In the fall of 2013, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee (UWM), I took a course with Dr. Shelleen Greene called Multicultural America. As part of the class, we worked with the Pan African Community Association (PACA) – a non-profit organization on Milwaukee’s north side which offers after-school programs and assistance to African immigrants and refugees. Throughout the semester, each UWM student paired up with a PACA student to create a collaborative digital storytelling project that shared their stories about migration and learning new cultures.
The collaboration facilitated an engagement with members of the community that I wouldn’t otherwise have had—and it also supported a deeper understanding of the ethnic studies concepts and theoretical frameworks I’d been introduced to in the class. The student I worked with was named Juma, and the experience of working with him had a lasting and profound impact on my life as an artist.
This term, I designed and taught my own class at Portland State University (PSU), an opportunity offered to me by Harrell Fletcher, the director of the Art and Social Practice program where I am completing my MFA, and made available through the advocacy and work of Ellen Wack, an Administrative Coordinator in the department of Art and Design.
The seminar class, called Relational Art and Civic Practice, is designed to support students with conceptual development as well as in-practice application of the strategies involved in socially engaged art projects. In addition to lectures, readings, and discussions, I wanted to give the students hands-on experience with a project.
Ellen asked me if I wanted to add a community-based learning component to the curriculum, and it seemed like an obvious decision to partner with my project, Trans Boxing. Conversation has been central to my artistic practice and education, and so I wanted to create a context in which PSU students and Trans Boxing members could be in dialogue with one another. To do this, I created an interview assignment.
After doing some initial research on Trans Boxing, the students were asked to generate a set of questions they’d like to ask participants. I went through and selected the questions I found most interesting, which would be used to guide our group interviews with Trans Boxing participants. I thought a group interview would be beneficial for multiple reasons. In addition to generating content for written interviews and posters– the format provided a framework for dialogic learning. The context that was created allowed two otherwise unaffiliated groups to come together and discuss trans identity, belonging, athletics, and a whole host of other related topics.
The excerpted conversation is from two group conversations I guided between Trans Boxing members and students from my art seminar course at PSU, which took place on Zoom on Tuesday, February 16th and Thursday February 18th, 2021.
Bri Graw (Portland State University): You’ve all been talking about representation, and what it means to be an openly trans athlete in terms of how important that is for younger generations to look to. Where have you sought inspiration for your own representation?
Maggie Walsh (Trans Boxing): That’s a great question. I mean, I definitely didn’t have it growing up at all. I remember joining the softball team and learning that being successful at softball meant that in addition to the skill, you also had to make sure that you weren’t labeled like, the “dyke player.” So, I had to create representation on my own. Like even if it was something that I could intellectually understand in an academic way or something, applying it in terms of like a sport hadn’t been something that I had consciously done until I felt like I was welcomed into a space that was doing it just naturally.
Eleadah Clack (TB): Yeah, just from my experience as a queer masculine Black lesbian, you do have to look for representation in things that don’t necessarily look like you sometimes. You have to create it. If you look at the Trans Boxing class, that’s a powerful image just to look at it in a grid view. Like I don’t do it frequently because I’m usually watching myself while I do the drills, but like when I do, and I’m sitting there like, Yo, this is really deep. It’s really dope. Everybody’s so focused on themselves, but at the same time we’re coming together. And I think that’s a way of actually creating that representation within our group that we’re looking for outside. We all experienced similar marginalization. It’s not even like we have to really speak on it, because we know that. But then also seeing each other strengthen and grow… it is creating the representation that we want to see for real.
Eniko Banyasz (PSU): I actually went to one of the recorded Trans Boxing classes. I was too shy to go to a live one because I haven’t worked out with other people in so long. After warming up and then hearing the instructor be really supportive, like, “Yeah little bit more, just 10 more seconds!” I was like, “Yes, yes!” And then I did it. I felt like I accomplished something so great. My experience in high school PE education was so bad because you constantly have to compare yourself to national averages. And, you know, you’re put into these boxes. And I feel your success in physical education should be so personalized.
Baer Karrington (TB): Yeah, high school is traumatizing in a lot of ways, especially if you’re not out and especially around sports, which are so gendered. I work in pediatrics and I do a lot of work with gender expansive children or young people, and so it’s been really powerful for me to out myself as a trans athlete, so I can potentially be a gateway for young people who really struggle with finding a space that feels safe for them. I want to show them that there are spaces that are safe and that validate our identities.
Bri (PSU): Yeah, Baer, going off of that, I wanted to ask, how has this experience affected other parts of your lives?
Maggie (TB): I think that it’s given me the ability to take different parts of my life and start blending them together. I think it’s easy to kind of let certain facets of your identity just be parts of your identity and exist in different spaces. And I think that’s true of everyone. I don’t think that’s just a genderqueer thing. But, as I developed a new identity as a boxer, and as an athlete, I saw how that could be blended in with both my personal life and social life.
For example, my boss is a huge boxing fan. And like, we ended up going into a boxing match together. It became like a tool for us to talk about other issues and other things at work. So in a way, I think it’s given me a new language and a new confidence to sort of blend all these different things together that maybe previously were easier to keep compartmentalized.
Eleadah (TB): Boxing is such a technical sport, and it helps me move through a lot of other spaces where there’s not a lot of nuance or technicality. Because I have this knowledge, if I’m in a space it’s like, Oh but there is nuance, because I’m here and I know how to do this on the ropes, I know how to turn my body this way…
Dane Kelley (PSU): How do you feel about other members of the group, and what kind of connections have you made through participating in Trans Boxing?
Brionne Davis (TB): I like that it’s like, we’re all the same, but we are different, you know? And it’s not just that like one, you know, that one type of transgender individual, because when speaking to my family or friends about it, they have that one view of what a trans person is supposed to look like. In Trans Boxing there are all different kinds of people—just like you see varieties of cisgender individuals in other spaces. It just feels more like a community of, you know, all shades of colors, which is the kind of community I prefer to be in.
Camden Zyler (TB): What I’ve noticed about myself is that I’d rather bond with people doing activities that I like. So I feel like Trans Boxing encompasses that because I’m hanging out with people that I can relate to, and also we’re bonding over an activity that we all enjoy.
Nolan Hanson: I’ve never felt great in spaces where the only thing bringing people together was an identifier, and like, thinking that is enough to create community.
Camden (TB): Yeah, I feel like the way that systematic oppression affects gender non-conforming people or transgender people could be similar, but within these categories there are experiences that interact with our transness or our gender non-conforming-ness. So to have this one unifying thing, like, okay, we’re all equal because we’re all like trans or gender non-conforming… I personally find that like, that’s not true; there are just so many different factors. And maybe there’s a collective joy and sorrow and all these different things that we may or may not share, being trans and gender non-conforming, but we also have different interests.
Eleadah (TB): I think it’s cool to think about what we do in Trans Boxing within the wider context of boxing. Because while it is like, you know, heavily masculinized, and patriarchal or whatever, there’s a connection that’s also existing outside of that, because it is skill-based, legacy based. It’s a two-way interaction and educational kind of thing. So even if you’re the manliest of men, you have to submit at a certain point to learn everything that you need to learn. And then at some point you’re going to be tapped to give that back. To you know, be a nurturer in a way to someone else’s skill.
Maggie (TB): You’re like, you’re blowing my mind every time you speak; I’d never thought of it like that. It’s a very intimate sport in a lot of ways that I like—in the sense of like, it’s one-on-one, but then also the emotional aspect is so super interesting.
Belen Murray (PSU): I just want to say that I find it really interesting that you guys are boxers. And I’m thinking of boxing as like, you know, rough and tough, like smashing faces and stuff like that. Anyway, like, all of you are like, “Oh, it’s so healing. And it’s such a great community.” And I’m, like, “Wow, that’s cool. That’s interesting.” I need that. You know, I want to work on my self esteem and build a community. It’s wonderful [the project] it’s doing that.
Nolan: I’m glad that we can kind of complicate that stereotype for you, Belen.
Belen (PSU): Yeah among everything else!
Nolan Hanson (they/he) is an artist based in New York City. Their practice includes independent work as well as collaborative socially engaged projects. Their work has been shown in New York, Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco. Nolan is the founder of Trans Boxing, an art project in the form of a boxing club that centers trans and gender variant people.
Eniko Banyasz (they/them, she/her) is an illustrator, character designer, hobby comic artist and plush craft/toy design enthusiast based in Portland, Oregon. Eniko is the owner of Pangokin Creations, and is currently pursuing their BA in Art Practice at Portland State University.
Orion Rodriguez (he/they) is an author and editor of educational nonfiction and fiction with a social justice bent. His writing has been published in Salon, Prism Reports, Lightspeed Magazine, and other publications. Their visual art has appeared in group exhibitions in Chicago, Denver, and Portland.
Belen Murray (she/her) is a graphic designer and humanities and sociology student from the California Bay Area. Belen is passionate about working with Native American communities. She currently resides in Portland, Oregon, and attends Portland State University.
Dane Kelley (they/them) is a painter and illustrator based in Portland, Oregon. They are in their final year at Portland State University and will be graduating with a BS in Art Practice. Their work focuses on blurring the lines of gender and sexuality representation by using a queer lens.
Mai Ide (she/her) is a Japanese American, Portland-based female artist, mother, wife, and full-time BFA student. Her work has been grounded in the textile realm for a long time and she tries to discover new materials as her medium. For her, an assemblage sculpture is a unique collision, an opportunity to provoke radical social change.
Ivan Vincent Santos Diaz (he/him) is an artist and designer based in Portland, Oregon. He is a full-time dog caretaker with a passion as a hobby to become a professional pitbull, boxer, and Brazilian Dogo breeder, as well as someone who has the power to reach out to queer couples and queer community, as he likes to help out with any problems.
Brianna Graw (she/her) is based in Portland, Oregon. She will be graduating with her degree in art and literature in spring 2021. She prefers to spend her time surfing, wandering, or reading a good story.
Eleadah Clack (she/her/boss) is a writer and fundraiser living in Washington, DC. She is author of The World Without Racism, a self-help guide for white culture. Find out more at www.theworldwithoutracism.com and follow at @theworldwithoutracism.
Maggie Walsh (she/they) is a genderqueer marketing strategist living in Brooklyn. They have been boxing with Trans Boxing for 2 years. Their other interests include photography, ice cream, and hanging out with their chihuahua, Puck.
Baer Karrington (they/them/their, elle/le in Spansh) is a genderqueer-transfemme 4th year medical student going into pediatrics. Their main research interest is in transgender and gender expansive health equity and empowerment, with a focus on community participatory and community-led projects.
Brionne Davis (he/him) is a Queens native trans guy who has been a member of the Trans Boxing Collective around 3 years. An aspiring entrepreneur who enjoys all things tech, tech repairs and health/fitness.
Camden Zyler (they/he) is a non-binary transmasculine bookworm and writer living in New York City. They are a proud Trans Boxing member. His hobbies include reading, boxing, learning American Sign Language, and being in nature.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
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