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By Dan Woog
As a scholarship basketball player at a South Carolina Baptist college, she thought her life’s mission was to work in youth ministry. She joined Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and became a noted speaker. But at the same time she continued her involvement in martial arts – a passion since elementary school – and over time that stereotypically macho sport allowed her to realize who she truly is: an out, proud “peaceful warrior.”
Her first exposure to martial arts came in a six-week after-school karate class. Her mother had just left an abusive husband, and wanted McGregor to learn to take care of herself.
“Remembering how hard it was as a 5-year-old to watch my mother being beaten has ignited a special passion in me to teach self-defense,” McGregor now says.
She has taken her teaching far and wide. Currently the highest-ranking female martial artist in the United States, she has been featured in People Magazine and on the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel. She is the only female member of a combat ki team (which emphasizes body and mind integrity) that travels the world demonstrating how to take kicks and punches to vital areas of the body without injury. After women watch her take strikes to her throat by an NFL player, or see four 200-pound men punch her neck, they’re inspired to take up martial arts, too.
McGregor has represented the U.S. in karate world competitions, and is a two-time U.S. Open champion. She is a fourth degree black belt or above in an astonishing 17 different styles of martial arts (including 10th degree, the highest possible, in karate). And she has been inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame as both a competitor and a master teacher.
Throughout her 36-year career, McGregor’s identity as a woman, and a lesbian, has evolved.
“As a kid playing backyard games, I always saw myself as a boy,” she recalls. “When I finally heard the word ‘gay,’ I figured out what it all meant.”
Martial arts is a male-dominated world. Even today, most of the athletes McGregor trains with are men. “They see me as one of the guys,” she says. “I’ve never asked for favors. They love that attitude.”
Still, fearing their reaction in so intimate an environment, it took years before she came out to them. She began the process a decade ago, and grew “really bold” about it in the past five years.
Their reaction, she says, is “great. They love it. They say we can girl-watch together.” However, she admits, “I don’t know if it would have been the same if I hadn’t already had their respect from training.”
McGregor believes there is a higher percentage of lesbians in martial arts than gay men – perhaps half of the female instructors she knows are gay. One reason might be that the first women attracted to male-dominated martial arts were ardent feminists with the courage and willpower to assert themselves. Many were lesbians.
But whether gay or straight, McGregor says, martial arts is good for women. It builds confidence, provides fitness and offers entry into a community of supportive, like-minded people.
She describes her teaching technique as “high-energy and jovial. I’m not militaristic, which makes me different from the traditionalists. I think people learn better in a fun environment.” Perhaps, she says, that attitude developed from her early introduction to martial arts, as a means to escape her stressful life.
McGregor does not think being a lesbian is relevant to her success. Martial arts, she says, should appeal to all females, regardless of sexual orientation. “I don’t know of any other field, except maybe law enforcement, that would accept me so easily as one of the guys. I don’t have to be more feminine than I am. That’s a very freeing feeling for anyone.”
Not long ago, McGregor fell in love with a woman. She moved to Seattle live with her. She is writing a book on self-defense for “everyday people.” She travels far and wide, offering seminars and private lessons to individuals, groups and corporations to help people of all ages and experience levels learn focus, leadership skills, perseverance, discipline, problem-solving and a strong work ethic.
Now completely out, McGregor also looks forward to using martial arts to help gay youth. In some ways that is a long way – and in others just a short hop – from her college vision of “youth ministry.”
For more information, visit http://www.sherrymcgregor.com or e-mail email@example.com