Under a low ceiling of clouds on a Sunday afternoon in late spring, a group of gay men surreptitiously make their way down a dank alley in the upper reaches of Manhattan. They tuck into a side door leading to a windowless basement room. But when one of the men clicks on the light switch, flooding the room segment by segment with harsh klieg light, the encounter takes on a different cast.
The room is gritty, festooned with duct tape-patched punching bags, and newspaper clippings of heavy-browed fighters. A sign on the wall reads If you're not here to box, go home. This is a boxing gym. Undercutting the signs message, however, is a smaller one underneath it that says Yoga classes available.
You wouldnt think of the boxing ring as shelter from the storm. But for gay boxers -- many of whom are out only here -- this musty basement in Manhattan is exactly that. Last summer Curdell Doc Hoskins, a gay 40-year-old amateur boxer, organized the Gay Boxing League, a rotating group of about 10 men who get together once a month behind the locked gate of this gym to do what they otherwise do at their regular gyms: fight. You dont need to be too familiar with boxing history to understand the need to remain on the D.L. The sport is notoriously homophobic. Who can forget Mike Tyson yelling at a reporter in 2002, Ill fuck you till you love me, faggot! a threat at once touching and scary? Or, more recently, how a batch of doctored photographs featuring Oscar De La Hoya in fishnets threatened to obliterate his legacy? So, unlike other boxers at the gym, the GBLs members meet off-hours.
Hoskins, a quick-to-grin African-American man, leads the group to the dressing room. Todays group is smaller than normal. There are only four boxers including Hoskins: Serge, a fireplug welterweight; Chris, a rangy welterweight; and Darrell, a six-foot middleweight PhD student (law and policy, class of 10). Hoskins is the leader of the bunch and dresses the part. In the locker room, he reveals his getup du jour: yellow trunks, yellow gloves, yellow headgear, yellow jockstrap. Not one detail is left un-yellowed. As Hoskins expounds on his sartorial resplendence, he does so in a tone that is half Marie Antoinette and half Muhammad Ali. The GBL rules state that no one else can wear yellow unless I deem it. Im so pretty, he announces. Ignoring him, Serge and Darrell start talking about boxing footwear. Bitch, says Serge, its about shoes. We dont have Manolos, we have boxing boots. Now, if Manolo started making boxing boots.
Like other boxing gyms, the atmosphere at the GBL is bellicose and collegial, but without the restrictive machismo that defines the sport. It may, in fact, be the only boxing club where allusions to Floyd Mayweather and Manolo Blahnik color the same conversation.
Hoskins first became interested in boxing as a 13-year-old, after spotting Marvelous Marvin Hagler on the cover of World Boxing magazine at a newsstand. I was transfixed by an image of a supremely attractive black male posing on the cover, shirtless, wearing a pair of Wear Hard gloves, he recalls. I actually kept that issue for years.
After a stint in the Navy, Hoskins moved to Atlanta where he not only became a raging top on the block, but also decided to start boxing. As he puts it, I thought to myself, Its time I did this. So I got myself to a boxing gym, and after a few months there, I realized, shit, I was good. When he finally moved back to New York City, where he was born and raised, he found a gym and decided to give gay boxers a space. For me, it was a chance to pass my skills on to other guys. It doesnt matter what sex you like, you can still master your sport. He adds, I get the satisfaction of having guys underneath me, of passing on my skills.
For Darrell, a handsome white guy with a Mount Rushmore jawline and abs of a similarly rock-hewn sort, the Gay Boxing League is worth the two-hour trip from home. You dont have to drop the pronouns here, you can say, My boyfriend and I are going to dinner, he says. I can spar at my regular gym every day, but with these guys, you can be more comfortable, be friends. That was the sort of comfort Hoskins had in mind when he first met a few fellow gay boxers online and decided to begin the monthly gatherings. He used reverse psychology, instructing the GBLers to keep the meet-ups under wraps. Soon he started getting calls from other gay boxers interested in dropping by. Were all gay boxers. We come to fight. And this gives you a chance to meet the guy behind the I.M. chat window, he says.
Serge -- a charter member -- and Chris are tangling in a center ring while a steady thrum of club hits plays over the speakers. Fleet-footed Chris dances around the ring, closely pursued by the wide-shouldered, huskier Serge. Chris pops jabs at arms length, biding time to put together stinging combinations of punches, while Serge inches forward, trying to land short punch salvos to the gut and head. On the apron of the ring, Hoskins gives running commentary, criticism, and encouragement: Keep your chin down, Serge, Push through it, Chris. (Hoskins is a constant font of boxing maxims. He signs his emails, Keep your guard up and come out punching.) He pauses to swing his hips to the music and declare, Boxers can dance. Meanwhile, Chris and Serge clinch in the middle of the ring. But the slow-dance- hug is less romantic than pragmatic. By wrapping up Serges arms Chris prevents any shots from being thrown, and by resting his head on Serges shoulder, he protects himself from uppercuts. Soon they break apart and begin to dance and punch again.
Boxing is not for everyone. To the uninitiated it can be brutal, bloody, and mystifying; if there are few, if any, gay professional boxers, its hardly surprising. Being gay in the boxing world is very taboo, says Hoskins. There are definitely some out there, but no one talks about it. In fact, boxing remains obdurately unreconstructed, a sport where gay slurs are scattered like firecrackers to belittle opponents. The experience of former boxer Emile Griffith is instructive. At the weigh-in before Griffiths 1962 fight for a world welterweight title, his opponent, a Cuban named Benny the Kid Paret, called Griffith a maricn, the Spanish word for faggot. Enraged, Griffith took his revenge in the 12th round of the fight, backing Paret into a corner and knocking him out cold with a vicious flurry of uppercuts. Unseen by the ref, Parets arm was hooked on the rope, keeping him upright as Griffith battered his head with a slew of undefended punches. Paret fell into a coma and died 10 days later. Years after his retirement Griffith came out of the closet, and, recalling his bout with Paret, said, I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man and so many people find this an unforgivable sin.
But the outlook is not entirely bleak. Serge recalls how he struggled with the decision to tell his regular trainer that he was gay. After turning up at his local boxing gym with bruises and split lips from his GBL sessions, his trainer began to think he was in a fight club. To allay his concerns, Serge told him of his Sunday meetings -- that they were at another gym, attended by other experienced boxers -- but when his trainer expressed interest in dropping by, Serge was faced with a dilemma. I told him, You know, if you do come, some of the guys are gay -- do you have a problem with that? he recalls. He was like, No, bro, Im from Europe. No one gives a fuck over there. And I said, OK, then you should know that its not just some of them that are gay. Theyre all gay. Youve been training one of them for the last year. I had to say it three times before it sank in. The trainers bewilderment was temporary; soon he was offering to set Serge up on dates with his fiances gay friends.
Hoskins, who is out only to a few of his close friends, has had to navigate similar situations. I came out to my buddy Matty, and he said, So what? I said, Are you gonna start telling people you get beat up by a gay guy? He said, Im just not gonna tell them youre black.
Toward the end of the day, Hoskins teases the other boxers about not being man enough to go a few more rounds with him. Nobody wants the big dog? he taunts. Darrell responds jokingly, Were all terrified, mortified, petrified. Hoskins shoots back, only half-jokingly, You should be. Serge rises to the challenge, despite appearing spent by his rounds with Chris. The boy tends to be rambunctious, says Hoskins with affectionate condescension. Gotta beat him down. Put him in his place. Indeed, Hoskins does put on a boxing clinic -- out-punching and out-landing the tired fighter. Serge shows heart, gamely holding his own with counterpunches, but late in the second round, he gets caught with a stiff right to the gut. Auugh. Fuck you, he shouts and slumps down in pain. The upstart is exhausted, and as the final bell sounds, he falls forward into Hoskinss arms.