For a transgender woman, practicing martial arts heals the scars of childhood bullying
A morning tai chi class is underway at the Donna Smallwood Activities Center in Parma. About 10 seniors move in unison, stretching their hands outward and curling their fingers as if to scratch a favorite pet.
Davida Saum, a student in the front row, pauses for clarification.
"Keep your left hand still?" Saum asks the instructor.
"No, it's moving a little bit," instructor Chris Schneider said, "but the right hand is the one that's moving out."
Saum, 68, has been practicing various martial arts since the mid-1970s. Her focus and dedication are apparent throughout the hour-long session. She keeps her eyes trained closely on Schneider and never pauses to take a break.
The reason for her commitment is partly due to tai chi's physical benefits — the way the purposeful movements strengthen her sore shoulders and unstable knees.
"You can't ignore the pain, so you become the pain," she explained after class. "Then the pain becomes the norm, and it doesn't bother me."
But Saum first sought out martial arts as a teenager, to ease the psychological scars of relentless bullying.
Blocking out all emotions
She said the teasing and name-calling came from school classmates who perceived Saum — who, at the time, was living as a boy — as being different, weak.
"And the thing was, I never told my mom. Ever. Even when she was going to pass away," Saum said. "I thought she would go down to the school and raise some Cain, and then maybe the bullies would get on that and say, 'Well, we're going to beat you up more.'"
She said without anyone to protect her, she had to learn to cope on her own.
"What I did was I started blocking out everything they were saying," she said. "And then eventually I was blacking out all emotions."
She believes the emotional blocking was what led her to suffer from panic attacks and depression shortly after she graduated high school.
Unexpected help appeared in the mid 1970s, when she was 19 and walking to work one day at a restaurant in Southgate USA — a huge shopping center in the Cleveland suburb of Maple Heights. It was a place well-capitalized enough at the time to have TV ads starring Ted Knight of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Across the street from the main shopping strip, Saum noticed a taekwondo studio advertising self-defense classes.
"It was on the second floor of this realty," Saum recalled. "So then I went there, inquired and got my uniform."
It was the beginning of years of practice.
"The discipline is to stay on the floor and participate," she said. "It gives you confidence and you have an art form that you can protect yourself."
Saum kept participating, developing her skills and her confidence. Eventually she got married and had a son, and started working as a geriatric nurse — all while still living as a man.
'Get your hair cut'
When her wife died in 2010, Saum found herself struggling again with depression and anxiety. She also started becoming aware of questions about her gender that she’d suppressed before. She had a turning point during a visit to a counselor she was seeing.
"I showed her that I was wearing women's stockings," Saum recalled. "[The counselor] said, ‘If you want to be transgender then go for it, go have the coming out. And then you won't have to hide behind the closet or hide from people about what you do.’"
Saum took the advice. Becoming bolder about being who she is in public has been a practice, she said, not unlike martial arts: staying on the floor, participating, even when that means she doesn’t meet most people’s expectations of how a man or a woman should look.
Following a recent tai chi class at the Donna Smallwood Activities Center, Saum wore hoop earrings, pink-painted nails and a Cleveland Guardians baseball shirt over loose jeans. She mingled unselfconsciously with other seniors, trading recommendations for tai chi videos to support a home practice.
Saum said she sometimes receives cold shoulders from her peers.
"They tell me, 'Get my hair cut.' I tell them, ‘Well, you get your hair cut,’" she said with a laugh.
But most people are friendly, or at least accepting, she said. Saum credits that in part to the center’s director, Erin Lally, making it clear to others that Saum belongs and is to be welcomed, and in part to her own attitude.
"I ain't gonna worry about what you think, say, or do," Saum said. "You can add your two cents in, but I'm not going to listen to you."
It's an attitude that has its roots nearly 50 years in the past, when Saum stepped into that unassuming taekwondo studio to learn how to protect herself.
Ideastream Public Media's 'Sound of Us' tells stories of Northeast Ohioans — in their own voices. We work with individuals and communities. This series was produced in partnership with the Donna Smallwood Activities Center in Parma. Tell us your story!