By Brian Thomas Gallagher
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 sign's message, however, is a smaller one underneath it that says Yoga classes available.
You wouldn't 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 don't 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, 'I'll 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 GBL's members meet off-hours.
Hoskins, a quick-to-grin African-American man, leads the group to the dressing room. Today's 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. I'm so pretty,' he announces. Ignoring him, Serge and Darrell start talking about boxing footwear. 'Bitch,' says Serge, 'it's about shoes. We don't 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, It's 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 doesn't 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 don't 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. 'We're 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.