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“Is that all you got?”

Back to the floor, I’m grappling with Dylan Miller’s wrists as he straddles my torso. In the world of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I’m supposedly in the more powerful position, but it doesn’t do much to keep me from an approaching choke-hold — by my own forearm.

“What if you get into a fight with a drag queen at Tracks?” he taunts. “How are you going to defend yourself?”

Dylan HeadshotIn spite of barely being able to breathe, I feel reassured by these quips. Years ago, I avoided hyper masculine-coded spaces like this, and when I first changed into the “gi ” — the large white robe and belt worn by Jiu Jitsu fighters — I felt slightly insecure, swaddled like a hack-Jedi. Would Jiu Jitsu be yet another sport that proved my lack of coordination?

It’s true that Jiu-Jitsu, with its Ultimate Fighting associations and its macho pedigree from Brazil and Japan, isn’t quite as queer-friendly as figure skating. But once I started “rolling” on the mat and flipping other students over my shoulder, I found the gi very useful and realized I didn’t need to be self conscious. And there’s Dylan, who could care less about my sexuality or my lack of experience. After I tap out, he asks, “Ready to roll again?”

A wise-cracking, charismatic 28-year-old gym owner, Dylan commands trust and respect from his students, while also earning their laughter. Today, he is excited to be opening a new gym — Nova Mente Jiu Jitsu Academy. “I’m going to open this gym as a place for community empowerment. No matter your walk of life, you’re welcome.”

The journey here, though, hasn’t always been direct.

In 2008, teaching lessons in a West Texas gym, Dylan was outed at work. First, he lost students. Then, he received hate mail. Then, he lost his job. The real toll, he tells OUT FRONT, were the beliefs he accepted through that experience.

“By being gay, I thought I wasn’t an appropriate leader for an organization,” he tells us. While he cofounded Champion Jiu Jitsu and MMA in Dallas, Texas in 2010 — and while he worked with Steve Hordinski to build up Katharo Training Center in Littleton in 2014 — he began to realize that some of his limits were self-imposed. “I had been living as though I couldn’t be a leader of an organization,” he says. “Jiu Jitsu helped me overcome that thought. Jiu Jitsu is the same as life — if you can conquer yourself on the mat, when you go out into life, you will also be transformed. Being gay didn’t have to limit me in making a difference in people’s lives.”

Dylan believes in Jiu Jitsu’s transformational potential. As an example, he recounts how a Latino man walked into Katharo fresh out of prison and announced, “When I was in juvenile detention as a boy, the guards told me ‘If you do Jiu Jitsu, it will change your life, so I’m here.” The man was seeking a space that would distance him from friends on the streets, but he didn’t have a bank account to set up a membership. Dylan gave him careful instructions on how to get one, and the next day, he came back, ready to roll. Even more, a married couple walked in, two longtime gym members who were also detention officers, and recognized the man immediately, and Dylan realized that they had told him about Jiu Jitsu.

“Seeing the three of them sitting on the mat after class, joking with each other, was one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had,” he says. The man was able to find the community he was seeking.

Jiu Jitsu offers many benefits, and Dylan pinpoints three that it offers to queer communities: “Jiu Jitsu’s primary asset is self-defense. Our community can benefit from learning martial arts because gay hate crimes still happen. At the same time, some [LGBT] people are often isolated from their family after coming out, so the secondary benefit is forming another community, another supportive network that will share the ups and downs of life with you. The third is the psychological components: building confidence, facing your fears, and developing strength. And everyone needs that.”

Nova Mente Jiu Jitsu Academy will be opening this month. Interested in training?

Contact Dylan Miller at dylan@novajj.com