who I am. From there, my orientation was discussed as a whole -- whom I was out to (they didn't want to risk outing me in case I was partially closeted), how comfortable I felt, etc. My coach made it clear that this was an open environment. It was amazing, and it was then I began seeing signs that the sport was open. Any hesitance toward being open about myself had started to vanish.
I have a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The discipline involves close quarters ground fighting often seen when the fight goes to the ground in MMA. We learn to use technique and leverage over brute strength and size. We don't generally use striking (that's what Muay Thai is for) and focus instead on joint locks and chokes. I also have a little over a year experience in Muay Thai. I've dabbled in other martial arts -- Capoeira, Yang Taiji, Taekwondo, even a little Krav Maga. My first martial art was a form of Kempo, which I began training in 2009 at 25 years old after my then partner of four years and I separated.
Being that I've spent the last year and a half focusing solely on ground fighting, I'm knocking off ring rust to get the striking skills back up to speed, and hope to make my way into MMA. One day, in spite of a rather late start in life with it (many fighters retire in their early 30s), I would like to have at least one pro fight to my name. Over the past 18 months, I have done a lot of local and regional BJJ tournaments: four as a white belt, placing third in one of them for my division, and one so far as a blue belt. Two more tournaments are slated this November.
If you visit a gym while a training class is happening, it will ooze stereotypical masculinity and toughness, even with the women who train. It is a very "manly" sport. It's fighting, and most of us compete in some fashion or other at my gym, so it is also very competitive. At the same time, we have people with all sorts of goals from fitness to fighting, and everyone has a home and a place.
In spite of the competitive edge, there is a large element of support in all we do. Behind the rough edges and hardened exterior people see is an underlying bond that we share -- one forged by mutual hard work, pushing each other to be their best and simply being there for each other when times are tough. Any time a teammate has a goal, everyone steps up to help them achieve it. They've all stepped up their game for me and put in extra work as I get ready for a two-week training stint in Thailand where I hope to put my skills to the ultimate test.
It saddens me that many gay people may not ever experience the amazing support and skill offered by these sports because of fear: fear that they won't be accepted, or that they might get kicked out or shunned for being who they are. There is a disheartening story of a man who was kicked out of his gym after being outed in South Carolina a few years back, and I think that reputation has stuck among the gay community in spite of clear progress over the years.
In turn, this caused a stigma in the gay community for those of us who participate in BJJ/MMA. When I brought this up to teammates, they were appalled by reaction the gay man in South Carolina faced in the Jiu Jitsu community. They are also shocked by some of the negative reactions I face within the LGBT community for participating in this sport. The big names like UFC fighter Anderson Silva and Dana White (president of the UFC) are on record having said that being gay is not an issue. My teammates naturally echo that sentiment: it doesn't matter who you are so long as you come onto the mats with respect, humility and work to be the best fighter you can be. Team is family, and they should always have your back, especially when one has done nothing wrong. When I asked for my coach's thoughts on sharing my story, he said "go for it. If someone doesn't like it, fuck ‘em. We don't need them here."
As more teammates added me on Facebook, they became aware that I like men. On a trip to my first regional tournament in Tacoma, we played a question/interview game in the car. Questions were asked in a way that gender preference was open, so I didn't have to twist things around. We discussed everything from embarrassing dates to who we found attractive. At the tournament, one teammate asked who I would want to date there. I pointed out a few guys, and he said I had some good taste in men -- a heterosexual male was talking about who I might be attracted to. A whole fighter, emotionally and physically, is a healthy fighter. My team has always made sure I felt completely supported in everything so that I can be a whole fighter and achieve my best. I had another teammate introduce me to his sister and her girlfriend. Visibility has never been higher, nor has it ever been more important.
As you train in that sort of proximity with someone for that long, they become family. My team is always there for me with an open ear through the ups and downs of life. After my recent breakup, the first person I talked to was my coach, and within a couple of hours I had teammates checking in on me. They all let me know they were there, and helped push me in training during the following weeks to take my mind off of things. I would get random messages just checking in, or telling me how someone thought I did really well with a technique, little things to let me know they were paying attention and cared. Once, when I had plans to attend the local NOH8 photo shoot, I had both male and female teammates ask for details to see if they could make it with me to publicly show their solidarity. Unfortunately, the scheduling didn't work out, but I still took a photo in my uniform with the team patch prominently featured.
What we fighters share is nothing short of amazing, and it is my hope that more people will get to experience this. Jiu jitsu and MMA both have done so much positive: pulled people out of bad situations, given many a positive outlet for negative emotions, boosted confidence, helped people become healthier and given many of us hope and the chance to dream big when it seemed impossible.
As part of the LGBT community, we are no less deserving to be there, to train, to grow and to become better individuals. That was my mindset when I took to the mats, and as I've trained, it has been proven time and time again that the sport is ready for us. It is such a non-issue that my coach and teammates are comfortable making dirty jokes about tugging my lapel when I'm in turtle guard to get a submission or some of the positions we end up in. At the end of the day, to them I'm just Rush: their teammate, friend and I just happen to be gay. And they want to see me thrive as a fighter and as a person.
My gym is not alone in this, and it is my hope that others will join the ranks and be themselves while doing so. The times are changing, and everyone should be on board -- straight and gay.
Nicholas "Rush" Rotas, 31, has only recently discovered his passion for fighting and training. In his spare time he studies languages and enjoys travel throughout the US. If anyone would like to contact him he can be reached at Facebook; Twitter (@cantstoptherush); Instagram (@cantstoptherush) or email (email@example.com).