Thomas Eakins, Salutat, 1898
Sexuality and Identity

Fighting Back

He didn’t look like a hero at the weigh in. Not the one I had imagined, anyway. I had expected him to be bigger. Perhaps he only looked smaller because he had stripped down to his rainbow hip briefs and was flanked by much larger and fully clothed men. We always look more vulnerable when naked.

He was ripped without bulk, his muscles tightly but sparingly wrapped on a 5’3” frame. As he stood on the scale, his arms raised and curled in the classic bodybuilder’s pose, I could see the outline of his sternum but also the thin fingers of his serratus anterior. This is not a muscle you see in ordinary men.

Indeed, he seemed to be made only of muscle, tendon and bone, and this made him seem even more vulnerable, as if there wouldn’t be enough padding to absorb the volley of punches he’d be receiving in the ring.

Though Orlando Cruz could easily kill me with his fists, I could see in him the short, scrawny kid who grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in San Juan. I see the little kid who, as Amrai Coen recounts in his wonderful portrayal of Cruz for Die Zeit, used to get picked on and beat up in grade school. The boy fought back and soon the fights became part of his school-day life. His mother took him to learn soccer and judo in the hopes of channeling his aggression but it wasn’t until she sent him to learn boxing that the fighting stopped. “If you want to fight in here,” the trainer said, “you can’t fight outside.” He was nine.

When I watched Cruz in the ring with Orlando Salido—to the extent that I could watch—I saw a man of prowess and strength engaged in combat with another man, a gay boxer laying claim to the title of a “manly sport” that was the expression par excellence of heterosexual virility. I saw a man who got hooted and called whore and faggot when he entered the sports arena (including this one, according to  Coen) but who nonetheless had donned a pair of rainbow trunks for this fight.

I was proud of him but troubled as well.

If he was a hero, he was a problematic one. A hero excels. But what if hurting and incapacitating others is the thing you’re really good at?

I want to admire Cruz and without reservations. But much as I want to, I can’t like boxing. I can’t even watch a fight without feeling a certain queasiness that’s perches just at the edge of disgust—with myself for watching and with a society that has allowed a massive business to grow out of a sport that, in the end, is a medium for delivering neurological damage.  Dementia pugilistica.

As I watched him fight I tried focusing on the elements of sport. I could see Cruz’s strength, agility and endurance. I could sense the emotional control and intense concentration. (Raging bulls don’t usually win matches; their anger blurs the narrow focus on the here-and-now needed to identify and develop opportunities to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses.) But in the end I saw two men inflicting pain on each other.

Yes, Cruz is doing something important. He’s playing on turf that has never been sought for by gay men before, not openly anyway. It is at the same time a stake on the mythos of heterosexual virility—and a subversive one. But I’m still uneasy.

Orlando Cruz at the weigh-in for the WBO featherweight title

Orlando Cruz at the weigh-in for the WBO featherweight title

“Now it’s my time,” Cruz said in an interview to Donald McRae in the Guardian before the fight. “People think I’m not strong enough. They doubt me. They wonder if a gay man can win a world title.”

I imagine that few who watched the fight doubted that some day a gay man would win a title. It doesn’t matter that Salido won the fight in a technical knockout in the 7th round. Just getting into the ring for a title fight as an openly gay man was victory enough. A gain for equality, though not, I think, one for our humanity.

Cruz is a difficult hero, but one I rooted for. His struggle to be an openly gay boxer is symbolic in a richly figurative way  of the refusal of LGBT persons to be intimidated. Cruz’s visibility and willingness to speak out may carry this message of resistance beyond the ring. In the Guardian interview, Cruz spoke about the “doors of death” that homophobia opens. “’There is suicidal death – when a gay man cannot stand being unaccepted and takes his own life. And there is homophobic murder. In both I want to be a force for change.”  I hope he will be.

-/-

Five days after the fight, I donned the only purple item of clothing I own—a pair of thistle-colored socks—and purpled my Twitter avatar and Facebook profile photo in observance of Spirit Day, an annual event to raise awareness of bullying and show support for LGBT youth who have been and continue to be harassed because of their sexual orientation. Most of the major sports leagues and teams found some way of participating. Major league baseball, the NFL and the NHL all went purple. The boxing world was silent as far as I could tell.

Spirit Day is about taking a stand against bullying. Its coincidence this year with Cruz’s fight made me wonder if standing up is enough. It made me think about fighting back.

I still wonder how my years in middle school would have been different if instead of looking down and turning away from Jamie Marsh that first time he called me a faggot I had smashed my fist into his face. There was no chance, of course, of my doing that. I had never been in a real fight before myself. I never punched anyone, though I remember vaguely being goaded by my third-grade schoolmates into throwing a punch at Tony d’Angelo when we got into an argument outside school.

Instead I fantasized about having a secret superhero power. I knew exactly what it would be: a force that I could just will into existence that I could then send into my tormentor’s body, causing him such excruciating pain in the gut that he would double over and fall crying to the ground. I would only need to use it once or maybe twice, I thought, enough so that he and his friends would know not to mess with me. That’s all I wanted. I wasn’t looking for acceptance. I just wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to feel safe.

I didn’t think of fighting back. I didn’t know how.

I was too ashamed to ask my father for help. I felt as it were somehow my fault. It’s almost as if I believed what my tormentors were  saying about me. I was afraid they had seen something that maybe my father would also see. Or maybe I was convinced my father wouldn’t be able to help. He taught me how to swim and paid for music lessons. But he never taught me to fight back.

Fighting back hadn’t helped Cruz, not at school anyway. But, still, I can’t help wondering how things might have turned out if I had.

Bullies don’t fight, of course. They harass their victims, physically abuse them sometimes, but they don’t fight, not in the sense that boxers do.

It’s the inverse, really, of boxing, where the fighters are more or less matched in weight, strength and experience and where there are rules about the punches you can throw and a referee that makes sure you follow them. There are limits on the time you can fight and specifications for the space you fight in.

But the bully picks the victim carefully, and it is almost always the weaker, smaller and less self-confident (and disturbingly often, younger as well). The ground of attack is unpredictable and selected for the perpetrator’s advantage. The bully chooses when and where he’ll set upon his victim. It is less a fight than an ambush. Where boxers fight one on one, a bully runs with his pack.

When I watch Cruz in the ring I sense for the briefest of moments that he’s fighting the battle I never fought in school. But his opponent is just another boxer, another man fighting his way out of poverty, exposing himself, like Cruz, to the gashes, cuts and ruptured blood vessels that it is the cost of this sport, when not its aim.

I realize now I didn’t need to fight. I just needed the confidence that I could fight, which would have given me the aura of someone who would fight, if needed. And then, I think, my bully would have chosen another, easier victim. If only I had learned to box.

It’s ironic. In a way I did learn to fight, a few years later after I finished 8th grade and left for a Catholic boys prep school where I joined the wrestling team. I know, wrestling isn’t fighting, not in the way that boxing is, but the element of combat is there, even if in a highly stylized, very structured way.  I was never a good wrestler, But I won enough matches to make me think, I could have taken Jamie down.

-/-

Notes

The Eakins painting (Salutat, 1898) depicts a boxing match fought between Billy Smith and Tim Callahan, who, like Cruz and Salido, were featherweights. Curiously enough, Eakins chose to depict the loser of the match (Smith) as the victor.

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