First Openly Gay Boxer Answers Bell for Whole New Fight
By Martin Mulcahey (Oct 16, 2012) Special to Doghouse Boxing
Orlando Cruz
An openly gay athlete actively competing in his or her chosen sport is exceedingly rare. It takes a person tough enough to box to be man enough to declare his homosexuality in the notoriously chauvinistic sports community. That is what Orlando Cruz has done and he should be commended on many levels. It is not our place to know what a person does in the haven of his or her bedroom but athletes are role models for children that shape and inform the next generation. If Cruz’s honesty helps one young person struggling with sexual identity understand that he or she is not alone, he will have made an impactful difference. By breaking this barrier, Cruz becomes a sporting and cultural milestone, something very few athletes can lay claim to.
Boxing has always had homosexual participants. Hall-of-Famer Emile Griffith came out well after his retirement; similarly, legendary Panama Al Brown was secretly acknowledged as homosexual and his affair with French poet Jean Cocteau is well chronicled. They lived in different eras, the tumultuous 1960s for Griffith and the 1920s’ Jazz Age for Brown, when reporters opted not to print much of what they witnessed. In the 1990s, Canadian Olympic silver medalist Mark Leduc, who had a brief professional boxing career, came out shortly after his retirement. No boxer has had the courage to come out while actively fighting - until now.
There is an eloquence to Cruz’s boxing style, which comes through in the explanation for his decision to go public as well. “I’ve been fighting for more than 24 years and as I continue my ascendant career, I want to be true to myself.” Cruz put an exclamation point on his statement to the Associated Press, ending his interview, emphatically stating he is “a proud gay man.” With that, Cruz became the first openly gay male boxer in two centuries. It is a declaration countless athletes in every sport have forgone, choosing instead to hide in plain sight.
Pedro Serrano, spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, acknowledged the importance of Cruz’s decision. “It also gives a lot of hope to young gays who can see in him the integrity and bravery to be who you are and face a society that is often intolerant, especially in this type of sport.” I find Serrano’s comment about “this type of sport” presumptuous but that is a battle for another day. Yes, Cruz competes in boxing, a testosterone-filled activity perceived as inherently “manly.” However, by doing so, he dispels the stereotype of homosexual men being innately effeminate. Anyone who witnesses Cruz in the ring has the ammunition to argue against that ignorant notion.
There is an acknowledgement of responsibly by Cruz, understanding his actions from this point forward affect others because of a newfound celebrity. “I want to try to be the best role model I can be for kids who might look into boxing as a sport and a professional career.” Cruz also plans to begin a campaign against bullying of adolescents that goes beyond supporting just young homosexuals. “I also want kids who suffer from bullying to know that you can be whoever you want to be in life, including a professional boxer [and] that anything is possible. That who you are or whom you love should not be impediment to achieving anything in life.”
While Cruz, 18-2-1 (9), is an elite boxer, a featherweight contender who represented Puerto Rico in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he has yet to earn a world title shot. How his personal revelations are accepted by the general public will come to light on Friday when Cruz steps into a ring for the first time since his bold pronouncement. Truthfully, opponents and the vast majority of the boxing community will treat him exactly as before. If anything, the older working parts of the boxing establishment such as judges, referees, managers and influence peddlers at the sanctioning bodies have a greater ability to damage Cruz’s aspirations. Judging from conversations I have had - and reading boxing message boards - most admire Cruz’s honesty while 10 to 20 percent can’t resist becoming a bigoted stereotype.
Support for Cruz was immediate; Miguel Cotto (Puerto Rico’s most admired active boxer) praised his Olympic teammate, saying in a radio interview, “I have a great appreciation for ‘Orlandito.’ I congratulate him. ‘Orlandito’ is my friend. I'm sure it wasn't easy for him but I congratulate him. From this point forward, he will see that his life will change a lot and things will be much better for him.” Singer Ricky Martin, who announced his homosexuality in 2010, applauded Cruz via Twitter, “Congratulations Boricua for your courage! I'm so happy for you! Power to you! Peace to you and yours!” Both are needed public acts of endorsement since Puerto Rico is a heavily Catholic country with conservative social attitudes. Cruz extols his mother and sister for their unconditional support, adding that his father understands him too. “Like every father, he wants his son to be a full-blooded man. But he is aware of my preference, my taste.”
Many men remain hypocritical on the topic of homosexuality. Female boxer Christy Martin is open about her affair with a woman and lesbian athletes are not held to the same standard as men by men. Female athletes have more leeway openly expressing their proclivities. It is a dubious double standard which men accept, castigating the same admissions by a man as disgusting or immoral. Someone who thinks otherwise has not heard men talk about the virtues of an erotic movie scene featuring two women. Ann Wolfe is another high profile member of the boxing fraternity who is openly homosexual, remaining a respected trainer of male and female boxers. Neither Martin nor Wolfe seemed discriminated against while boxing and it will be interesting to see if the same can be said for Cruz.
There has yet to be an openly gay player in professional football, major league baseball, the NBA or hockey. Cruz has fashioned himself a singular spot in sports history and allows boxing to once again spearhead the breaking of barriers, just as historic boxing figures John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson and Benny Leonard changed the image of their minorities followed later by other athletes like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Roberto Clemente and Billie Jean King. Boxing is widely and willfully overlooked for its positive social impact; for the short term, Cruz is changing that fact.
Is it going too far to compare Cruz to historic figures like Owens, King, or Muhammad Ali? On a basis of athletic performance, I will argue yes. I do not wish this to come off as flippant but homosexuality in itself is not an achievement. However, we must understand that the gay rights movement is in its infancy compared with the civil rights struggle of ethnic minorities or women’s rights. In time, Cruz might be acknowledged as a truly historic figure.

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