Pat Manuel is used to working hard to meet his goals. He recently made history as the first transgender man to win his debut professional boxing match in a super featherweight match versus Hugo Aguilar in December. The 33-year-old boxer’s rite of passage was inherently unlike that of other men in the sport. Having first fought as a women’s amateur boxer, the 128-pound Manuel continued to pursue his passion post-transition, departing from his original gym after they asked him not to reveal his trans identity.
Trainers passed over him because of his openness, but he ultimately landed in the arms of Oscar De La Hoya’s gym, Golden Boy Promotions. There, he acquired his professional male boxing license. Yet still, many months would pass before he would find an opponent for his debut.
Manuel is more than just his boxing career or his historic win. He is a man who was raised in a white household as a black, queer child in Southern California. He has worked with his partner, Amita Swadhi, to unlearn childhood traumas. “They forced me to level up emotionally, mentally, and in every other part of my life,” he tells Out. And through boxing, Manuel says he’s discovered his manhood by reconnecting with the body he had before hitting puberty. Now he is hoping to continue carving out space himself and other black, trans boxers, in a sport that saved his life. “I think I'm on a greater purpose of helping people in our community to really reconnect with their bodies and heal,” he said.
Out: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Pat Manuel: Well, I was raised by my grandma and mom, and my two uncles were a part of my life as well. My dad wasn't really as secure. He was usually in and out, essentially. I was also raised with my sister. My sister who is older by 19 months and is involved in the art world.o Essentially, my sister and I were black children being raised by white people. We didn't have a ton of contact with our father's family, and most of our contact with the black community actually came from church. I appreciate that my grandma and mom wanted to have some sort of blackness in our lives, and that was through St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in South Central, but yeah. I mean, we had a pretty standard upbringing.
My sister is also queer. We were both gender nonconforming children. I think we would be labeled tomboys, but my narrative in my head was always that I was a boy. We were into forts, video games, comic books. Kind of that whole gamut of things. My sister also plays sports, but I was the real athletic talent of the two of us.
What did your guardians do? I know you said your grandmother and your uncles also raised you, how did they influence you also?
My grandma, she actually worked two jobs most of my life and I think that's a big influence on me in terms of just hard work and drive to get things done. She worked as the assistant to the director of the Loyola Law Library and she also worked in the VA hospital in Long Beach doing admin work. She had two full-time jobs pretty much my whole life. My mom worked as a server and they were really the two main pictures in my life. One of my uncles worked jobs here and there, but other than that, my other uncle ended up becoming what I think is the third-highest in the Department of Education, so he left later in life when I was around 10 to go to school and then, continue on his career path to working with the government.
When you were 10 or 11 years old, what did you want to be when you were growing up? Or what did you imagine you would be growing up?
I think my childhood imagination probably drifted between two things that seemed very unrealistic. One, which is incredibly unrealistic, was to be a werewolf. Before Twilight and any of that stuff was cool, I did role-playing games and just played card games about werewolves, so the need to be something other than human, I think, is interesting to look back on now. I actually really wanted to be a fighter, but I didn't know that there was a way to actually make a living. I was really into Street Fighter and also, martial art movies, Dragon Ball Z, and stuff like that. I think my constant daydreaming was constantly seeing myself as someone who travels the world basically kicking ass. There weren't very realistic career paths in the world for a fighter, but it wasn't until later in life that I really started seeing that boxing could be a possible life path for me.
Are there any moments or memories in your childhood that stood out to you?
I think there was an important moment when I was closer to high school. I think it was in high school and I was actually with my uncle. We would go back to D.C., in the summer, my sister and I, and there was a day we were on a road trip with my uncle, his wife, driving down to Tennessee and the first small town we went through, my sister and I just felt incredibly uncomfortable. We were getting a lot of stares. It was a predominantly white town. We were getting a lot of looks and I remember my sister and I looking at the class picture in the diner and seeing I think two black children and that was it.
There were no other people of color and there was a moment where we told my aunt and uncle, "We're uncomfortable being here. Can we go back to the car?" And they didn't understand why. They were like, "People are polite. Why are you uncomfortable?" And I think it was during that trip that for me — I can't speak for my sister, but for me, as being raised with white people and knowing that I was black — but I think it was the first time really feeling it in my bones that I was different. Traveling through and getting down to the Civil Rights Museum and just as we were passing through seeing all those Confederate flags and just feeling actually scared, like legitimately scared stopping at those gas stations. And so, I remember going to that museum and seeing black people and just feeling safe and excited. That's always a moment that really stands out for me.
And I think that's the thing, right? It's like even if you're white with black children, you're still white. You still don't understand really what it feels like in your bones to be othered in the way and threatened in the way that black people do feel moving through America.
I've definitely had some of the harder conversations with my family (as an adult). I think they're starting to really understand what it really meant to be a black child, especially a black boy being raised [as if I was going to become] a white woman and just how, even with their best interest, that what they thought was right for me was actually harmful.
Can you think of any moment in your life that may have shaped you to become the person you are today?
That's an interesting one. No one has ever really asked me that. I don't really know if there's one specific moment, but I think there have been certain things that have set me on my path. I think how I got involved in boxing was originally through Taekwondo, and a friend had taken me to a boxing session at a pretty white college down in Hermosa Beach, and the guy who was training me was sparring with us. Now, I know this is a terrible way to introduce someone to boxing, but he hit me really hard in the head, and I remember there was this flash of black when you're first getting punched in the face and I remember feeling that and instantly thinking to myself, I want to do boxing when I'm 16. I don't know why that was my timeline, but for whatever reason that weird moment, that reaction of actually enjoying being hit kind of set me down this journey that I'm on now and has shaped half my life essentially, so if I can think of one moment that one stands out pretty big in my head, it's kind of sent me on this trajectory I'm on currently.
What were the resources that you took to make boxing a tangible?
I'll start first with adding a little more on why boxing. It's not a coincidence that I got into boxing when I was going through puberty. That was a pretty traumatic time in my life of having my body completely turn against me. Prior to that, I was sent to an all-girls school from being in a co-ed elementary school and that was really difficult for me and then, to being smacked with puberty right as I left that and went back into a co-ed high school. I was basically disassociated from myself. I kind of just checked out with watching myself go through the motions and feeling pretty miserable in general. I had stopped doing martial arts. I had stopped playing softball.
I had stopped doing the things that I loved and I think for whatever reason, I've always been the type of person who looks to solve my own problems, sometimes at my detriment, but in this case I was trying to figure out a way to make myself feel better and I just crawled back into the old images of me looking up to those male fighters, looking up to masculine fighters and then, remembering that I promised myself at 16, I was going to do this boxing. I asked my grandma for Christmas to go to boxing lessons. We used to see this one gym, which is now closed, called LA Boxing Club, which had a huge history in the city for being a top boxing gym and she drove me down there like on December 30, 2002, and I walked up to the doors and I remember the coach sitting there and I'm going to use an old pronoun, but he said, "Man, I hope she's here to box. She looks tough."
And I just pumped up and instantly was like, "This is my sport." And after the first week, I could barely lift my arms. I was so sore, but I was like, "This is it for me. There's something about this sport. There's something about the discipline. There's something about the strategy, the tactics, the people." I think I was really looking for also a space where there were primarily people of color. There were black people. I think all of that really pulled me to the sport. I say now, I still love the sport as much as I did 16 years ago.
What was your most major obstacle in boxing so far and how did you overcome it?
I would say the biggest obstacle in boxing that I had to overcome is basically getting opponents, which is really rooted in the fact that I think it's because people in the boxing world and in the world at large really don't know how to deal with trans people and don't see. They only see the “trans part” of being a trans man and are, therefore, invalidating my manhood. There's concern that if they engage in a fight with me, it's a no-win situation for them. If they lose to me, they lost to a girl. If they beat me, then, "Oh, well, you beat a girl." That has been the hardest part.
I've been able to change the policy. I've been able to get the license. I've been able to get the ability to legally compete, but sometimes finding an opponent and we're in a sport where it's not normal to say, "You have to play against this person." They have to consent, and I'm never in a position or place where I want to force someone to do anything. I want them to consent to meet me in a fight as a man and I think that has been the biggest slow-up and has really robbed me years of my career is just trying to find opponents.
I will say too, just to add to that it's also been really interesting and I think I occupy a really different space than a lot of other trans people in that I was a five-time national amateur female champion. I went to the women's Olympic boxing try-outs. I had a lot of respect in this sport before I transitioned, so I think there were a lot of people who cared about me, knew me, and were kind of curious and when they saw, "Oh, no. He can stand in there. He can fight. He's hard." I spared with top pros. I was brought into training camps leading up to my fight. A lot of other boxers were excited to see me fight, seriously genuinely happy for me and telling me how much they appreciated me and they wanted to see me showcase because they know what I've been through.
Also, I would say the vast majority of people I interact with in boxing have actually been unusually kind and accepting of me, but I also know that I occupy a very different space than most people in this sport. I also don't want to lay out the claim that everyone is going to be okay if they turn to boxing, but I think, for the most part, I've actually had a lot more acceptance and respect from the other boxers.
What advice would you give to aspiring boxers who also happen to be trans?
Be prepared to work hard. This is a sport that respects heart above all and I think it is the one thing that can be done to really overcome any sort of ignorance people may have because I think yes there are people who are just straight negative in the sport, but I think a lot of people just don't have a language, don't have the experience even being around trans people. At least trans people aren't out and starting to interact with more than they realize.
This sport respects people who work hard, who really show up and fight. That's the essence of boxing, so being willing to work hard to show that you really want a place in this sport and I think that those efforts will be rewarded with respect.
What is your vision of yourself in the future?
My vision of myself in the future — I’m starting to actually take the time to have that vision for myself. I've spent a lot of my youth not thinking I would survive that sport. I know this is an uncommon experience for trans people. I definitely don't think it's an uncommon experience for black trans people. So much of my focus has also been getting to wherever that separates and now, sitting on the outside of that I realize that that was the same monumental event and that people are saying that history made me, so I feel like the sky is the limit. What I really would like is to see how far I can go in this sport and, at the same time, be able to have conversations particularly with transgender men of color about trans people and being able to challenge some of the transphobia and homophobia that can be found within those groups. My heart passion actually is in helping people of color reconnect with the body and heal from trauma through physical practices.
In an ideal world, I would love to be able to use sports as that bridge to be able to connect people of color, youth of color with other athletes, who would be willing to teach them through the sport and through a lens of being informed on how to really heal, and to connect through being able to move their bodies while paired with a mental and emotional feeling as well. I mean, my goal is to change the world for the better. That's part of my vision of it. I'm still chiseling it out, but I know that it's not a coincidence that someone like me got involved in this sport, and ended up being trans, and ended up being partnered with someone who does the work that they do. I think I'm on a greater purpose of helping people in our community to really reconnect with their bodies and heal.
If there was something that you wanted to accomplish between today and this time next year, what would that be?
This time next year, man. Well, my goal is to be undefeated. The feeling to compete actively in boxing, really have shifted people's mindsets to thinking that my transition] wasn't just some cry for attention. It wasn't some, "Oh, he still needs to be a trans guy and fight and then, turn away from the sport." I really want to be seen as a serious competitor in boxing for however long my career lasts.
How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to leave a certain legacy?
The moments I intend to be a first in the nature of athletics together, but I am so really proud that I get to be the first trans athlete who's black. That's really important to me to be black and trans, and in boxing, and to be the first, when it's been a sport that historically has been linked to black men being seen as human in this country.
I mean, I hope that I get to be a piece of that turning point of like, "Oh, this black trans man and his involvement in the sport, and his weighing that pro debut could be at least, it's a main point, but it's not, but at least a sliver in the history of trans people being seen as equals, as being seen as humans." And ultimately what my story is to people is just being uncompromising in who I am and realizing that being myself was more important than having the public be comfortable with me.