THE TRANS BOXING COLLECTIVE
“Trans Boxing is the one space they can go where they don’t have to think about their gender at all.” Founder of Trans Boxing Collective, Nola Hanson, discusses how the first trans boxing club in New York is building a community of cultivating healthy self-esteems, introducing new queer classes, trans allies and exploring androgyneity at 11 through sports.
YOUTH and ROLE MODELS
How was your youth, did you have a role model growing up?
My youth was ok, kinda tough at times. I really struggled with anxiety and OCD, which was pretty consuming. My role model was probably my big brother, Thor. He was really into skateboarding, snowboarding and BMX and that was in the 90’s when those sports were still kind of counter-cultural.
He was also a DJ and had a really awesome record collection – I used to sneak into his room and fuck with his stuff. I memorized the lyrics to “Street Dreams” by Nas when I was like 9 or 10. New York rap music; Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Nas, Mobb Deep, Blackstar – that stuff got me through high school.
What advice would you give to your adolescent self?
God, I don’t know, I would probably just give myself a hug. I was a punk, and probably wouldn’t have listened to any advice anyway, haha.
What was your relationship with health and fitness growing up?
I was really active as a kid – I was always doing something: swimming, riding my bike, skateboarding, or playing team sports. My grandpa had coached college football and high school basketball – when I was 5 he noticed how interested I was in basketball and he started teaching me some things. I was obsessed with basketball, that was my sport. I used to spend hours by myself dribbling and shooting around in my driveway.
At school I was always challenging people to arm wrestling competitions or push up contests. And I always won. I was a strong little motherfucker. At 11 I started skateboarding and snowboarding – in hindsight, I think part of the reason I liked those sports were because they provided a socially acceptable way for me to present myself androgynously.
I’ve always preferred things I could do alone; playing on teams was difficult for me. I used to get really bad performance anxiety during games. I would put all this pressure on myself and then totally fall apart.
I got kicked off my high school basketball team when I was 14; when I started drinking and using. Later on, in high school, I cleaned up my act a little bit and became more involved in visual arts and less physically active. In college and throughout my early 20’s I played basketball – pick-up games and after I moved to New York I played in the NYC Gay Basketball League. I didn’t love it though, I’ve always preferred streetball, because you can be more expressive and show out a little more.
A shout out to a trans person or ally creating waves in society for addressing transphobia?
My mom. She’s not trans, but she’s become such an amazing ally and has lovingly and compassionately helped educate a bunch of our family and friends back in Wisconsin. She is the best, and I am so lucky to have her support.
“I’m not interested in this harsh, separatist, reactionary approach where it’s like “If you don’t like us, fuck you!” I’m interested in an approach of love, because, in my experience, it’s what works.”
THE TRANS BOXING COLLECTIVE
Are you surprised to be the first trans boxing club in New York and how do you see the inclusivity in sport transforming for the trans community?
I’m not sure if I’m surprised necessarily, but I’m excited that we get to build this ourselves and learn as we go how we want this collective to feel. Boxing has always been semi-progressive, because most fighters come to the sport from the margins. So far, we have received enthusiastic support from from the established members of the boxing community in NYC.
I’m not interested in this harsh, separatist, reactionary approach where it’s like “If you don’t like us, fuck you!” I’m interested in an approach of love, because, in my experience, it’s what works. Anger can be useful if it’s redemptive and life-affirming. What does love look like in contemporary social justice movements? Love and anger are not oppositional if anger is used redemptively.
It’s like, if you’re trying to convince someone of something, how are you going to do that? Are you going to yell at them and tell them they’re stupid if they don’t agree with you? Are you going to avoid talking to that person until they decide you’re right? Those strategies are probably not going to work. Defensiveness and reactivity – those are two things that don’t work in the ring and they don’t work outside of the ring.
Love, compassion, kindness, connection, empathy – we are all so thirsty for these things but we are also so impatient and delusional – we have no idea how to get what we want! So we spend our time running in circles. That doesn’t mean we should be passive and say “It’s ok” and comfort our oppressors – that’s not it at all – but after we say “it’s not ok” – what do we do? How can we move towards real, long-lasting transformation and change?
There’s an amazing book called, Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Marie Brown (recommended for anyone interested in social justice and QTPOC movement building) she says “love is an energy of possibility.” How beautiful is that? I’m sure I’ve gone off topic – but I’m really interested in this kinda stuff.
Beyond boxing, what can goers expect from the Trans Boxing space?
Participants can expect high-level boxing training that places an emphasis on mindful embodiment and breath work. The classes also provide a space for authentic community building and the Trans Boxing Collective works towards re-defining what that can look like for T/GNC people.
It is really special to see the relationships that have developed within the group. I’ve heard a lot of participants say that, ironically, Trans Boxing is the one space they can go where they don’t have to think about their gender at all. So, when we’re able to relax a little bit and let go of some of that hyper-vigilance that so many of us are used to, there is space for some other beautiful and transformative stuff to come in.
Also, I want to mention that our classes are no/ low contact, depending on each person’s comfort-level. I’ve had people say they haven’t come to a class because they’re afraid of getting hit – we do not touch anyone without permission and only the most experienced fighters in the group do any sparring work!
Trans Boxing champions the importance of respect and integrity for members. On a daily basis when you’re navigating through heteronormative environments – how important is it to create this space?
You know, self-esteem, confidence, integrity… These are are qualities that sports and athletics can help to develop. And when these qualities are authentically developed, they become embodied and they exist within you regardless of the context you’re in, whether it’s a heteronormative space or a predominantly T/GNC space, or whatever.
Bell Hooks talks about the importance of integrity in Rock My Soul: Black People and Self Esteem: “Whenever the importance of integrity is denied, conditions are in place for the maintenance of low self-esteem.” I co-sign on that statement one hundred percent – like Bell, I think that a healthy self-esteem is so undervalued in our society. In my opinion, it is necessary and deep work that each of us must commit to.
What is it about boxing that appealed to you and how has the discipline and principles of boxing helped you outside the ring?
I’m a really obsessive person and boxing really helped me channel my obsessiveness into something healthy and productive. The soul of boxing also appealed to me – it’s the jazz of sports – improvisational, sacred and devastatingly beautiful. There’s nothing cooler than boxing.
Another thing I love about boxing is that it really demonstrates the contextual nature of marginalization – once you are in the ring, nothing else matters. Like, one person might be in a subordinate position out on the street, but in the ring that relationship can be flipped. So there is the potential for a lot of transcendence from certain identity markers – boxing can provide a certain liberation and the only way to do it is through discipline and dedication. When you’re in the ring, experienced boxers will be able to see the thousands of hours you have spent working the floor (jumping rope, shadow boxing, bag work) and they will respect you – no matter what.
I’ve said this before, but people who are used to feeling ok in their bodies often do not identify with the sport. And I’m not just talking about just the training aspect, I’m talking about getting hit, taking punishment, being scared and standing up and fighting, hitting back – that is what boxing is about. Most people will not do that unless they have to – unless something in them compels them to. Lots of people train, hit the bag for awhile and then get in the ring and spar and figure out what the deal is and then decide they don’t want to do that. There’s nothing wrong with that – but it’s not boxing, it’s training.
The best boxing advice you’ve been given?
“Boxing isn’t about looking good, it’s about being good.”- Nate Boyd
“The soul of boxing also appealed to me – it’s the jazz of sports – improvisational, sacred and devastatingly beautiful.”
What have you learnt about yourself this year?
A lot. I attend support groups for addiction and I have a spiritual practice – so I feel like I am constantly studying myself and trying to gain a deeper insight into my habitual patterns. To answer that question in depth would probably take awhile. But I think the most important thing I’ve learned this past year is that I can ask for help when I’m struggling, I don’t need to do anything alone. My work with Trans Boxing has played a huge role in allowing me to recognize and own my strengths and my limitations – the more honest I am, the deeper my work can become. I don’t know what’s best – I constantly put forth intentional effort to remain curious and open, which allows me to work in a way that is decentralized and generative. Saying “I don’t know” – that is hard work! But it’s worth it.
Are there any young trans athletes that make you excited for the future?
Yeah, there is a 20 year old fighter who is a student and a member of the Trans Boxing Collective. She attended Trans Boxing classes this past summer and rarely missed a week of training. A lot of our work together focused on mindfulness and the breath in order to address certain triggers. I was so grateful to work with her – she is a force (funny, strong, sensitive) and I can’t wait to train with her in the future – I think she’s going to be a great fighter.
Do you have any future events for Trans Boxing that you’re currently working on?
Right now members of our Outreach Committee are focusing on connecting with different organizations for the Trans Day of Remembrance on November 20th. We are looking for opportunities to volunteer and be of service to members of our community who need support.
We’re also working with an organization called Athlete Ally to develop our Trans Inclusion Training Program and expanding training to include Queer classes and regular sparring workshops exclusively for T/GNC fighters.
Also – be on the lookout for a member/trainer of the Trans Boxing Collective, Syd, who is starting a campaign to help raise funds to support his training. His goal is to fight as an amateur in the USA Boxing male division and also to find more avenues of support for the Trans Boxing Collective (funding, sponsorships, etc.)!
What would you graffiti on the back of a toilet door?
You know what? That’s not something I would do. It always makes me sad when people write on bathroom walls. People always write awful stuff too. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from The Catcher In The Rye: “You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You might think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose.”