The warrior's dance
by Jim Provenzano
You may have seen Johnny Almony cracking his bullwhip on a side street at a recent Folsom Street Fair. You might also have seen him dancing with a local hula dance company, or zipping around town in his smart cycling outfit, or even on his Honda motorcycle.
But the place to find Almony in action most frequently is at Eureka Valley Recreation Center in the little room upstairs, which the Golden Gate Wrestling Club has called home for the past few decades.
Except for a two-year hiatus during its renovation, when GGWC moved to Glen Park's rec. center for its weekly practices, EVRC has been the place for one of the most respected wrestling clubs â€“ gay or straight â€“ in California.
Almony remembers the exact day in October 1997 when he started wrestling. Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Almony took to the sport, and eventually took on many of its responsibilities. Since then, he's become an accomplished wrestler, coach, and an official at local tournaments.
His enthusiasm is infectious to even the shyest novice. With his diminutive yet muscular frame, he takes on grapplers beyond his size with aplomb. With a bronze medal from Gay Games V in Amsterdam and a gold medal from Sydney's Gay Games VI, Almony also competed at many regional tournaments, placing first and second in both freestyle and Greco-Roman competitions.
As a USA Wrestling mat official and accredited bronze-level wrestling coach, Almony has also assisted at several tournaments. Since 2000, he's spearheaded organization of the wrestling club, including updating the club's Web site, responding to new member inquiries, and helping with the annual Memorial Day wrestling weekend. Fundraisers have included lots of beer benefits at the SF Eagle Tavern, designing and photographing a wrestling calendar, and running both a beer booth and a wrestling tent at the Folsom Street Fair.
When not wrestling, Almony has been embracing his Hawaiian heritage by dancing with Halau o Keikiali'i company for five years. "As odd as it may seem, hula and wrestling complement one another," said Almony. "The footwork, balance, postures, and required stamina in wrestling are similar to that in hula kahiko (ancient hula)."
He also sees another connection. "In ancient times, Hawaiian warriors would dance hula during the season of makahiki. This was a time equivalent to Thanksgiving and New Year when war was kapu (forbidden) and everyone participated in the harvest and did fun things."
Almony balances these diverse interests with care. "My kumu hula (hula master) was cool about me being an active wrestler," said Almony, "but he would always warn me about not getting injured before a major performance."
In 2004, Almony attended the Aha Hula Halaualoa World Conference on Hula in Maui. There, he met an instructor who led a class on lua, the Hawaiian combat martial art. "He informed our class that lua practitioners began 'hiding' many of their postures and movements in hula when their brutal art was outlawed during the period of colonization by missionaries," said Almony. "Only lua practitioners would recognize the moves, and this 'Da Vinci Code' made it possible to perpetuate the art in secrecy. I guess being a wrestler that also dances hula would qualify me as a Renaissance man."
Between up to three wrestling practices a week, which he supervises, in June, Almony will be performing with Halau o Keikiali'i at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. In early July, he'll be dancing at the Aloha Pumehana 'O Polynesia Hawaiian Cultural Center anniversary celebration. Ten days later, he'll be on a plane to Chicago to wrestle at Gay Games VII. In August, he'll dance again at the San Francisco Aloha Festival and at a men's hula event in Modesto.
Golden Gate Wrestling Club has an honored place in Gay Games history. The club's earliest organizers, including Don Jung and Gene Dermody, were competitors in the first two Games, held in San Francisco.
The annual Memorial Day weekend wrestling tournament, held last month at EVRC, serves as an opportunity for local and visiting wrestlers to get a chance to compete in a friendly yet sanctioned tournament.
Golden Gate Wrestling also provided an opportunity for Donna Rose, 36, of Phoenix, who hadn't wrestled for more than 20 years. "Wrestling has been instrumental in other aspects of my life," said Rose. "I think it creates an outlook on the world, and a sort of mental toughness."
Gay activists may know Rose for her work in transgender rights for the Human Rights Campaign. Rose also published a book about her experience, Wrapped in Blue, which describes her early life as a boy in upstate New York, struggling with gender identity issues, and learning to wrestle in school while dating girls.
"Even then, I was an overachiever," said Rose. "I trained all year, not just during wrestling season. There were some brutal practices." Like others who have struggled with issues of sexuality, Rose said she excelled in athletics "to counter my own fears."
After a family move to Canada, Rose wrestled to a few championships in the Maritime Provinces in the 159-lb. weight class.
Since considering the idea of competing in Chicago, Rose attended several tournaments, but faced a big obstacle. She had no women to wrestle, and there were few men, straight or gay, who would or could wrestle her.
She said some other transgender people questioned whether she should take part in such a traditionally "masculine" sport. "I buy into a more holistic idea of being a person," Rose countered. "I'm not buying into other people's expectations."
While looking up gay clubs, Rose found out about GGWC's tournament. There, she competed in a few exhibition matches with men in her weight class. One of 45 wrestlers who visited from Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, and Victoria, Canada, Rose said she appreciated the opportunity to try out her sparring technique at practice sessions.
For Chicago, however, Rose hopes to find women to wrestle in her weight class. Previously, fewer than a dozen competitors in wrestling at each Gay Games have been women. Should no women sign up, she may again have to compete in an exhibition match with other men.
"I don't want to be marginalized as a woman," said Rose, who said she is grateful for a chance to compete. And she doesn't feel the need to identify as a transgender wrestler, but said that her being public brings more awareness to the work she does with HRC. "I don't feel compelled to lead with the T card," Rose said. "But no one should limit themselves because of who they are."
Another wrestler given an opportunity is Grgur Drazoevic. The 30-year-old Croatian also kickboxes and dabbles in mixed martial arts. But at the sports clubs he goes to in Split and Zagreb, he's still not out as a gay wrestler.
Out to a few friends and other gay wrestlers after he competed in Munich (placing fourth) at 2004's EuroGames, Drazoevic will take one more big step out of the closet when he competes in Gay Games VII's wrestling tournament, to be held this summer in Chicago.
Drazoevic's request for a scholarship was sent to Golden Gate Wrestling Club. GGWC's president Dermody, a five-time Gay Games medalist in the sport, got the club to fundraise and fully support Drazoevic's trip to Chicago, where he will wrestle in the open (35 and under) 163-lb. (74kg) weight class.
"I didn't have any idea that it was possible that a wrestling club could give me financial help," said Drazoevic in an e-mail. "It helps a lot!"
In his native town of Split, the local wrestling club was mostly university students. "It wasn't a popular sport," said Drazoevic. "When I was a boy, I looked in books [a children's encyclopedia], saw photos of wrestlers, and got a strong feeling that I want to wrestle one day."
While he was still in grade school, the Serbo-Croatian War interrupted his entire family's life, and that of millions of others. "Just like lots of my generation, there wasn't a sports life," he said. "All sports clubs were closed. Everything was stopped."
By 1998, after having lived in Zagreb while attending the local university, Drazoevic found three schools for Greco-Roman wrestling, and sometimes practiced three times a week.
But Drazoevic hasn't told his fellow classmates about himself, and his gay friends don't wrestle. "Nobody in the wrestling club yet knows that I am gay," he said. "So, after this, I think I am the only out gay wrestler in Croatia."
Drazoevic said there isn't much of a gay community in Croatia, with the exception of a small bar in Zagreb, where he said police have harassed patrons. Recent gay pride marches in Zagreb were met with violent protesters, despite police barricades protecting a few hundred LGBT marchers.
Yet, Drazoevic said things are improving, including gay travel groups, Web sites, and a few television shows about gay life. Still, the opportunity to meet up to 100 other LGBT wrestlers would never happen in his country.
"I am very happy that I will meet with so many wrestlers and gay people, and that I can openly talk about gay life," said Drazoevic. "It's a nice feeling to be gay between gays."
Gay Games VII's wrestling tournament will take place July 17 at Northwestern University's Welsh-Ryan Arena, home of the prestigious Midlands Wrestling Championships.