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Features / Photography

Introducing Tranny Boxing: glamour, grit, guts and glory captured in east London-based film

Words:

Emily Gosling

Photography:

Vic Lentaigne

“Going out and doing drag, you can’t be frail or scared or embarrassed,” filmmaker Joseph Wilson tells me. “You have to be a strong person.” Strength – both in physicality and in character – is one of the dominant themes his film STANCE. That and a huge dollop of camp, a hell of a lot of glamour, and the perceptive observation that drag and vogue culture have a lot more in common with the traditionally macho world of boxing than you’d think.

The film has been dubbed “tranny boxing” by Joseph and Vic Lentaigne, who shot the gorgeous stills that accompany the film. It’s a deliciously sass-packed strut of a short: all bright colours and even brighter and bolder stars. We see our dancers vogue and punch their way around Repton Boxing Club, the east London sports venue that opened more than a century ago near Brick Lane. This juxtaposition of East End history and contemporary drag culture is no accident: for all its posturing and fun, the film also has a political bent, creating a new dialogue about acceptance of gay culture and LGBT history.

The film was dreamed up early this year during a time when east London’s gay club scene seemed to be in crisis: The Joiners’ Arms on Hackney Road was closing after 18 years of facilitating anarchically brilliant nights out; the George and Dragon on the same road was under threat (it will soon close due to a large rent increase) and numerous other London gay venues were being shut down. “Non gay pubs are closing too, but it’s so important in the gay community because these are spaces that were open when it was illegal to be gay,” Joseph says. “The [straight] people that argue that normal pubs are closing too have never had to check themselves or feel unsafe because of their sexuality. There’s never been straightophobia.”

Vic adds: “They’re all being turned into luxury flats or luxury restaurants or luxury bars. There’s no individuality, and it’s all the weird, independent places that it’s happening to.”

Over chips and martinis in Hoxton’s Breakfast Club (where Joseph used to be a manager before committing to filmmaking full-time), the upshot of this has been the gay community taking to what Joseph calls “queering spaces,” making existing sites into safe, judgement-free, gay friendly venues. All the better if these sites are those traditionally reserved for a specific, often aggressively masculine and female-free crowd. The prime example is Sink the Pink, the drag night Joseph is involved in (documented in his short Drag is my Ecstasy), which takes place in Bethnal Green Working Men’s club – which was exactly the sort of venue its name would suggest until recent years.

“Vogueing’s like a gay battle about expressing yourself with feminine moves and I love that. It’s about being the best. Boxing and vogueing are very similar.”

Joseph Wilson

“That’s why we thought it would be so amazing to get a load of drag queens boxing: doing a really masculine sport in a place where so recently – even ten years ago – they would have said no to us using the space,” says Joseph. “When I first went to the club to see it the boys were training, and I really had to check myself so much, making sure I wasn’t doing anything ‘gay.’ I had to, it was so masculine in there, I felt a bit uncomfortable.”

The dancers in the film are all good friends of Joseph, and prove that the links he sees between boxing and drag are far from tenuous. They do this with the sharp limb snaps and rapid gestures of voguing, a dance style originating in the 1980s New York gay community around the idea of “battles” where boys appropriated feminine actions into dance moves that were beautiful, tough and relentlessly fierce (watch Paris is Burning if you haven’t). “It’s like gay kung fu,” says Vic. Joseph explains: “It’s like a gay battle about expressing yourself with feminine moves and I love that. It’s about being the best and I thought that was very relevant to how the space is used now. Boxing and vogueing are very similar.”

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Vic Lentaigne: Mikey, Tranny Boxing
Shot for Joseph Wilson’s film S T A N C E

The aesthetic of the film is colourful and celebratory, but set against the cracking paintwork, red bricks and worn walls of the venue it makes for a beautiful mishmash of references. A little like drag itself, the film borrows from different worlds and looks to create something wonderful, new and strange. We’re not sure there are many occasions you’ll see a flamingly ginger-haired drag queen boxing with glittery lobster claw gloves, for instance. “I loved that contrast between the flamboyance and the macho boys’ club,” says Joseph. “Because of the beautiful yellows and greens of the club I wanted strong colours. It’s all about strong colours, strong looks, strong vogueing, strong performance. Strong everything. We found a sign that says ‘No Guts No Glory,’ and that sums it up. If you’re a drag queen you need guts, and you’re going to have glory. It’s the same in boxing.”

The film was shot on a Canon 7D with a little help from a spinning office chair, and all in just an hour and a quarter. They’d hired the space for two hours, but were working on “tranny time,” an hour later than usual. But once the dancers were in place, Vic says they were perfect subjects for her to shoot the stills. “I was shooting in a side room while Joseph filmed, and they all really worked for me,” she says. “I just used the natural light in [the club], I didn’t need a flash or lights or anything, it was just raw and capturing what they do. I didn’t need to give any direction: they’d hang off the bars, hit a punchbag in time to the beat…I barely said anything – as soon as I lifted up my camera they were amazing.”

“I loved that contrast between the flamboyance and the macho boys’ club. It’s all about strong colours, strong looks, strong vogueing, strong performance. Strong everything."

Joseph Wilson

“They’re all themselves in it – that’s who they are, which is great,” Joseph adds. “Drag is about making yourself look different, having that façade and that bit of extra confidence. When you first start out it’s about finding your look, but none of us try to look like women. We’re just doing a different ‘look’ of ourselves. I always keep my beard.”

The film’s final moments see Mikey, the dancer in blue, turn his back on the club and sashay through the hall in a billowing Union Flag. It’s a striking image, not least because of the complex things that flag could represent about identity and the idea of “otherness.” It’s a classic tenet of sports photography, too: those iconic images of the winning sportsperson dripping in sweat and draped in a flag. Whatever its connotations, it’s a jubilant parting shot that offers a fitting denouement to four minutes of voguing, LGBTQ rights and having a bloody good time. “Tranny Boxing is a new sport. It’s coming! Watch out!” says Joseph. I for one can’t wait to hear the bell for the second round.

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Vic Lentaigne: Lucy, Tranny Boxing
Shot for Joseph Wilson’s film S T A N C E

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Vic Lentaigne: Lucy, Tranny Boxing
Shot for Joseph Wilson’s film S T A N C E

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Vic Lentaigne: Tranny Boxing
Shot for Joseph Wilson’s film S T A N C E

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Vic Lentaigne: Tranny Boxing
Shot for Joseph Wilson’s film S T A N C E

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Vic Lentaigne: Tranny Boxing
Shot for Joseph Wilson’s film S T A N C E

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Vic Lentaigne: Lucy, Tranny Boxing
Shot for Joseph Wilson’s film S T A N C E

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Vic Lentaigne: Chester, Tranny Boxing
Shot for Joseph Wilson’s film S T A N C E

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Vic Lentaigne: Chester, Tranny Boxing
Shot for Joseph Wilson’s film S T A N C E

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Vic Lentaigne: Lucy, Tranny Boxing
Shot for Joseph Wilson’s film S T A N C E