The trans boxer fighting to open up combat sports for queer people

A film fromHuck Presents
Trans boxers are banned from licensed fights in England, so Jill Leflour is going blow-for-blow to end trans exclusion in sport.

“There’s so much to love about boxing,” explains amateur boxer Jill Leflour. “I love how creative it is. You’re only allowed six punches but there is an infinite number of ways to perform or combine them. I love the camaraderie of grass-roots clubs. You’ll be cracking someone’s jaw in sparring but the second the bell rings it’s time for a big sweaty hug.”

Directed by Declan Kelly and Grace Phillips, Jill is a tender documentary portrait of Jill and his journey in boxing. Shot on a combination of VHS tape and digital, the film rises above the toxic debate around trans issues. It arrives like a breath of fresh air in a context where trans athletes have been the subject of much media manufactured controversy. Trans athletes still face many barriers to full participation in sport.

Growing up in Normandy in northern France, Jill discovered boxing after moving to London for university. It was a welcome change from “having wrecked shins 24/7” from skateboarding and he was hooked instantly. Jill fought his first white collar fight, against a woman, in February 2019 and won by decision.

“I was already boxing when I figured myself out and already had a fight against a girl,” Jill explains. “My boxing club of the time is the only place I stayed closeted. I told myself I enjoyed their women-only sessions more than their mixed sessions but the reality is that I wasn’t on testosterone and even though I generally passed as male, I was worried something would out me and I’d be treated differently afterwards.”

Jill transitioned in summer 2020 which complicated his rise in boxing. “I had to look for another gym when I moved to London again after having top surgery and starting hormones,” he explains. “The locker room situation still scared me and I didn’t want to hide the fact that I was trans, so I looked for an LGBTQ+ boxing gym.”

It was only in 2018 that Patricio Manuel became the first transgender male to compete as a professional boxer in the US – beating Hugo Aguliar by decision to win his pro debut. Manuel transitioned in 2014 and had previously competed as a female boxer at the US trials for the 2012 Olympics. England Boxing, the governing body for amateur boxing in England, currently bans trans boxers from taking part in officially licensed fights. Trans boxers are only permitted to fight in ‘white collar’ or unlicensed fights.

Eventually, Jill discovered Bender Defenders, a queer and trans martial arts community which confronts rising hate crime by teaching martial arts to queer and trans people and running self defence classes. But now he trains at Knockout LGBTQ+ Boxing Club, which became the first LGBTQ+ boxing club to affiliate with England Boxing. Founded in 2016, Knockout is an inclusive non-profit which creates space for all genders, sexualities and abilities to explore boxing.

“People usually do not know I am trans until I tell them, so I use that to my advantage.”

Jill Leflour

“The process of making the film made me really reflect on the importance of safe spaces for the queer community, outside of nightlife,” explains co-director Grace. “We filmed during a class run by nonprofit, LGBTQ+ boxing club Knockout. That week they held their donation-based session at Bermondsey Boxing Club, and I remember thinking how powerful it was that a community could come together in this space and feel comfortable and supported.”

England Boxing oversees more than 1,000 amateur clubs, yet Knockout is the first in its 143-year history to cater specifically for queer boxers. Since a rule was quietly introduced in the 2019 England Boxing rulebook, boxers are only permitted to fight against boxers of their birth gender. “I’m hoping to have a local impact by getting England Boxing to amend their anti-trans rules, but who knows whether I’ll succeed,” Jill reflects. “The current landscape isn’t very promising.”

The debate around trans rights has increasingly been whipped up into a culture war issue. The number of articles on trans people in the mainstream media has risen in recent years, with the vast majority negative. A 2019 study commissioned by Mermaids from linguist Paul Baker, a professor at Lancaster University, found the British press wrote more than 6,000 articles about trans people between 2018-19, many of them written “in order to be critical of trans people” and painted “trans people as unreasonable and aggressive.”

“My main hope for cis people is for them to realise that the discourse around trans athletes is vastly overblown,” Jill explains. “People usually do not know I am trans until I tell them, so I use that to my advantage. I’ve had great conversations after sessions at mainstream gyms where people would ask me if I was fighting amateur fights, and why I wasn’t. Telling guys I’ve just sparred with that I’m not allowed because I’m trans blows their minds. A lot of people have never heard of trans men, and those who do don’t picture us as athletes.”

“I’m hoping the film will make more people realise that trans male athletes exist,” Jill continues. “Trans men suffer from invisibility – I know plenty of allies who don’t know that a lot of trans sports bans affect us too. Mainstream awareness is the first step to affecting change and this can’t happen if we keep flying under the radar.”

Directors Declan and Grace set out to make an intimate film that forefronts Jill’s voice and experience. “This film is the antithesis of the narrative surrounding ‘the trans debate’ – it’s about highlighting trans joy through representation,” Grace explains.

“This film was a dream to make,” Declan adds. “The biggest challenge was narrowing down the audio clips as Jill spoke the trans gospel. I've learned that as a white cis gay man, it’s time to start standing up for trans rights. Telling individual stories, getting out there and helping our trans brothers and sisters. They need us now more than ever.”

Jill is hoping to use his story – and his example – to bring more queer people into the ring. “My main interest is making other queer and trans people realise that they can achieve a lot more than they think,” he explains. “The environment in which we live in limits us in multiple, very tangible ways (e.g. access to work, education, healthcare, etc) but part of those limitations are self-inflicted. A lot of queer and trans people have had negative experiences with organised sports growing up – think queerphobic bullying in team sports, getting picked last in PE, etc. – and they’re understandably weary of taking part as adults.”

Jill’s message is that is that the ring is a place where everyone can be themselves – and it can be a place of joy and community. “I’ve experienced life from both sides of the gender line and that’s given me a perspective on the world that not many people get to have,” Jill reflects. “Being trans has brought me so much. Community, first and foremost. I’ve met so many people and made so many friends in queer and trans spaces. It’s brought me opportunities I don’t think I would’ve had, had I been born cisgender. Modelling comes to mind. It’s also taught me that if I don’t like something about myself, I’ve got a lot more agency to change it than I would have ever thought. If I can change my whole gender, the sky’s the limit.”

Jill is directed by Declan Kelly and Grace Phillips, featuring Jill Leflour.

Huck Presents is our brand new stream to celebrate films we love and champion emerging filmmakers we admire. If you would like your film featured, get in touch.

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Issue 80: The Ziwe issue