Ready to back a real contender? Writer DOMINIC ARCHER explains how the struggles of three Chinese students helped to set him on the path towards creating an LGBT+ sports story that needs your support…
I’m going to tell you about ‘A Boxer’, a graphic novel that features a fighter trying to reconcile the hypermasculinity fostered in combat sports with his sexuality as a gay man.
But before we get to that narrative, we have to first talk about China.
In November 2017, I returned there to teach for the second time. I’d just graduated with my Masters degree in Comics and Graphic Novels – which had been funded by teaching there the first time – and was now back in debt. Going East once more seemed to be the best option. I knew the culture, enough of the language to survive, and there was so much more of the country left to explore.
After the first month, I caught a student making a joke about two boys being gay. Rather than telling him he was wrong, I explained that even if they did love each other, what did it matter as long as they were happy?
This seemed to be a small revelation to him. The class of 60 students applauded and the rest of the lesson went smoothly.
A few weeks later, a different student approached me and said that he was gay and that he was scared of what his family would think. A few months later, another student did the same; and then another.
China is reluctant to embrace its LGBTQ population, largely due to deep cultural reasons to do with an emphasis on family in traditional Confucianist philosophy. The 2016 United Nations Development Programme found that only 15% of LGBTQ Chinese people will come out to their relatives, so it was an incredible privilege that they felt comfortable talking to me.
I was also stunned that in a culture somewhat averse to discussing these topics, all three students knew their sexual identity. I had come from an environment of independent comic books and academia (potentially two of the most supportive groups of LGBTQ rights) and yet while I knew I wasn’t heterosexual, I’ve never felt comfortable identifying myself as any singular part of the acronym.
I started questioning why that was in my comics writing and was then hit by a flood of boxing-related influences. In late 2018, an amazing boxing-themed podcast named ‘Finding Drago’ was released by ABC Radio in Australia; the BBC produced another – ‘The Hurricane Tapes’ – about Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter; and then in February 2019, Anthony Joshua announced he would fight Jarrell Miller. All these elements seemed to slot together perfectly into a story that started to write itself.
‘A Boxer’ is a graphic novel about a young fighter named Mike Shepherd. After he takes the silver medal at the Olympics, he recognises he is stuck in what he sees as an irreconcilable identity crisis.
If he publicly reveals his sexuality, he will be forever remembered as ‘the gay boxer’ due to a lack of other LGBTQ athletes. Not ‘The Greatest of all Time’ or ‘The Baddest Man on the Planet’, but as the fighter who is dating his out gay cutman.
Mike’s partner, Jude, is a university-educated physiotherapist, who has an academic understanding of his own sexual identity. Our protagonist, on the other hand, comes from the kind of working-class background that so often produces great fighters. Mike hasn’t had the opportunity to discover anything other than that he and Jude love each other.
Just after we first pitched the book to our publisher, BHP Comics, a Twitter account named The Gay Footballer appeared, in which a user claiming to be an LGBTQ athlete started discussing the very themes that we were exploring. When the account went down, with the mystery footballer claiming they didn’t feel strong enough to face public scrutiny, we doubled down on the graphic novel and realised that it isn’t just boxing or traditional cultures on the other side of the world that are affected by this.
We live in a time that accentuates cultural conflict. That forces those in the public eye to tightly direct every aspect of their private lives unless they want it to become their defining feature. Sometimes, this is a useful tool for preventing those in power from abusing it; but it can also be a check on those who seek to live their life while maintaining control of their legacy.
So it is to The Gay Footballer, to those Chinese students who put their trust in a foreign teacher, and to Orlando Cruz (the first out gay professional boxer), to whom our book will be dedicated.
It took incredible courage for each of them to step forward as they did and their struggle inspired our story of finding the path we choose for ourselves.
‘A Boxer’ is available to back on Kickstarter now. Please give what you can and show your support.
‘A Boxer’ features an award-winning team of international artists. Gary Welsh (pencils) and Marc Casilli (inks) are also graduates of the Masters degree course in Comics and Graphic Novels from the University of Dundee. Amanda Miranda (colours) is the winner of the 2019 Dente Award for Best Independent Comic and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (letters) is the winner of an Eisner Award, which is like winning an Oscar to comic nerds!
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