In late 2010, I was a 23-year-old bar boy in London's Soho. One boring day shift, a red-headed man dressed in sports gear stormed in and announced that he was going to teach gay guys how to fight. He didn't get an enthusiastic response from the two elderly regulars sinking midday pints. Unperturbed, he turned to me and proudly held up a poster that read: "Searching for the king of the ring."
Dermot was a straight boxing promoter, and his lightbulb idea was that gay guys were an untapped market. For good reason, I assumed. I'd always enjoyed keeping fit, but boxing had never seemed a sport designed to welcome me: a patriarchal world away from the disco lights, drag queens, and Rihanna tunes of the gay scene. I made some facetious comment about my face, and Dermot left to continue his quest elsewhere.
A week later, there was a candlelit vigil in Trafalgar Square to mark the anniversary of Ian Baynham's murder. Baynham, 62, had been holding his partner's hand when he was punched down by 20-year-old Joel Alexander. As he lay on the ground, Ruby Thomas, 19, repeatedly stomped on his head.
The day after the vigil, I sent Dermot an email. After months of training at gyms across the city, I ended up fighting in Pink Collar Boxing at the Scala, King's Cross, in April of 2011. It was the first, and as far as I know, still the only all-gay boxing match.
Pink Collar no longer runs, but I now train at Knockout LGBT Boxing Club in Holloway. In the summer of 2014, I was reminded why I might need it. I shared a kiss with a boy around midnight on a Friday in Shoreditch. Some shaven-headed guys in a car didn't take kindly to this display of affection and sent a full can of beer flying past our faces. The driver then got out and started walking threateningly toward us.
Being with someone I wanted to protect, I met him in the road. When faced with this unexpected confrontation from a homosexual, he half-heartedly mumbled "fucking queer," got back into his car, and drove off. Regardless of all the training I'd done, I was still shocked, shaking, and felt very fortunate. It's hard to comprehend how someone who doesn't know you can hate you so much.
Not everyone is as lucky as I was. Hate crime is a major reason why Knockout's organizer, solicitor, and company director Phil Bradby got involved in boxing.
"When I was in my mid-20s, I went to a Southend gay pub for a drink," he says. "This guy across the road saw me walk out and started shouting homophobic things. He then ran over to me and started punching me. I had no idea how to defend myself and didn't want to make it worse, so just stood there getting hit.
"A year later, I got mugged again and ended up with another black eye. I got to the point where I didn't like going out for fear of getting attacked. Then, one day, I just thought: 'This is ridiculous. I'm too young to spend my life hiding on the sofa.' So I signed up for a karate class. Now I've trained in karate, Muai Thai, and English boxing. It certainly gives you more confidence knowing that if someone tries something I know how to defend myself."
Other members of Knockout told me they wanted to try something different. "I wanted to vent my frustrations," says 36-year-old Damian Giles, who suffered a period of depression after his father died from a brain injury. "But I also wanted to be challenged with something that no one, knowing my non-violent outlook, would expect me to do. I've met a genuine group of gay men, several of whom I can call really good friends."
Yet reactions against the club have come, oddly enough, from gay men themselves. Online comments have included accusations of members trying to be "straight-acting," or of being "self-hating" gays chasing masculinity.
"That's a prime example of homophobia, bitchiness, and bullying in the gay community," says 26-year-old fashion editor Darcy Rive. "It's really disheartening that, as the gay community is finally being empowered in society, some gay men feel we have to define ourselves into a certain criteria of acceptable homosexual behaviors. Any hobby is a hobby, whether it's enjoyed by a straight, LGBT, or gender non-binary person."
Members of Knockout train for many different reasons, but what about the gay guys who want to fight in the ring itself? Meet "the Professor."
"I've always enjoyed watching boxing on TV and had some fantasy of the glamour of the ring and the ability to potentially win in a fight—I wanted that winner's belt!" says 52-year-old Professor Richard Sawdon Smith, the dean of Arts & Media at Norwich University of the Arts. "But I have wondered about the deeper psychological reasons and where my desire to hit someone, or be hit myself, came from. My friend Simon Watney offered some insights about being an HIV-positive gay man: 'I don't think we can or should avoid the question of violence at every level of our lives, from birth onwards, however dangerous it can get... For many of us, HIV re-enacts all sorts of dark things about our relationships to our bodies and desires, which seems to lead on straight into the latest boxing project.'"
But Richard's HIV status would almost prove the stumbling block against his fights.
"My fourth fight was against a young straight guy named David. He got a Facebook message from a gay friend who told him he might want to reconsider fighting me because I was HIV positive," says Richard. "I took David for coffee and explained that no one has caught HIV from boxing. If I had considered it to be a risk, I'd never have put myself up for the fight. I also explained what being 'undetectable' meant. David agreed to go away and think about it, but he did in the end agree to fight—and I whooped his ass!"
"Violence shapes and obsesses our society," said the playwright Edward Bond in 1972—and the sentiment holds true today. In many ways, it's tied into the pressures of playing that unrealistically "strong" and emotionally repressed version of a man.
It's sad that I still feel a real need to box, other than purely for the enjoyment of it as a sport. Homophobic attacks have risen a third in London in the past year. History records how, in economic downturns, as people's lives begin to feel unstable, anti-minority backlashes rise. In the past two weeks, a gay teenager was brutally attacked in North Yorkshire, and a man in London had life-threatening injuries inflicted in his own apartment. I want to protect myself.
But boxing doesn't make me, or anybody else, braver. In fact, maybe bravery is having the self-belief and respect for others to not throw that first punch.
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