The Dragon Boat GirlsFeature Story, Section 4A, Top Highlights Thursday, October 29th, 2015
Meet Lezbhonest: The first Laotian lesbian boat racing team debuts this Halloween
Exactly three things come to my mind when the topic of rowing comes up in a conversation, the chances of being swallowed up by a black hole by the end of this article being greater. One is Merchant Ivory Productions with their assortment of white people on the precipice of losing power who still manage to watch rowers row the River Thames. Two is some 1980s motivational poster with a celestial blue background shaming me into believing that the only way to personal fulfillment is through teamwork (because there’s no ‘I’ in teamwork!). The last is upper body strength. You have to have a strong back, core and arms, along with disciplined cardiovascular control, to maintain a brisk rowing pace, I recently discovered, and if you’re not keeping that pace, the team suffers. Needless to say, rowing, like any team sport, has its challenges.
But it also holds a unique place in history as arguably one of the oldest team sports in the world, along with polo and a form of Scottish rugby known as harpastum. While historical records such as cave dwellings in France show wrestling and sprinting to have existed for many several thousands of years further back, rowing, having begun to appear in ancient Egypt, still makes an impression on what a sport is.
The mechanics of rowing, or crew as it is more commonly known in the United States, consists either of men or women or both in a boat facing the stern (back) and using paddles (oars) to propel the boat forward. The rowers can use either a single oar – known as sweeping – or two oars, one in each hand – known as sculling.
Competitive rowing, as we generally understand it, started in the early 18th century, underwent regulatory control by the end of the nineteenth with rowing growing in popularity and, now, spans six continents with 118 countries having official status in rowing federations.
Locally, however, there are any number of clubs for all ages, skills and competitive intent. There are also a few that are called Dragon Boat Races in San Diego and it’s not always easy for an outsider to keep them straight. There was the Dragon Boat Races (boats brightly colored and adorned with a dragon head at the bow and a tail at the stern) sponsored by the San Diego Alliance for Asian Pacific Islander Americans back in May which garnered proclamations from the City Council and Mayor Kevin Faulkner and featured local Asian-American newscaster Michael Chen from Channel 10 as emcee.
There are also the AeroDragons, a self-described ‘competitive recreational team.’ The members, made up largely from the military-industrial complex, recently competed in the 6th Annual San Diego Dragon Boat Race in early October.
And now, we have Lezbhonest, a member of the Mekong Boat Racing Club and about to compete in the 2nd annual Lao Boat Racing Festival this Halloween at Mission Bay Park.
Like those other rowing communities, this is an opportunity to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander culture but with a specific focus on the Lao community. Team Manager Dina Somsamouth, 34, explains. “I was asked to get a girls’ team together. First thing I thought of was why not get a lesbian team going since it would be a good idea to break the barrier between my [Laotian] culture and [the LGBTQ] community.” So she did. And by July they were off and rowing. “We have been having practice since late July. Almost every Sunday afternoon we will meet up and get together. The organization that puts this race together is the Mekong Boat Racing Club, It’s their second year doing this.”
Josie Marshall, the only black member of Lezbhonest, serves as team captain. Perhaps it’s her nine year stint in the Navy that gives her a commanding presence and the unflappable support of her friends, but her views on how or whether the Lao community accepts or doesn’t accept them ? Meh, not so much. “It is nice to show the communities involved and the ones watching that we are here and we have formed our own family and community if you don’t accept us. If you do accept us, we are happy about that.”
I spent a couple of afternoons with the team at De Anza Cove, a pretty indistinguishable stretch of Mission Bay, both on and off the boat. The whole plot of grass was peppered with tents, the smell of grilled tripe and sausage, children laughing and doing cartwheels. In fact, if there were any hostilities toward an all-lesbian rowing team, they certainly were very-well muted.
The competition will be held, Somsamouth clarified, on Halloween. “A full dragon boat team consists of 22 people: 20 paddlers, 1 drummer (who keeps the beat of the stroke), and 1 steer-person (provided by the festival). We generally suggest that each team have three alternates as well in case someone unexpectedly drops out. On race day, we are only going with 16 paddlers due to safety issues. The winners will continue until four teams remain for the final round.”
Ariana Robinson, 33, and self-described “awesome rower,” summarizes with that c’est-la-vie sunniness San Diego is famous for what the meaning of the rowing club is when reduced down to its most basic molecular structure: “Great new friends and awesome arms!” Marshall agrees. “A sense of community, commitment, and camaraderie. Somsamouth rounds the circle on a philosophical note: “It’s a scary thought knowing they can be against us. But you can’t always hide what you are. I’m openly gay. My family and friends except it and support me. I believe others shouldn’t be scared and have to hide who they are. Being out there is showing the newer generation you don’t have to hide and it’s OK to be gay. Letting them know they are not the only Lao person that is gay. Showing them that you still could be openly gay and still be part of our culture and community.”
The race begins at 9 a.m. and runs through 4 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 31. Award winning Laotian-America writer Bryan Thao Worra will be in attendance. The race will also include Lao music, Lao food vendors and cultural performances featuring Lao music and poetry. (According to Worra, there are approximately 7,000 Lao in San Diego.)
To learn more about becoming a member or about festivities the day of the race, visit facebook.com/mekongboatracing.club
Lao Boat Racing Festival
Tecolote Shores North
Mission Bay Park, San Diego
Saturday Oct. 31
9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
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