"Once you finally do it you’re expecting fucking suns to collide and everything to go crazy, and nobody really gives a shit. At most it's a five-minute conversation when they ask you a couple of questions. You feel stupid, like you should have done it a while go."
Kari Gunnarsson is ready for a new challenge. He recently moved to Hong Kong from Denmark, where he’d been training with Christian Graugart for over a decade.
Gunnarsson is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but views martial arts as more of a hobby than a career. He is also openly gay.
We asked Gunnarsson what his experience has been like as a gay male in grappling, and if he has any advice for other members of the LGBTQ community, whether they train or not.
GrapplerMag: How long have you been training Jiu-Jitsu, and how did you get started?
Kari Gunnarsson: I've been training since 2002 [Black Belt in 2014]. As a kid I was into MMA and Taekwondo, but I happened upon Choke, the Rickson Gracie documentary. Something just clicked with me when I saw it. There was no Jiu-Jitsu in Iceland at that point, so I Googled around, and everybody [on the forums] said that (“The Westside Strangler”) Chris Brennan down in California had a live-in program. So I went there when I was 18, spent the summer there, three months, and paid like $300. I could stay at the gym with eight other guys and that was it. Training Jiu-Jitsu two, three times a day, just got me started.
GM: How was that culture, being in the fighter's dorm? What was that experience like?
KG: It was weird. My dad was super worried about me, I barely left the country before and all of a sudden I just announced, ‘Hey, by the way, I'm going to California this summer to train Jiu-Jitsu.’ He said `Do you know what that is?’ and I said ‘No, I saw this cool video online (laughs)!’ So props to him for letting me do it and not just fucking saying no.
It was really cool. There was two guys my age there, and they're both black belts now, actually all of us [that were] in that house are black belts today. I think your first introduction to Jiu-Jitsu is when you make your closest friends. Day One you see that social aspect of Jiu-Jitsu, you get caught on and it's hard to let it go after that.
We had a great summer. Just went out and trained every day, went out and got teriyaki chicken for lunch, hang out on the internet, went to the beach. I ate a lot of Oreos, and they ate ice cream. Those were the days, eat whatever the fuck I wanted and never put on any weight [laughs].
GM: So when you left California, what was the next step? Did you go back to Iceland?
KG: I went back to Iceland, and I tried, but there was no Jiu-Jitsu at that time. So I just ended up not doing much for a year and a half, and then I went back for another three months to Chris's place. It was a good gym but had shut down at that point, because apparently you're not allowed to let people live at a place that's "commercially" zoned, so he was kind of being a little bit iffy with a law there I guess.
But I hit him up later, and I think he barely remembered me. But he immediately said, ‘Yeah, don't worry about it, you can just stay at my place in the spare bedroom. So I stayed with him and his wife and family for three months. Then a few months later, I moved to Denmark and I was training at Christian Graugart’s school ever since.
GM: So pivoting into being gay in grappling. With some of the old-school mindsets that exist in the sport, have you ever come across a situation that you feel people are either unwilling to roll with you or they find out you’re gay and that strikes up a different vibe?
KG: I haven't had that yet, but to be fair it's one of those things that doesn't really come up naturally in any way. I don't exude [my sexuality], but on top of that it doesn't really come up naturally in conversation. If it did, I wouldn't mind talking about it, but I think most people probably don't know just because it's not something that comes up in conversations. [With] those who have found out it hasn't been a big deal, but again to be fair, I've been living in Denmark (laughs), which is probably like the most liberal place in the world when it comes to these things.
Straight [guys] roll with plenty of attractive females and they're like, yeah, I mean, objectively she is a good-looking woman, but right now we're rolling, and that’s not really a sexual thing. I mean, I'm sure there's some creeps out there. But I think in general, that's not really a big deal. I would say the vast majority of people know how they feel when they roll with someone they're attracted to, and they know that it doesn't turn to anything.
KG: And you forget about it pretty quick when you’re getting choked.
GM: When did you know you were gay?
KG: 13-14 probably, at least that's when I suspected it, and when I was 16-17, I was like yeah, definitely. I had a girlfriend when I was 17, gave it a “good old college try” for six months, and I was like yeah, this is definitely not it.
GM: Did you have any kind of internal strife to coming to terms with being gay or with coming out to your friends and family?
KG: I would say internally not so much. Once I realized it, I was like, ‘Oh okay, that's how it is’. I didn't come out until I was 29 actually, so it was quite a long time. It was in 2004, things were quite different in society back then. People weren't as open about it, the Internet wasn't as big, so it wasn't as easy to see all these [other gay] people doing well or [gay] athletes doing well, and so these things kind of built it up in my head.
Jiu-Jitsu is a very close-contact sport, so you do think is it going to be an issue. [Wondering] are people going to be cool about it, and then you just feel stupid when you eventually do come out, because everybody just really doesn't give a shit. Once you finally do it you’re expecting fucking suns to collide and everything to go crazy, and nobody really gives a shit. At most it's a five-minute conversation when they ask you a couple of questions. You feel stupid, like you should have done it a while go.
GM: Do you have any advice for any younger kids, whether they're in the sport or not, that may help them get over that hurdle a little bit easier?
KG: I would say that I've never met or heard of anyone that came out that regretted it. I'm pretty privileged, I have amazing parents, both my sisters and [a lot] of their friends are gay. My situation, as far as family goes, is pretty much ideal. I knew they wouldn't care.
But I was still worried to tell them. So I can just imagine if you're living in the Deep South (USA) with religious parents, it's hard for me just to say like, ‘Oh, just do it man, it's gonna be fine’. I don't know people's situations. But in general, I would say people care a lot less than you think they do. There might be a few assholes. But I think the positive is going to outweigh the negative.
GM: Before we let you go, having trained with him for years, how would you sum up your relationship with Christian Graugart?
KG: He has the biggest case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) of anyone I've ever met. He's super aware of it, but it's very easy to manipulate Christian if you just tell them that you're about to do the most amazing thing ever and he's missing out if he doesn't show up right now. He will leave his family at dinner to come experience a good Instagram moment.
For instance, after the Europeans one year, me and a couple girls went to look into gay bars downtown and he's like, ‘Yeah, it's gonna be a great story, let's do that’. Immediately. He's a whore for experiences [laughs].