Last December, Patricio Manuel, a native of Gardena, Calif., made history as the first openly transgender boxer to compete professionally. The road to that moment was not particularly easy, according to the Guardian. At an early age, he had struggled with his identity. Though he is black, Manuel was raised by white family members who coaxed him into living as a girl. That forced him to turn to boxing as an outlet at the age of 16.
"It was structure. It was discipline. It was control," he told the publication last year. "I had spent so much of my puberty years feeling out of control. I was feeling intense gender dysphoria, feeling like I had no control over my body and what it was doing …. It was my subconscious, being like you need to do something because you're mentally falling apart. It was really self-preservation."
Over the next 16 or so years, Manuel, who also goes by his boxing nickname Cacahuate, or "peanut" in Spanish, successfully competed in amateur female boxing matches and even participated in the 2012 Olympics trial. But with that success came increased media attention, he told the Guardian. When the Los Angeles Times first started covering his transition, for instance, Manuel said his boxing gym and his coach decided to distance themselves from him.
"It hurt a lot … gyms are our safe space," he said. "To have someone basically say you can be here, but no one can know you're here, I don’t live my life like that. I will never compromise who I am to make someone feel comfortable."
Still, Manuel pressed on. Last winter, he became not only the first openly transgender boxer to compete on a professional level (in a match with Mexican boxer Hugo Aguilar) but also the first to win. Two months ago, boxing brand Everlast made him the face of their "Be First" campaign, an initiative that highlights athletes who "have traded in ordinary, expected and normal for daring, different and unique." In a nearly four-minute video for the brand, Manuel discusses how his story has challenged perceptions of what transgender athletes are capable of.
"Unfortunately, when you deviate from the norms that society has constructed, you have to fight for that identity," he says. "You really have to make it yourself."
In an interview with CNN, Manuel said he's honored to have been selected to share his experience.
"At a time when transgender people are being questioned whether we have a place in the sporting world or even being recognized by the world at large, for Everlast to endorse me is huge," he said. "It's a bold statement, and I think it personifies the saying 'Be First.'"