It's 8th of March in the known world, and International Women's Day, so please allow me a reflection about the current situation of "gender issues" in sports, and in HEMA.
It's 2019, nearly two decades into the third millennia, and our hobby is a relatively recent activity, yet it is growing quite fast. I beleve it's about time we start looking in perspective not only to what is happening in the immediate future, but also to what is likely to happen on the long run, and we start setting some precedents and exposing some situations that are best faced now to not be faced too late.
Some of you know I've been a strong opposer of Men-only competitions in HEMA, with some successful results and some less successful ones in pushing towards Open categories rather than Men's. But before we dive into that, I believe a short recap of the possible gender-based categories, based on the sport's type, needs to be made.
How I categorize sports based on physical opposition
1) Non-physical sports (such as Chess):
Some people don't even call these "Sports" at all, yet they are recognized as such. In these brain-focused activities, there is no need for Gender (or Weight!) categorizations. People of any Gender can play those in a grand-category that is the sport itself.
2) Physical non-oppositive sports (such as Powerlifting):
In such activities, the people competing do not directly face each other, but they actually compete by scoring their best at something and comparing their results. This means it is possible to create an overall ladder of results, and then extrapolate any gender-based top performer one is isnterested in checking by simply filtering. So that the top woman, as an example, will be the highest ranking one on such ladder. The same can be done to extrapolate the top man performer, or an "Absolute under 80kgs" top performer... the only needed thing is having athete's information to filter.
3) Physically oppositive sports (such as Table Tennis):
In these activities, athletes have to compete one against the other directly. This means that each athlete's performance is directly and physically influenced by their opponent, thus making it necessary to avaluate gender fairness during the very moment the competition is run, and this is why these sports are the ones that most easily generate concerns about physical fairness. In fact, these sports range from Men/Women categories to Weight categories, to fully Open and other solutions.
Combat sports fall evidently under this category, and are probalby the heaviest impacted ones.
Obviously, there are sports that are somewhere inbetween these ones: as an example, while in running sports athletes tend to compete in batteries, these mostly end up being non-oppositive under the above classification, since what really matters is the time an athlete can run and not actually if they defeat the others on the piste. Yet since the winner of each battery moves on to the following stage, they DO have an oppostive component, even if a mild one, because even there the victory is only awarded by the comparison of running times... they just all start at the same moment!
And what about HEMA?
Anyways, what we want to think about when discussing HEMA definitely is 3: Physically oppositive sports.
So the most difficult-to-regulate ones. How lucky!
It is my opinion that, for the sake of maximum inclusiveness, there must always be an Open category in this kind of sports, which constitutes the maximum competition field where everyone can prove themselves against anyone else. This will in no way affect the top "absolute" performers, since they will eventually end up fighitng the final rounds against the other people who consistently won their matches. In the end, if any Woman or Lightweight person (standing by the examples of Women's category or under 80kgs category of before) wants to fight in such a category (ususally the one with the absolute top performers, in combat sports), why should they not be allowed to measure themselves against the top, and even prove they ARE the top?
Yet, I reckon there's several people who feel they can't (or don't want to) stand the level of risk such an Open category implies, with men up to 120 kgs and over intentionally swinging steel bars against their heads. And that's perfectly fine, and the reason why it is absolutely ok to have Women's categories (and Lightweight categories) in HEMA, provided 2 things:
A) Nobody is excluded from the Open (not a "Men's" or "80+kgs" category, an actual Open!)
B) The organizer has the possibilities and resources to make more than one category.
So, all in all, my solution (that can work also on a long-term) is having a main Open category (everyone is welcome) at all events, and supplementing it with as many closed categories as the organizers want and can (Women only, Under 80kgs only, etc).
This means that, shall the sport ever grow as big as, say, boxing, we will have a structure that already allows several categories to allow everyone a fair game without limiting the upwards mobility of those who feel like they can (such as Women / Open and even 0-75kg / 0-90kg / Open).
How about trans athletes?.
Getting back to Gender-related categories, I am aware that a major difficulty there is represented by categorizing transexual people, especially MtF athletes. On this, we must keep two things in mind:
1) Gender-categories in this system would exist to create an environment for the women who do not feel like joining the Open.
2) The most advanced standard regarding trans athletes' participation in women's categories probalby is that of the Olympic Committee, where MtF transgender people can freely compete in Women's competitions if they have undergone a certain amount of hormone therapy (one year, presently).
So, on this matter I would simply propose that the organizers generally stick to the olympic guidelines for the participation of trangender MtF athletes to Women's competitions as the default.
However, if the organizer wants and all the women who participate to the category feel comfortable with the participation of an MtF trans person even if they haven't undegone the hormone therapy, then why not? :)
It is to be taken into account, though, that the participation of an MtF person who did not undergo hormonal therapy may impact the ability of the organizer to register fights for some Women's ranking systems.
So my conclusion is that keeping HEMA mainly focused on an Open category with satellite "closed categories" is what can best serve us all: women won't be excluded from the possibility to fight for the top, and at the same time those who do not feel comfortable in the Open will have a place to go, provided the organizers are able to set up extra categories (for this is an amateur's sport for now... not everyone can afford the time and staff to make more than one category, but at least that category will be Open and not Men's!).
I believe this to be of paramount importance: not segregating women to "their category" in a male-dominated sport, under the excuse of creating a category "for" them.