Pride Boxing's physical and mental health benefits changing LGBT people's lives
On International Day Against Homophobia, meet the fighters who are hitting back at misconceptions about LGBT people in sport
Last Updated: 06/07/18 3:37pm
Roxy is crystal clear on the impact boxing has had on her life. "It's completely changed my whole outlook," she says.
Sitting in a corridor of the Cobra Gym in London's Victoria, restless on her chair due to the still racing adrenaline, the 28-year-old is describing the transformative effects of a programme called Pride Boxing.
There have been career implications too. "I just handed my notice in. I realised I wasn't getting what I want out of the situation and frankly, I haven't got time to waste.
"I'm only young but every day that I get to wake up, I feel I have to do something. And if you're not invested in yourself, firstly, then what are you doing?"
Later, Roxy will give her occupation as circus performer - "well, axe thrower, specifically". She's all about precision and focus. Whether in the circus ring or the boxing ring, Roxy regularly hits her target. So what has given her, and her fellow Pride fighters, such steely confidence? What's so special about this particular programme?
Pride Boxing is providing a space and a schedule for a group of people who are rarely associated with the sport - the LGBT community. The enterprise is now in its second year, instructing an intake of applicants through a 10-week training regime which culminates with 'Fight Night' on the first Friday in July, the day before London's famous Pride parade (that has been going since 1972, and is the world's seventh largest). No previous boxing experience is necessary, and each fighter is promised 20 core group sessions and access to over 40 bonus boxing and conditioning sessions. On the night itself, they'll take on an equally-matched opponent in three two-minute rounds in front of a packed Porchester House crowd in Paddington. The overall aims are to raise both money and awareness for volunteer-led community interest company Pride In London, which organises the festival and parade, but the individual benefits for those involved are also of immense value - both physically and psychologically.
Like Roxy, Leasa is back in the Pride Boxing stable after a debut bout last summer. She'd enjoyed kickboxing a decade previously, but had gradually fallen out of the fitness cycle. "I didn't want to do it any more - I couldn't be bothered," she explains. "I ended up out on the scene, and became more the 'life and soul of the party' than a competitor." She saw an advert for Pride Boxing on Facebook, and asked a friend to come along with her. "When I started, I was very big. I was scared of how people would look at me, what the names would be. Fear of judgement does hold LGBT people back in sport - you can feel you're looked at differently when you walk into a gym... but here, it was not at all like that."
The welcome extended by the coaching team and promoters is genuine - pride with no prejudice. Leasa appreciates the specific connection - "it was ideal that it put together my sexuality and a sport that I love doing" - but it's more about the gym environment itself, that 'family' feel, than anything else. "I've been to places where you walk in and people look at you. If you look different or in any way strange to them, they don't exactly open arms. But here, it really is like a family."
She credits promoter Robbie Cave, gym owner and renowned trainer Jon Durrant - who last month became ISKA World Light-Heavyweight Kickboxing champion - sporting event manager Danielle Keane, and their whole team. "It's blown me away with the support that you get from these guys and they've never once judged me in any way whatsoever," she adds. The relationship is a strong sporting example of an alliance for solidarity, which happens to be the theme of this year's International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on Thursday, May 17. By working together, they're all changing hearts and minds.
Then there's the camaraderie between the fighters too. "You spend two to three nights a week with these people, and you become the greatest of friends," says Leasa. "It doesn't matter whether you're actually fighting someone in the ring or not. We have group chats and if someone is feeling low, you can say to them 'right, come on, we've got training on Tuesday, let's go in and do this'. And if someone is suffering, we're all there to help."
That collective spirit is, for Roxy, what makes Pride Boxing so life-affirming. She says: "It's brought everyone that I want in my future into my present. Just by turning up once a week, or even more, I can't really emphasise it enough. I say it to Robbie all the time 'thank you so much for putting these events on, because it has changed everything for me'. I feel like I belong now. I feel I've found my place."
She admits the Pride part of the picture was somewhat peripheral to her at first. "My journey's been quite boring. I came out at 14, and my mum said 'well, at least you can't get pregnant', and that was as much of the conversation as we had. I'd never been involved in the whole Pride day. I used to see it as a big unnecessary show of 'we want to be equal, but here's a day about how different we are'. So I was quite anti about it at first.
"But it was in talking to these guys, that I realised that it's not just about my journey. There are people that don't get to be as lucky as I am. I've never had any issues with my sexuality, no one's brought any issues to me, and I've never thought twice about a job that I've applied for, because I can live my life like everyone else.
"But there are people that have run away from home, or in some places have even been stoned to death, because they don't have that acceptance within their community and culture. That was something that really made me think. In a way, it might not be what I agree with in the whole styling of it, but there is the message behind it as well, that I really wasn't tapped into before. Meeting these new people through Pride Boxing has brought that into the equation for me."
Roxy's experience is far from unique, but it's still not widely reported. Even among some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people themselves, the idea of having sports clubs or groups that are nominally for the LGBT+ community can be seen as somewhat exclusionary or separated, particularly when the stated aim is wider inclusion and integration. But Dr Dan Callwood, research associate on the 'Out on the Pitch' project at the University of Strathclyde, begs to differ. "We've found that in the overwhelming majority of cases, people involved in LGBT sports groups report a really positive experience," says Callwood. "For them, the groups provide community and friendship away from the usual bar and club scene.
"For many, their involvement is a reintroduction to sport. A lot of LGBT people have had negative experiences with sport at a young age, where participation is associated with bullying, homophobia and a failure to fit in. So the LGBT clubs provide safe spaces where the positive effects of sport can be rediscovered - how it provides purpose and cohesion to the group. It gives LGBT people who may lack self-esteem a sense of personal achievement, even if the emphasis isn't on winning but on personal betterment. When combined with a supportive community, this can have a powerful positive effect on mental health."
As Mental Health Awareness Week continues, it's important to note that LGBT people are at higher risk of experiencing poor mental health due to factors such as discrimination, isolation and homophobia. The 2016 National Youth Chances report, undertaken by the METRO equality and diversity charity with the University of Greenwich, found 52 per cent of LGBT people aged 16 to 25 reported self-harm either recently or in the past, compared to 35% of heterosexual cisgender young people. The survey also showed 44 per cent of young LGBT people have considered suicide, compared to 26 per cent of heterosexual cisgender young people.
Paddy, 24, says she was "in really bad shape" when she first got involved in Pride Boxing - "I hadn't really done anything for a long time. I was smoking and all that." She was surprised how much the programme helped her mind as well as her body. "It's been a really good balance of physical and mental. You get fitter than you could ever get anywhere else, and it's a good way to finish your day - to just come here, and focus, and clear your head. It's really positive for your mental wellbeing."
Paddy's profession is, again, not one you'd readily associate with boxing - she's an art director. But more than anything, she says, it proves assumptions and preconceptions should just be discounted, whatever your background. "It seems like the most daunting thing ever. And it's pretty terrifying to think that, in 10 weeks, we're going to be in a ring with somebody.
"But it's a lot of fun as well - it's not just hard work. You get to have a laugh with everybody, and it's a great way to meet friends and feel like you're actually doing something good for the community. It's not as scary as it sounds."
Any initial fear of failure is soon defeated once you've connected with a few punches. Maggie, a 28-year-old trade union official, says it's all about taking ownership and gaining power through that. "It's like our coach says - people expect us to fail, they expect LGBT people to look and behave a certain way, and for women, they expect them to not be able to fight. Actually, it's about us defeating those ideas that people have, and fighting back."
There were "demons" in Maggie's past that she has been able to fight off through donning the gloves. "I suffer with quite bad mental health problems a lot," she explains, "but when I'm boxing, I can't twitch incessantly, and I can't freak out about something, because I'm worried about getting hit in the head. I've got to concentrate on moving my head quicker!
"In boxing, there's something really powerful in the mental strength that's needed to keep going. Your body hurts 90 per cent of the time, but you see the strength that you get physically, and then you see the strength mentally too - that thought of 'I know I'm going to get hit, but I'm going to hit back'. It's a very weird and fascinating sport.
"It does take some courage and resilience to keep going, but I think it shows you what your body and your mind can do that you've never put to the test before. It ultimately comes down to you, so it gives you the chance to push yourself like never before."
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And what does she make of the Pride angle? "For me, Pride is a protest. I make everything political - it's just the way I am. Being someone that had never watched boxing before, never liked it, I now see it as a way to occupy space, and how that can give you strength and power. And it has made me more confident in who I am, as an LGBT woman.
"With sport, it's something that transcends so many different people, and you have such an audience there. If we're not going to try and change it in the stands or in the ring, then we might as well give up, because that's where loads of 'normal people' - that don't engage in politics - participate, and live their lives."
She stands, ready for another sparring session, still sweating from the first, still smiling. "It's a constant fight!" she laughs, and then she's back to the gym, part of the fighting Pride - and joy - of London.
Learn more about Pride Boxing at their official website. Tickets for Fight Night on Friday, July 6 are available now, with all proceeds going to Pride in London.