I’m always surprised by the array of responses I get when I tell people that I am a boxer. My admission might evoke reactions ranging from horror to awe to excitement. I suppose that after three decades here on earth I should no longer be shocked that people have such strong opinions about something that has no impact whatsoever on their lives. After all, I survived coming out as gay. There are few things like the gays to get people riled up about someone else’s business. In spite of great progress in the area of LGBT rights recently, this topic still elicits intense emotions from fellow gays, their friends and family, and random strangers on both ends of the political and religious spectrum. Oddly enough, when I started “coming out” as a boxer, I noticed that the reactions of people were strikingly similar to the responses I received when I came out as gay nine years ago.
Some people respond to my boxing confession with attitudes along the lines of, “this is the worst idea you’ve ever had.” Their complete disapproval could be for any number of reasons. Maybe they are afraid I’ll end up like Maggie in Million Dollar Baby. Maybe they’re pacifists and believe that fighting, even for sport, is wrong. Whatever the reason, they usually have no shame in expressing their opinion. Similarly, when I came out as gay, a surprising and regrettable majority of the responses I got were overwhelmingly negative. These responses came mostly from religious friends and family who believed that homosexuality is a sin. I’m sure their intentions were good, but their words were crushing. Some of these people kept their mouths shut, but they made their opinion clear in other ways by avoiding me or treating me like a lost sheep.
Then there are the people who, consciously or subconsciously, seem to believe that all lesbians are vegetarian, guitar-playing, flannel-wearing women with bad short haircuts and all boxers are big guys with aggression problems. It’s true, I am generally soft-spoken and quiet and have no apparent aggressive tendencies. Most of my acquaintances, if asked what I am like, would probably respond that I am “nice.” As I doubt this is how Mike Tyson’s friends describe him, in this respect, I do not closely resemble many well-known boxers. Thus, at my pronouncement that I am a boxer, a look of astonishment and confusion materializes on the face of the listener. If they don’t say it out loud, their expression says it for them: “really? But you’re so nice!” While being a boxer might actually fit nicely with the lesbian stereotype, I was not boxing when I came out—I was playing the harp. Everyone knows that only gay boys and straight girls with long, flowing hair play the harp. Thus, one person responded when I told them I was gay, “Seriously? But you play the harp!” This person had nothing at all against the gays, but she was perplexed because I didn’t fit neatly into the stereotype in her head. As it turns out, even lesbians can play the harp.
Fortunately, I have some people in my life who will support me in almost anything I take on, aside from some criminal activities. When I tell these people that I am a boxer, I see the faint suppression of a cringe cross their faces. I know this look only means they love me and don’t want me to get hurt. These are the people who may never come to a fight and don’t understand why anyone would want to box. However, they hold their tongues and listen to me talk about how much I love the sport. These are also the people who provided tentative support when I came out. They assured me, although they weren’t sure whether or not it’s OK to be gay, that they would always love me and stand by me. These people were willing to put aside their ideals for the sake of my happiness because they love me.
Every so often, I get the response I am always hoping for: the “I get it” look. Concerning boxing, this usually comes from other fighters. It is accompanied by an immediate connection and acceptance into a sort of secret society. These people understand what draws me to boxing, and they have been through it all too— they’ve had their breath taken away from a well-placed body shot, they’ve had bloody noses, they’ve landed a solid punch, they’ve fought their first fight, they’ve worked so hard they could barely stand afterwards. When I came out to another gay person, there was a similar mutual respect and camaraderie you only get when you meet someone who has been in the same trenches as you. They’ve fought the same battles: coming out to parents, losing friends and family, awkward stares from strangers, and derogatory names shouted out car windows. Very occasionally, I will get this same enthusiastic and all-embracing response not from a fighter or another gay person, but from someone who knows me so well that they are not surprised by anything. They understand and accept that this is just me being me.
I wish all people could respond like those in this last category, with unvarnished excitement and understanding that I am becoming more myself. We all carry around stereotypes though, and we can’t help but be a little fearful for the ones we love when we’re not sure what trouble they may get themselves into. When it comes to boxing, I can laugh off the really negative responses (admittedly with a twinge of irritation). When I came out as gay, though, I could not shrug off the words or the looks of sadness and pity. Nearly a decade later, anger and hurt still surge within me at the memories of sitting across from close friends as they wept aloud and told me I was making the worst decision of my life.
I cannot dismiss the comments about my sexual preference because, while boxing is not central to my being, being gay is a part of who I am. Boxing is one way I express myself, a way to get my kicks, and I love it. If you took it away from me, I’d be pretty devastated. But boxing is something I do, not who I am. I could choose to get my adrenaline rush skydiving or rock climbing, and I’d probably be pretty happy doing that too. Being gay, on the other hand, is hard-wired into me like my red hair and short stature. I tried for 22 years to deny this part of me and found, in the end, that I could no more be straight than I could grow three inches taller. I need to love because humans are lovers. We live to love. We long for it. Most of us spend our lives searching for that connection. Our songs and our stories are all about finding—or losing—that love. When I come out as a boxer, I am saying, “this is something I like to do.” But when I come out as gay, I am saying, “this is who I really am.” Nine years ago, I’d hoped that people would see that and still accept me, or at least, that I would not have to defend myself for taking that step. On the contrary, I learned that I had to come out fighting, prepared to stand up for myself and people like me.
I hope that some day this changes. The attitude of our society towards homosexuality is evolving. However, many are still persecuted, even in this country, which was founded on the premise that every human has the right to pursue happiness. On top of that, minorities of all sorts face oppression and ostracization on a daily basis. This is unacceptable. Whether you are coming out as gay or trans, as disabled or depressed, as female, as black, as Asian, as fat, or whoever you are, coming out should be enough. The statement, “this is who I really am” needs no justification. No one should have to come out fighting.