What it’s Really Like to be Gay at Yoga.
“So, do you have a lot of brothers?”
It was an odd question, seemingly out of nowhere. We had just finished a small yoga class, and this is what the substitute teacher asked me as I was re-layering to face the winter weather.
“No, just a sister.”
“Oh. No brothers? Did you spend a lot of time with your dad or uncles?” More odd, invasive questions.
“Well, no, I’m not close to my father, but I did have uncles around. Why?” Now I’m confused, and honestly, a bit irritated.
“I wanted to know why you are this way.”
To this teacher, “this way” is clearly something she doesn’t understand. “This way” is her way of referring to having a female student who has a masculine appearance, not a celebration of a Lady Gaga song.
A chubby, square jawed, men’s-clothes-wearing, tattooed (although, I might add, adorable) butch woman just spent an hour and a half folding, balancing and back bending with a small pack of the more traditional feminine appearing women one might expect to find at an evening yoga class. And it scared the sh*t out of her.
I have noticed when I am in a yoga class and there are no men, I become the guy in the room by default. I am hyper- aware that I am spoken to, adjusted, treated in partner yoga and referenced by my “butchness” and sexuality.
If there is a spider in the room, it will be my job to hunt it down and ignore the yogic credo of ahimsa, (yes, this has happened more than once).
“That’s so gay. That is the gayest thing I’ve ever seen. Who would want to wear that? It’s disgusting. Ugh, gay.”
This came from another student who was sitting across from me as we waited in the hall for a women’s only yoga class. She was reading a magazine and having a loud, inappropriate conversation about the pictures right across from me. After each “that’s so gay,” she pauses and looks at me to see if she can engage me in an argument. This dredlocked, vegan, essential-oil-wearing, hyper-feminine yogini is already disgusted by my presence at the women only yoga class.
I don’t bite. I’m not there to argue.
Later in the class when we end up paired together for partner yoga, I don’t drop her in her back bend, even though I really, really want to. I racked up enough karma killing the spider.
During a week long yoga retreat with a group of well-known teachers, I noticed halfway through that every conversation with one of the teachers ended with, “Whew, you have a lot of masculinity!”
The first time it was amusing. The second time confusing and forced me to question, “How butch and scary am I?”
After the third time, my hand was up for over 30 minutes in an afternoon workshop with a question and answer period.
People were picked all around me, many who had raised their hands long after me. Before long, time ran out and I was completely ignored.
Normally, my yogic-centered self would just think that we were out of time, and that I should appreciate the workshop itself, even if I didn’t get to ask a question.
Not this time.
I spent a good two hours crying alone in a tent in the middle of a “forresty-nowhere” because I thought my appearance was so off-putting that I couldn’t be allowed to speak. And on top of this, a group of teachers who I spent years respecting, admiring and dreaming of working with had ignored me.
Am I really so “manly” that it surprises and threatens people when I have a pretty vinyasa flow going? Am I growing a beard that I am unaware of? If I am, should it matter?
I know it seems unlikely that I was not called on because of my queerness, and I can see now that that was not the case, but after hearing all week about my “masculinity,” at the time it felt like I was out of place. At the time, it appeared a very real possibility that ripped out my core. I needed a hug, or at least to talk about it. At that point, however, I was too ashamed of myself to even ask the friends I had made at the retreat.
Who would want to hug this?
I am a part of the yoga community, yet a chunk of the yoga community can’t handle me.
There are teachers and students who will preach acceptance and non-violence until their “OM” chanting faces turn blue, but my choice of wearing men’s athletic shorts instead of women’s can throw them off for the entire class. It’s disheartening.
I want to teach yoga.
Now I have to wonder, am I too masculine to be accepted as a teacher? What if this package turns off too many students? Should I maybe go back to wearing some earrings and hope this brings some type of balance? How deep is my voice? Do I walk differently when I think I’m being watched?
I don’t have any answers right now. What needs to happen is a very honest conversation about these stories, the countless others not in this article and the many that you have endured or witnessed.
It’s time to start this dialogue. In fact, it’s long overdue.
Tara is an educator, yogi, and feminist activist in Buffalo, New York. She is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Global Gender Studies at the State University of New York, where she has taught classes on contemporary feminism and women’s health. She is working towards a global shift away from patriarchy, colonization, and systemic oppressions towards acceptance, love, health, nature, and community through writing, teaching, yoga, music, movement, and laughter.
Editor: Thaddeus Haas
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