ESA | Fighting Discrimination with Pride

Katie Traxton, European Sponsorship Association

Oct 2020

Martin Stark: fighting discrimination with pride

In recent weeks, the frequency of my European Sponsorship Association blogs has decreased, but when I do sit down and put fingers to keyboard, the subjects I write about are as important as ever. Recently I’ve been chatting to Martin Stark, founder of the World Gay Boxing Championship (WGBC), and I realised once again, I’d stumbled upon a story that needed to be shared.

Martin and I are both advocates for the LGBTQ community and determined to drive greater inclusivity and appreciation of diverse voices, perspectives and experiences, even if we have to convince one person at a time. However, while I’m an active ally who chose to take on that mantle, Martin, a member of the LGBTQ community, never had the choice to ‘opt in’. He had potential judgement and stigma thrust upon him simply because of who he is. An unassuming Senior IT Strategic Sourcing Leader, he found himself at the centre of a global cultural debate on sexuality and identity unable to choose a quiet, private life if he also wanted to be himself. Faced with that reality, he leant in.

And when Martin leans in, he doesn’t do it by halves. Originally from the UK, he migrated to Australia in 2000, the week before the Sydney Olympics. He remembers seeing Australia’s most successful Olympian Ian Thorpe win two gold medals on the opening night of the swimming competition. Now openly gay, Thorpe didn’t come out until 2014, well after his retirement from pro sport, but since then he’s become an influential ambassador for the LGBTQ community, recognised and respected around the world. Visible and vocal role models like Thorpe can empower and give a voice to others who feel marginalised or forced into silence due to their sexuality or identity.

23 years after Martin saw Thorpe’s victory, he’s planning to host the inaugural WGBC in Sydney. The Championships are scheduled only six years after Martin took up boxing, following a self-defence course that inspired a newfound love of sport, the perfect platform to campaign for a better, more inclusive world: “Sport plays a vital role in society providing an opportunity for individuals and people to achieve by creating a sense of camaraderie and community spirit. More broadly it allows people and organisations to invest in their health and wellness.”

While founding a World Championship might seem like a big leap and phenomenal undertaking, Martin is no stranger to overcoming adversity: “I was diagnosed with Addison’s disease in 2006 shortly after surviving a tracheotomy and being placed in a second induced coma. I have had over 70 hospital admissions and believe in living life to the max. I’m an advocate of health and fitness, and I’m passionate about inclusion, social justice and fairness. I even have the word ‘courage’ tattooed on my back!”

A chronic condition with symptoms similar to flu or depression, Addison’s disease can be both debilitating and demoralising, but Martin is taking it in his stride, handling the bad days alongside the good, committed to using his time and energy to create an unprecedented opportunity for his community. I was curious as to why he chose boxing as his platform to promote the need for greater LGBTQ inclusivity:

“There has been a full-on boxing renaissance of late within the LGBTQ Community. There have been several lesbian World Championship boxers and Patricio Manuel is the first openly transgender boxer to compete professionally winning his first match in December 2018. When I started training, I was disappointed there were fewer than 1,000 Instagram posts on #gayboxing whereas #boxing had almost 20 million posts. That made me more determined to share my boxing journey, communicating how I’ve found the sport welcoming and inclusive while also demonstrating that equality for LGBTQ people is more than equal rights. It’s about the right to enter the ring and compete.”

As an outsider to both the world of boxing and an ally to the LGBTQ community, I’m a bit baffled about why someone’s sexuality plays a part in their perceived right to fight (safely and in a controlled environment, as with the WGBC J). It would equally be easy to assume that creating a World Gay Boxing Championship runs the risk of separating competitors based on their sexuality, rather than bringing them together. However, the evidence argues the contrary, as does Martin:

“A 2014 study highlighted how young LGBTQ people were 46%-76% less likely to compete in team sports than their heterosexual peers. Research shows that sports clubs or groups that are nominally for the LGBTQ community increase inclusion and engagement. I believe the WGBC will encourage members of the LGBTQ community who may feel excluded from sport to start training, participate and become World Champions. It will give people who may lack self-esteem a sense of personal achievement feeling part of a supportive community.”

By showcasing the skills of the LGBTQ community in a forum where they can focus on performing at the top of their game without the distraction of discrimination, the WGBC provides a platform to show why LGBTQ boxers should be confident and welcomed on any competitive stage:

“The WGBC is unique. Organisations increasingly support LGBTQ sporting competitions, but boxing, still a largely heteronormative sport, is generally absent as a discipline. The WGBC is an opportunity to bring boxing and the wider community together and make sporting history. There is a substantial flow-on effect for WGBC partners from advancing social equity and fairness, while also demonstrating their commitment to meeting diversity, belonging, inclusion and equality as well as Corporate Social Responsibility goals.”

Never has the fortitude sport can provide been as important as in 2020 when the impacts of coronavirus and lockdown are having a demonstrably negative affect on society’s mental wellbeing. With World Mental Health Day rapidly approaching next Saturday 10th October, Martin’s mission is particularly poignant:

“Boxing has been removed from the list of sports for the 2022 Gay Games, creating a need and an opportunity for an LGBTQ friendly Boxing Championship. I love boxing and wanted to give back to the sport and LGBTQ community by providing an opportunity for people to participate and compete in a safe and friendly environment. Boxing is full body form of exercise increasing muscle tone, cardiovascular fitness levels while helping to strengthen bones and ligaments, but there are also psychological benefits including stress relief, increasing levels confidence and improved co-ordination.”

The way Martin channels his personal passion for the greater good is admirable, but how can we learn from his achievements to make an even bigger impact? I was fascinated to hear him regale tales of unnecessary exclusion that boxing has been overcoming for decades:

“Boxing has a proud history of breaking down barriers and stereotypes harnessing the support of people to champion change. In 1992, Savoy Howe entered the boxing ring and a year later fought in Toronto’s first-ever sanctioned women’s boxing event. In 1993, Howe talked about being a lesbian boxer for a documentary and three years later started the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club. Lionel Rose was the first indigenous Australian to win a world title and be honoured with the Australian of the Year award. His success came at a time when Aboriginal people did not have the right to vote and he is remembered as a champion of his sport and his people.”

Australia isn’t the only country where boxers are driving positive change and inclusivity. In the UK, we’re excitedly waiting to see Olympic boxing goal medallist Nicola Adams compete on Strictly Come Dancing this autumn as the first ever celebrity dancer in a same-sex couple. Joining me as one of her chief cheerleaders will be Martin’s mum:

“I am proud of Nicola and she has a huge supporter in my mum. Strictly is my mum’s favourite programme and I look forward to hearing about Nicola’s successes when FaceTiming my family on a Sunday evening. Nicola is a champion continuing to make history 😊.”

Like Ian Thorpe – and Martin himself – Nicola is an important role model for the LGBTQ community as well as for anyone else inspired by humility, approachability and mind-blowing talent. It takes courage to speak up when the threat of stigma looms large around you, but it’s the actions of brave individuals which will shape our society, our future and make history. I’m not sure I’ll ever make the kind of difference that Martin has and continues to. But I, you and anyone else we can bring along with us can be allies to those, like Martin, who put their head above the parapet, potentially at their own expense, to create a better, more inclusive world for us all.