My colorful upbringing, offbeat personality, and sense of humor allow me to see the world in a way many find peculiar. I grew up as an only child in Edina, Minnesota. I majored in Japanese studies while I was an undergrad at the University of Minnesota. I spend all my free time pursing my writing and film ambitions.
I'm also a gay man who holds black belts in two forms of martial arts. I never thought these would mesh in any way, but after an incredible year of ambitious self-discovery in 2015, I have come to see things differently in regards to who I am, what I'm about and the messages I wish to convey.
I got into martial arts through my father in 2002. A black belt in Shaolin Kempo Karate, my father competed in underground fights in his early 20s for prize money. His career ended when he suffered a shoulder injury so severe he had to have a metal screw surgically inserted. He would lightly spar with me when I was young, attempting to enroll me in karate when I was 6. At the time I didn't carry the focus to make it beyond white belt.
At 13, my father felt the time was right to try again. He called 20 martial arts schools and issued the instructors a trick test — for $1,000, he asked instructors to write up my black belt certification with zero training. Every school he called fell for it. Just when he was starting to think it was a lost cause, he came across Master Ralph Truesdell of True Tae Kwon Do. "We don't do that here," Master Truesdell told my father when he was issued the bribe. My father smiled and replied, "Congratulations. You've got a new student."
I'll never forget how sore my muscles were after my very first class. I had never done sports and, like so many others at that age, was in relatively pudgy shape since I had not yet grown into my adult body. When I laid eyes on the stocky, 5'8" Master Truesdell, then a fifth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I remember thinking to myself, "That can't be the instructor." When I saw him move, my jaw hit the floor. I had never witnessed such incredible speed or skill. I could feel power pulsating from his fingertips when he first touched me to demonstrate a basic self-defense move.
Master Truesdell worked with me one-on-one for the whole class to integrate all the basics — roundhouse kick, front kick, side kick, backspin, and the proper way to throw a punch. The intimidation I first felt while witnessing the other black belts was staggering. I didn't think I could ever attain such skill, especially since my kicks and punches felt as awkward as the stage my body was at 13.
Six weeks later, it came time for my first test. I had grown considerable muscle in a relatively short amount of time since my first night. The basic moves, though awkward, had come a long way. I sailed through the short test with relative ease as my father watched in the audience.
At the end of the test, I was presented with a board to sidekick through. When I laid eyes on the knotty, 8x12, inch-thick wooden block, a chill trickled down my spine and coiled in my stomach. The thought of a broken leg induced shaking throughout my whole body. I looked to my father, shook my fears away, locked eyes on the board, and shot my leg out. To my amazement, the split I heard was not my leg, but rather the wood being cleaved in two. I was awarded my first Do Bok (uniform) and Hin Di (white belt).
My training not only continued through high school, it diversified. In the summer of 2003 I began to take Kumdo (Korean sword fighting) twice per week with Master Truesdell. The way of the sword was at first as awkward as the way of the fist, but through diligence and practice, it too became natural. As the years passed, I scaled through the belts and Gups (Kumdo belts). Each test I took became harder; the moves more rigorous and thorough, and the board breaks ever more challenging. I could feel I was becoming a true martial artist, just like my father.
Before I enrolled in martial arts, my absence in athletics was noted among my peers at school, as sports equated to heterosexuality. Being an only child, the pressure to "be normal" was even greater for me. My parents would often make off-handed comments looking forward to my "future bride."
I felt I had a duty to uphold the lie, and martial arts were a way for me to do it. On the night after I successfully completed my blue belt test by chin-kick breaking a board seven feet in the air, my father took me out to dinner. At the table he said, "I'm so proud of you, son. And relieved, too. Now I know you're not gay. Otherwise you'd be sewing doboks instead of sporting them." I felt a shade of sadness overtake me. I tucked the thoughts away and kept them locked up for many years.
In January 2008, I attained my First Dan (black belt) in Kumdo after a rigorous two-hour test. My father cried as I was presented with a certificate and a hand-made sword. In the months following, I found myself distracted from Tae Kwon Do with school, where I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota. I took some time off that summer, but what was intended to be a short recess lasted nearly six years.
The girlfriend subject was taboo whenever my parents would ask, even though the writing was on the wall. Not only had I never showed interest, I was living with one of my girlfriends who happened to be an absolute bombshell. I was extremely lonely, and the truth was burning a hole in me.
I had come out to a friend for the first time six months prior. We were out at the bar with a group of friends on a Friday night. Most of my friends were engaging with a group of girls. In settings like these, I tended to hang back and watch. I stepped away to grab a drink from the bar with one of my friends. When he asked if I wanted to return to the group, I replied, "No thanks. Let's just chat here a while."
"Why not?" he quickly asked.
"I'm..." I took a deep breath and muttered the truth for the first time in my life. "I'm not interested." I admitted.
"C'mon. Look at them. They may not be 10s, but they're at least 6s."
"No. It's not that. I'm not interested ... In women."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I'm gay."
He laughed. I did not. His laugh died away as he muttered, "Wow, seriously? I had no idea. Who else knows?"
"You." I said. "I've never told anyone before. I don't know why I told you just now. But it's the truth."
That exchange is the last thing I remember because he got me so drunk in celebration of coming out that I puked. The next day I felt like I had the weight of the world off of my shoulders. I began gradually telling my friends there after, saving my parents for last. "So are you seeing anyone? Steph? You've only been living with her for two years," my mom asked me one night at dinner later that summer. "I know you don't like when I ask, but I just want to know. I would hate for you to be lonely," she added.
When we got back from dinner I went and found her in the back yard and flat out told her. To no surprise, she embraced me with a big hug and said, "I'll always love you." We went in and told my father next. I was certain my mother would not reject me for coming out; I was not as certain about my father. To my joy, he too was supportive. "Be whenever you want to be son, just do me one thing. You made me a promise. Fulfill it and get your black belt in Tae Kwon Do."
One night in late 2014, I found myself shadow boxing in my kitchen. My speed was intact, but my form had grown sloppy. Every year, I make New Years resolutions and follow through with them, so for 2015, I vowed to return to Tae Kwon Do and attain my black belt to fulfill my promise to my father. I tracked down Master Truesdell and enrolled in his class. I also became affiliated with nearby Nakomis Martial Arts, operated by Tae Kwon Do Masters John Klun and Chris Redhead, two black belts who occasionally stopped by Master Truesdell's school in the old days to assist with tests as well as flex their incredible skill and cheery personas.
My muscle memory was quick to dust off the cobwebs of my skill. During the summer of 2015, I was training non-stop for what I was told would be the hardest ordeal of my martial arts career. The black belt test entailed literally every technique I had ever learned, required memorization of 150 Korean terms, and an oral examination of why I wanted to be a black belt. I was driving full-time for Uber. Between rides, I would park my car and run through my Palgwe Patterns (set moves much like a choreographed dance to determine accuracy and precision of kicks, blocks, punches, and stances;) as well as my offensive technique. I also had Korean flash cards (which I occasionally made passengers test me on).
Two nights before the test, I parked my car to enjoy the view from atop the Witch's Hat, the highest point in Hennepin County. A storm was barreling towards downtown Minneapolis. I was dripping sweat from a post-shift training regiment. As a lightning bolt shot off the oncoming storm and called back a loud clap of thunder, I clenched my fists and muttered "I'm ready."
That summer was an enormous period of personal growth, and this test was the perfect way to encapsulate it. My openness about my sexuality reached a turning point just a few weeks prior, when I launched "In The Closet" on YouTube. My ambitions have revolved around working in entertainment since I began writing spec scripts in college, and after working a job where every ride was an interview, I decided to create a vlog/talk show that was personal to me.
I conceived a concept that made light of something that caused me a lot of pain — being in the closet. With very little planning, I purchased three cameras, three tripods, and began recording and launching videos. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's C.J. ran a piece about the vlog three weeks after its launch. It was my first time coming out in public, (and coming out to my martial arts peers.)
Since there is an obtuse concept that all homosexuals crave sexual encounters with any and all members of the same sex, and since martial arts is a contact sport, I wasn't sure how my martial arts peers would take it or what they would think. To my joy, they were supportive, kind, and have only treated me better now that they know who I really am. The summer of 2015 was a time of great accomplishment. Having come out to the world, I only had one challenge left — my black belt.
I hardly slept the night before the test. It was a blistering 90-degree day in July, and the test was scheduled in a room that offered little in the way of air-conditioning. I arrived with my parents to find a room full of uniformed black belts waiting, five of whom were masters. Over the next four grueling hours, I ran through every technique I had ever learned, broke 10 boards with various kicks and punches, and a cement block, (which I failed my first attempt.) There were several instances where I was close to passing out. Every time I felt I was faltering, I looked to my father and found strength. In the end, I fulfilled my promise to him and completed the test. It was easily the hardest ordeal I have ever undergone, and I was fortunate enough to capture it on camera.
I was in such pain from the test that I could hardly turn the wheel or work the pedals when I drove. After a month had passed, I was given a retest on the concrete block. The masters at Nakomis Martial Arts walked me out to the field that adjoins the park building we hold class in and presented me with the block. I stared off at the setting sun, then looked to my martial arts peers around me, took a breath, and sliced through it with a knife hand. As everyone applauded, I was officially a black belt. Master Truesdell awarded me his own personal belt, declaring "it already has power flowing through it, and now it's yours to carry forward." It was one of the most inspiring things anyone has ever done for me.
Martial arts have guided me into adulthood, giving me strength, courage, humility and discipline. But it's so much more than self defense. To me, martial arts are a language, and like any language, there are various dialects with everyone speaking it a little differently, like an accent. It takes no bias and makes no discrimination of its users.
Stereotypes mean nothing, especially in martial arts, and I am living proof of that fact. Currently I am only a first-degree black belt. I become a master at fourth degree, and a grand master at seventh degree. I still have a long way to go, but through diligence, training, and confidence, I believe in my abilities to succeed. For now, I'm proud and pleased to be speaking the language of martial arts my way, sharing my message, and putting my spin on it. After all, martial arts give you the power to overcome any challenge life might throw.
Evan Kail, 26, is a graduate from the University of Minnesota, where he holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies. He is preparing to take his second degree black belt test in Tae Kwon Do in the fall of 2016 and spends his time devoted to his writing and entertainment industry ambitions. He can be found on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter or can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Tomas Aksamit/Future Frame Productions.
Story edited by Jim Buzinski
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