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This is the sixteenth profile in our Society Nine Storytellers series where badass female fighters across all sports, media and culture in our community share their definitions of femininity, strength and empowerment and discuss what they fight for.
Have a story to tell? Submit it here! Tell us who you are, a little bit about your journey and what you fight for – in life and sport.
Fighting has helped heal me. It enveloped my wounds, and forced me to examine my own damaged and traumatized parts. The martial arts taught me that I’m allowed to take for myself, without the same devastating emotional consequences that have plagued me in the past. I think it’s only fair to myself that I tell the real truth behind why I am drawn to fighting. I have been fighting all my life; but now it’s become art.
I spent a lot of my childhood helping those around me. Every time someone needed me I was there, never deeming those in need of help as weak or defenseless. It became a code: to love and protect the ones who couldn’t protect themselves. But in a way, I was looking for someone to eventually love and protect me. I never found that love and protection. More often, my kindness was taken for weakness, and the vultures picked me apart.
Growing up it was a constant struggle to survive abuse, both emotional and physical (sometimes, unfortunately, sexual). I was taught to compete with everyone, especially other girls. My relatives often ridiculed me, picked me apart, and pitted me against my own family for their approval. Being abused for many years made me aggressive. I was told that I was out of control, and that my anger was my own fault.
My father embraced passivism and my mother had a temper that was unmatched by anyone. Shortly after their separation, my mother started dating a man who would later become her husband (now ex-husband) of twenty-three years. I hated him, resenting his presence so much that I made it my personal goal to express my discontent.
In time, I grew fond of him. He shared with me the things he loved, and I grew to love them too. One day my stepfather tied a punching bag to a tree. I asked him about it, and he said he would love to show me how to hit. As I ran outside to join him, my mother pulled me aside: “Absolutely not.”
Because I was a girl, my mother strongly disapproved of my desires to practice the martial arts. I was pushed toward pursuing other talents: acting, singing, modeling, and pageantry. I grew disinterested in each of these in turn, and needed to try something else. Fighting had always occupied a space in my mind, but it was the one thing I was not allowed to do.
In my twenties, after I’d moved to New York, a friend from college who practiced Jiu Jitsu came to stay with me. Around that time, I had thoughts about joining a gym. I found myself outside the steps of a basement-level Muay Thai gym called The Wat, located in Tribeca. The first person to approach me was a small, spritely woman—a barrel of dynamite packed into a five-foot female frame. Her name was Susan Reno and, later on, she would become my boxing coach.
The more time I spent around her, the more fascinated I became with fighting. She ignited my curiosity, my dreams of fighting, and my respect for other fighters. As time went on I began brainstorming a short film featuring female martial artists, with Susan as one of the main characters. The project has spanned into almost half a year of filming, including several other females from different schools, and with the support of close friends and artists (David Mack and Gawakoto clothing, being one of my main partners). Working on this film has solidified my trust and belief in women. We are a tribe, a group that thrives as a collective. When you are in the ring, you are alone. It’s your fight. When you are done, your tribe is waiting for you, to help heal and commemorate your time spent in battle.
My greatest hurdle in becoming a fighter was learning to understand and own my femininity. I had a hard time accepting that I could be united by womanhood, after years of being divided by my own kind. I believe now that I, as a woman, am becoming aware of my true self. It’s not about being treated as an equal to man. It’s about being treated as a woman. It’s about being respected for our differences, our strengths, and our vulnerabilities, and not being broken down, picked apart, exploited, or pummeled by our better half, or even by other women.
If I could talk to my former self, that small child who had to endure until the freedom of adulthood granted her an escape, I would tell her to not accept what had happened to her as her fault. But I can’t reclaim the past. I can only be her champion and the greatest mother to her now. Her protector, my protector — a female fighter.
Gemma was raised in Seattle, Washington. She currently lives and works out of New York as a photographer and filmmaker. Her amateur fight debut is on April 11th in New Jersey at The Warriors Cup.
Please check out clips from Gemma's work for her new documentary SENSHI, an exploration of the female fighting spirit!
Studio photos by George Chin; all other photos Gemma's own.