by Jim Provenzano
GLBT Tae Kwon Do
They kick air, toes spiking precariously close to faces, grunting "hai!" in precision. Fists and limbs dart out and retract with an arresting sharpness.
Its literal translation means "the way of the hand and foot," but for lesbian and gay martial artists, and students of Tae Kwon Do, it's a way of life.
Developed after World War II by South Korean General Choi Hong Hi, Tae Kwon Do is a relatively new martial art with ancient traditions, a scientific compilation of the best of all forms.
Led by instructor Ken Craig, the Triangle Tae Kwon Do Club meets twice weekly at Eureka Valley Rec Center in organized training sessions for all skill levels. This is only one of many queer contingents of the sport, which claims over five million students in the U.S.
As a self-defense form, Craig believes this innovative martial art can greatly help people consider the alternative options in a crisis or bashing situation.
But like other martial arts, it is not strictly a self-defense course, and people shouldn't expect to become a walking arsenal of Van Damme proportions.
In fact, like other graceful self-defense sports, it can teach people how to avoid blows and deflect attacks through intricate foot and hand techniques.
Following their development in the martial art, participants can compete in local regional and national events as well, building self-esteem and meeting others with similar interests.
Andy Maguire, a first-degree black belt, assists and trains with Triangle Tae Kwon Do, but also trains with another more experienced group, informally called the Golden Gate Dragons. Maguire competed in Vancouver and New York's Gay Games IV, where he won a gold medal at sparring.
Composed of local members of the International Association of Gay & Lesbian Martial Artists (IAGLMA), they meet the first Saturday of each month at Eureka Valley.
Maguire and other higher ranked martial artists offer close training for the beginner.
For Craig, the balance between the self-defense and spiritual aspects of Tae Kwon Do are what keep him devoted to sharing his skills with the gay community.
And while some may be familiar with the behavior, but in a more leathery context, more respect is asked of students, who should respond with a crisp "Yes, sir," after most instructions.
"Asian culture is very hierarchical in nature," said Craig. "For anybody that's able to teach someone, that carries a responsibility." But more disarming is hearing Korean instructions delivered in Craig's lilting Scottish brogue.
Included in the responsibility of the sport is learning more about Korean culture and language. Terminology for stances and kicks are given in Korean. For example, a side kick is a "Yap cha-gi." Just saying the terms makes it seem more authentic.
To Jim Gardner, a Red Belt Third Gup, it's not about showing off. He points to the level of discipline he's achieved through training. "We're in here to teach each other," he said.
Tim Gallagher has been training since November, and was pleased to find such a group created for the gay community, but not exclusively. "Just be a human being over the age of 10," he joked of the open-door policy.
An average class includes about a dozen people, said Gallagher, "but we're getting more all the time."
"I'm hooked," he said of his newfound sport. He's also signed on as secretary of the club.
What does one need to start? Inspiration, flexibility, and desire. Those who grow into regular training can purchase a ghi (those fabulous white PJs) and develop in the levels of belts. Special shoes can be bought for those whom barefoot workouts are too chilly. More developed martial artists also work with sparring weapons like a hardwood bo staff or rubber nunchuku. Some classes include foot or fist hits to a plastic breakable board, which is not as easy as it seems.
But most of the beginner workout is comprised of standing positions on a hard floor. While mats are helpful for falls, the majority of Craig's class required strong floor support, so they opt out of mats.
How does it feel to take up a sport in adult life? "I'm not exactly a teenager any more," said Gallagher. "There is pain. You occasionally get whacked in the face."
But for the most part, it offers an empowering form of exercise. "You're using muscles in a way you hadn't before," Gallagher said. "You learn how to do it properly," as Craig breaks down movements in what he calls "a very nurturing positive atmosphere."
Recently, the club raised $500 for the Eureka Valley Recreation Center Youth Support Programs at their first kick-a-thon. Students collected donations based on the number of kicks they could execute in one hour. Many had performed over 750 kicks. Future events include participation in Pride Celebrations, where they'll be marching on Market Street – not barefoot – and even may break a few boards.
Classes are held every Monday and Friday 7:30–9:30pm at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center, 100 Collingwood at 18th Street In San Francisco's Castro District. Beginners do not need a ghi. Sweatpants, T-shirt and a pair of light comfortable sport shoes are all you need. For more info, call head instructor Ken Craig at (510) 222-0551 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org