An activist. A motivator. A coach. An athlete. A friend. A humanitarian. A mentor. A fighter. Anne Lieberman wears many hats. A Muay Thai fighter and coach at Renzo Gracie Academy, she spends her evenings training to fight other women. A program officer on the Sexual Health and Rights team for the American Jewish World Service, she spends her days trying to help them. As one of her students and teammates, this article was especially important for me to write. Since I first started training at the academy, I found myself surrounded by powerful and incredible women. Anne is one such person that exemplifies this. Fierce, gritty, and tough, she is a role model for all of us there, men and women alike. The type of person who will go to practice every day up until the day she got married, and show up after a short honeymoon ("I couldn't be away for too long," she had said), there really are no excuses with her. A hard practice or a bad day does not interfere with her good humor, large grin, or joy-filled laugh.
In a world where women still must fight to get the same rights as men, a place where your contribution must be twice as good as someone else's, and where showing any emotion can be considered a sign of weakness, Anne is an incredible standout. Firm and unrelenting in her goals, she is a person that we all depend on--emotionally, physically, and mentally--to get us to ours. Meticulous, analytical, and enthusiastic, she is able to provide criticism and compliment in the same sentence. Her focus is on not only bettering herself, but improving the team as a whole. Everything that Anne is a part of is something that she gives her all to, even with the many responsibilities that she has. She is someone who simply does not give up, despite the obstacles that may be in the way.
PA: What do you think sports and martial arts contribute to our world?
AL: I believe they build communities and our best selves. It's an opportunity to really learn about yourself. Having a community is what helps bring people together. It's about creating a space where there was no space before. I'm ever-evolving and growing in my own martial arts journey. My perspective of training follows me to the rest of my life. How you show up in that space is how you show up in life. When you make changes on the mats, you make changes to your life.
How did you come across Muay Thai?
I came across Muay Thai in a totally nerdy way. I was reading an article in The New Yorker about some journalist’s Muay Thai training experience in San Francisco. There was a small paragraph about how women weren’t allowed to fight in major stadiums in Thailand because in the 1970s a female announcer had gotten in the ring at Rajadamnern Stadium and - as the story goes - all the fights got stopped due to deep cuts from elbows that wouldn’t stop bleeding. For whatever reason, the female announcer’s presence was blamed for the devastating night of fights. So there was this bizarre connection that was created between women, menstrual blood and those devastating TKOs. As a result, women were - AND STILL ARE - banned from going into the ring or even touching the ring at any of the major stadiums in Bangkok. So the female body in this space is steeped in lore and danger yet women were still fighting in Thailand and more and more women from all over the world were coming to Thailand to train and fight. On top of that there were also a few trans* and gender nonconforming women who were gaining visibility in Thailand for doing Muay Thai. I thought - what's the history behind women's — including trans* and gender nonconforming people's — participation in Muay Thai? What's changed in Thailand that has created the space for more women to train and fight and what what are they saying about their lived experiences as female fighters?
So like the good nerd I was, I went to the main branch of the NYPL and tried to find out. I came up with nothing (in English at least - I didn’t speak Thai at the time). I had done martial arts my entire life and have always been thinking about what it has meant for me to be in those spaces, especially as a bi woman.I became basically obsessed with those questions (and so many more but we would be here all day). I decided to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to do research about gender and sexuality in Muay Thai. I got my proposal together and realized I hadn't done the most obvious thing--go and interview some female Muay Thai fighters in the US to see what their thoughts were on my questions and what it was like being a female fighter here.
I did some Googling and found several female fighters and reached out to them but few people answered me. It was Kru Natalie Fuz who was then teaching and fighting out of Five Points who agreed to let me sit down and interview her about her journey in Muay Thai. Natalie was the perfect person for me to talk to - she was a trailblazer for women’s Muay Thai in the U.S. and had so many insightful, thoughtful things to say. Her interview changed my whole research proposal. Have you ever had a moment in your life when you realized something tremendous was about to happen? After I had that conversation with Natalie I went home and re-wrote everything. I was like--I’m going to get this grant. I’m going to Thailand and my whole life is going to change.
I was awarded the Fulbright in 2009 and was based in Bangkok until early 2011. While there, I did an oral history project that focused on female fighters - both foreign in Thai - and people who were involved in the journey of those fighters (partners, fight promoters, gym owners, etc). I started doing Muay Thai consistently while I was in Thailand and fell in love with it. When I came back to the States, Natalie had just opened her own gym--Chok Sabai--so I started training out of there and eventually fighting.
How did you come across Renzo Gracie Academy? What was your first experience like and what made you want to return?
I have known Elijah Clarke since I moved back to NYC from Bangkok. He and I had the same strength and conditioning coach at the time (the amazing Gavin Van Vlack). I decided to do a session with Elijah and was blown away--his coaching transformed how I thought about Muay Thai. After that one session, I did a few more with him at Renzo’s and decided to try a class. I’ll never forget going into the office and introducing myself to Joe Sampieri and being SO nervous because Elijah wasn’t there that night and I was surrounded by new people, new coaches--it all was so intimidating. I was like “HIJOEI’MANNEANDITRAINWITHELIJAHANDI’MHERETOTAKECLASSTHANKYOU.” Joe smiled kindly at my spaz self and directed me to the mats and paired me with Juan "Juanito" Cortez. Thinking back on that, it totally warms my heart--little did I know that night that Juanito would become one of my greatest training partners and friends.
I kept coming back to Renzo’s because I kept learning. And I kept learning from so many different people. Worlds were opening. There was so much to learn and even so much more for me to work on... and there still is. That’s the beauty of Muay Thai--and life really--there’s always something to learn, always some way to grow, if you're open to it.
Congrats on your last win! Training for fight camp looks intense and brutal. Your camps are usually with someone else also training for a fight. This last one, it was the most women fighting on one card together from the academy--you had Michelle Yee, Michelle Diaz, and Danielle Rind training with you. How did having them there motivate you?
Thank you! I loved having three lady killers training alongside me, pushing me and kicking my ass. All of them have so much grit and I love it. They motivate me to dig even deeper and be a better training partner and coach. The other thing I love and appreciate we all have a relationship as training partners that—at its foundation— is about making each other better. What that means is we come from a place of lifting each other up and that there is space given for all of us to thrive. There isn’t and doesn’t have to be one alpha female.
As one of the only female fighters right now, what expectations (if any) do you feel like are on you? What would you like to represent to the other women at the academy who would also like to compete?
I don't feel any specific expectations related to my being one of the only female fighters actually, more comes from being an instructor and a fighter. The expectations on me as a fighter are what they are for everyone else--show up, work hard, leave it all in the ring. No regrets.
I want them to feel like there is space for them to compete and even become an instructor.
You are not a person who believes"Fighting like a girl" should be equal to "Fighting like a man." Why do you feel like this?
Saying "fighting like a girl" should be equal to "fighting like a man" is an inherent statement that implies that men are better in general and that our highest bar should be considered at fighting like men. That shouldn't be what sets our standards.
How did you get involved in the position you have now?
I was originally working in PR when I first came back from Thailand. Three separate people from various parts of my life reached out and encouraged me to take this job. I applied, was given the position, and then promoted from there. Essentially, what we are an advocacy and grantmaking organization - we give grants to social justice organizations all over the world. Our four main focus areas are: Sexual Health Rights, Natural Resource Rights, and Civil Political Rights. We also support disaster and humanitarian work. My role is overseeing our grantmaking around sexual health and rights in Thailand with my Thailand-based colleague who is one of my dearest friends. People have the misunderstanding that the country is a LGBTI paradise when it's not. We support the amazing actvists fighting to crack this facade.
What differences have you found between your life in New York and when you go overseas?
Every time I visit Thailand, I am just so humbled and amazed by the activists around me. The passion that they have to keep fighting for their rights inspires me to keep fighting at home. I think it's important to understand that the people who there are organizing are not helpless. I feel like we are given "poverty porn"-exploitive videos and images of people suffering--to provoke a reaction, but it is disempowering to those individuals. It doesn't think of the people who are portrayed and ethical concerns are definitely raised. I don't want to be someone's "savior", I want to support community-led organizations and listen to the solutions people have already found to help their communities. People are survivors, not victims. By constantly portraying them as victims, you dehumanize them.
Our country is in turmoil right now, maybe more so than ever. What do you think people can do to make a change?
Our current political climate has set the baseline for misogyny, racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTI to be mainstream. I truly fear for the health and human rights of every person who is close to me. But if you want to make a change, you have to begin locally. Start by making phone calls to your representatives. You can not be paralyzed by this climate of fear. There will be a lot of moments where people will feel upset and defeated, but they need to stay the course. Others have been fighting for decades and continue to press on. That is what we need to keep in mind. The scariest thing is to look at the people you love and question, 'Who will be first?" That motivates me to keep fighting--for myself, and more than anything, for them.
You've been sending out weekly newsletters with information on how individuals can in essence, fight back what's been going around us. What sparked you to start doing that?
My newsletters are a way to support those who may not have an idea of what to do or where to start. I collected a list of people who want to know how to stay involved on a weekly basis, based on who I've consulted and who I think is important to focus on. It's a way of staying connected and involved in a method that's manageable and relevant. We need to be contributing and reaching out to those who are interested and want to help. I am someone they can trust, who is in essence doing the heavy lifting, and providing the resources for them to start. Some things you can do is find out who your reps are, go to town hall meetings, have face-to-face time with people who organize, and be committed to doing some of the work. Each and every person has the power to make a change.
What do you think about online activism?
It has been helpful and gains a lot of momentum and attention, but people still need to show up in person. You need to show your support physically, find ways to connect and meet up, and volunteer to organizations that are trying to make a change. Fighting over social media isn't helpful. A reason for the big divide we are having right now in the country is that we are not talking to people who have different opinions than us. It can be difficult to have these conversations in a productive way, but they are incredibly important and these communication skills are critical. We need to challenge ourselves on being uncomfortable. Don't isolate yourself or stay around those who think of the same way as you.
Is there anything you're working to help women or LGBTQI individuals?
Manipulating or taking away resources for women's health and LGBTQI health is only a form of controlling the most marginalized people. It is important that we stand together in this and unite for all people, because we are all affected by this. A few of my close friends in the Muay Thai community are building a self-defense program and curriculum so that we can teach people to learn how to protect themselves. It is about creating a safe space and teaching people how to use their bodies and be comfortable in them. We need to build open and inclusive spaces in our gyms and academies, and that will be reflected in the rest of the world.
For someone who can be considered privileged, what do you think is most important for others to know?
I am aware that as much as I stand in solidarity, there will always be some things I won't understand, because I've never experienced them due to my privilege. However, people of privilege should be true allies in different moments. We need to make an effort to learn, be in a spaces that may be uncomfortable, and show up for people. You may find a different perspective of where people are coming from. It opens up a whole window of you may not or can't know because of your privilege or identity.
Finally, is there anything you'd like to share with others that helped you?
I heard an amazing Bronx-based woman speak and she said "Visionaries don't get blueprints." That struck me so hard because so often we look around at others to follow or for someone else to tell us what to do and guide us through everything. But what we don't often do is trust our instincts and truly follow our dreams into greatness.
All photos courtesy of Anne Lieberman