MELBOURNE, Aug 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lying sick in hospital, Martin Stark was not only worried about his poor health - the gay boxer was also crushed by the news that boxing had been dropped from the 2022 Gay Games.
So the 45-year-old Australian decided to create another LGBT+ sports festival to achieve his dream of competing on the world stage.
“I was calling myself the future world gay boxing champion, I was going to go and win gold for Australia,” Stark told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
“I was in my hospital bed, and I thought, ‘I can’t stop this journey I’ve started’ so I decided to create the World Gay Boxing Championships.”
Homophobia in sport is a global problem, with fear of abusive chants, threats, bullying and physical assault leading many players to hide their sexuality.
In a 2015 international study initiated by Australian gay rugby groups, 80% of respondents said they had witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport and 75% said it was not very safe to be an openly gay spectator at a sporting event.
Such attitudes led to the founding in San Francisco of the Gay Games in 1982. Hong Kong is set to host the 2022 event, which is expected to attract some 15,000 participants.
Stark said he hopes his 2023 championship – to be held during the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, when the city will also host World Pride – will attract LGBT+ boxers from around the globe and encourage LGBT+ people to participate in sport.
“I want the LGBTQI community to be empowered to do whatever they want to do and achieve their dreams,” said Stark, who has so far funded the championship on his own and organised it with the help of friends.
“For me, that’s encouraging people to participate in the sport of boxing.”
It took almost losing his life for Stark to discover his passion for boxing. In 2017, he ended up in the emergency ward due to complications arising from Addison’s disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands, which regulate the immune sytem.
Shortly afterwards, he took up self-defence classes to improve his confidence and fitness, entering the boxing ring for the first time.
“In school, I was usually the last person to be picked for sport, and people would say I couldn’t punch my way out of a paper bag,” Stark said.
But boxing quickly become a “new passion in life”.
While he found the boxing community to be “very welcoming” he said the sport has “some way to go” before LGBT+ people are fully accepted.
A growing number of high-profile athletes have come out in recent years, including British Olympic gold-winning boxer Nicola Adams, as public acceptance of LGBT+ people has grown.
But it remains difficult for high-profile men to come out in sports that reinforce gender stereotypes, like football.
Boxing has a poor record, with British middleweight James Hawley being sacked after posting homophobic and transphobic comments online last month, while Irish lightweight Conor McGregor was captured on video in 2017 using a homophobic slur.
The first boxer to come out while active professionally was Puerto Rican featherweight Orlando Cruz in 2012, with American Patricio Manuel becoming the first transgender boxer to win a professional fight in 2018.
In the future, Stark said he hoped events like the World Gay Boxing Championships would not be necessary because LGBT+ people will be able to compete in mainstream competitions without facing homophobia or transphobia.
“I think boxing will evolve to the extent that we won’t need (them) because we will have made such inroads in sport,” he said.
In the meantime, he hopes the LGBT+ and sports communities will rally around the World Gay Boxing Championships.
"We're going to need corporate sponsors, we're going to need the support of the LGBTQ sporting community and also the boxing community. I'm starting to realise how big this thing is, and I relish the challenge," he said. (Reporting by Seb Starcevic; Editing by Katy Migiro and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)