Pat Manuel poised to blaze trail as transgender amateur, then pro
To hear him tell it, Pat Manuel, who was born female, hasn’t lived so much of a difficult life as an ill-fitting one.
“I’ve never really felt any sort of relation to being a girl or a woman or really being female,” said Manuel, who as Patricia Manuel was a five-time amateur boxing champion and 2012 Olympic hopeful. “I would identify myself as a boy or a man in my head even if I didn’t say it out loud to other people.”
That was then. After sexual reassignment surgery a little over two years ago, Patricia became Pat. And Pat has no intention of ending his boxing career: He is the first female-to-male transgender athlete to compete on the USA Boxing amateur competition circuit.
Manuel has his work cut out but seems undaunted as he tries to redefine the roles of men and women in boxing. He is unfailingly positive in and out of the ring.
“I don’t really think of it as difficult because it’s been so fun,” he said. “People may think it’s been difficult but it’s also given me these amazing experiences. ÔÇª I feel like I’m more in control of self-identifying as a man the way I want because I’m able to actually consciously construct it as opposed to it having been enforced on me since birth.”
Still, Manuel acknowledges that there have been significant challenges, some related to the approval process and some more personal.
For example, immediately after transitioning, Manuel said he had to leave his longtime gym in the Los Angeles area because of its church affiliation. He was allowed to remain only if he agreed to keep his story quiet, which he found unacceptable. He left the gym, losing his trainer of nine years.
The process to be approved for fighting was drawn out. Manuel lost a year recovering after sexual reassignment surgery and then waited three more months before he was officially declared eligible to compete as a man in the U.S. He could fight as early as this month.
A USA Boxing representative said the organization will make no reference to the fact Manuel once fought as a woman but his story is no secret within the tight-knit amateur boxing community because of his earlier success. He said it’s pointless to “go stealth” in that arena.
While Manuel is comfortable identifying as a transgender man in public, he can only guess what he’ll encounter when he actually takes part in competitions. How will he be treated by his peers? Will he be accepted?
And the fact he is a pioneer isn’t lost on him. He knows that everything he had to endure – and will continue to endure – will have set a precedent for future transgender athletes with the ability and courage to follow in his footsteps.
“I kinda wish that either someone else had done all that stuff before or that I didn’t have to worry about doing it,” Manuel said when asked about his re-admission into the amateur competition that he dominated as a woman. “As much as I find it kind of annoying to have to go through these steps to kind of figure out how to be a trans man in the sport, I’m also incredibly grateful that I’m able to have visibility shed on me so I can share my story.”
Another obvious question is this: Can Manuel actually compete with opponents who were born male?
Trainer Victor Valenzuela, who has been working with Manuel since October 2014, has no doubts. He guided female fighter Rhonda Luna to a women’s world title. He knows the look.
“I think he could be a Top 10 fighter (professionally),” Valenzuela said without hesitation. “ÔÇª People are going to be surprised because Pat spars with men and does well. There’s going to be a lot of guys that Pat is just going to run over. He’s going to outbox these guys.”
Indeed, during the long period when it was uncertain that Manuel would gain approval from USA Boxing, he regularly trained and sparred with men who did not – and in many cases still do not – realize that he was ever anything but one of the guys, which has been his team’s plan.
“Half of the people in our gym, they don’t even know that Pat was a female and we’re not going to tell them,” Valenzuela said. “Pat is no different from anybody else.”
Manuel has no immediate plans to fight internationally or pursue a berth on the Olympic Team. His main goal is to shed ring rust and then fight professionally. He expects to fight somewhere between 126 and 130 pounds as a pro.
If the resolve Manuel demonstrated during his darkest hour as a woman boxer is an indication, he might just succeed.
In 2012, after years of hard work, Manuel was fighting to become one of the first women to box in the Olympics but had to withdraw from the Trials – and boxing – because of a shoulder injury. The emotional pain was far more severe than that caused by the injury.
When Manuel finally emerged on the other side of that difficult period, he was able to come to terms with something inside of him with which he had long wrestled.
“It’s really hard for me to say my shoulder injury was good for me because it cost me my Olympic dreams,” said Manuel, who still feels the scars from that disappointment. “I love boxing. But it’s also a sport that can end in an instant. I decided that in order for me to be really happy with myself beyond just seeing myself as an athlete, I needed to really embrace my whole identity as a person and acknowledge that I wasn’t a woman and I needed to live my life as a man.”
Click here to watch Kylie Krabbe’s video profile of Pat Manuel for the LA Weekly.