Katie Christensen traded cycling for boxing, and is willing to fight for change to get in the ring. (Photo by Katie Christensen) | Katie Christensen

Katie Christensen is a 42-year-old sales professional, spouse and parent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She’s also a transgender woman who found a refuge in sports throughout her life, and after rough times a few years ago.

“2020 was a crazy year,” she recalled. “There was a big medical challenge in the family. We had a major natural disaster in our city. We had a dispute with a church we were going to because I was transitioning. For a couple of years I was in a bad place mentally.

“I stumbled onto boxing one day watching this YouTube short. It was Mike Tyson talking about when his young daughter died tragically. He was talking about getting through that and the challenge of doing his best in spite of this heartbreaking tragically. I had this thought that is Mike Tyson could claw his way out of this really tragic situation and become a better person that maybe there is something in boxing for me.”

A former champion’s inspiration led her to seek her place in ring. That place was ICOR Boxing in Iowa City, Iowa. The motto there is “boxing is for everyone”.

“I really liked it,” she beamed. “I did a class and then I did a second class and I enjoyed it. I never threw a punch in my life but it turned out I had a natural capacity for doing that kind of stuff that I never knew I had.”

Two year since taking up the sport, Christensen has to win fight over rules to get a chance to fight in the ring (Photo courtesy of ICOR Boxing)

Christensen continued learning and training as days turned to weeks and months. She was sparring and felt ready to move things up a level. Standing 5-foot-5 as a light heavyweight, she wanted to climb between the ropes and meet an opponent in a regulation fight.

She looked at USA Boxing’s regulations in regard to transgender inclusion. What she found in September 2022 was a policy that required gonadectomy and proof of four years of hormone testing. A stringent policy, but Christensen was sure she met them.

“The language has requirements that seem redundant,” Christensen recalled. “In my mind having had surgery, if you had the source of hormones removed you won’t have a high testosterone limit. I went to USA Boxing to get an explanation and it took them three weeks to respond.”

When the national governing body did respond, she found they had revised their policy a month after it was initially revealed.

“The original document said you needed four years of hormone testing but only 12 months at a certain level. They changed the wording to 48 months so it matched,” she explained. “They came back and said that I needed to meet all those criteria. ‘Surgery, four years of hormones testing done quarterly, and you have to have it below 5 nanomoles per liter. If you do not meet these requirements you cannot compete as a transgender woman in the women’s category.'”

She continued to train into the next year. In April 2023, a little more than a year after she first entered the gym, one of her coaches noticed her improvement and asked if she considered competing. She and her coach revisited the USA Boxing policy, and found she was not eligible for women’s competition because surgery was less than four years ago.

Christensen ultimate wants the next step above sparring— She wants to have an actual bout (Photo by ICOR Boxing)

“My coach and I decided that since I was not eligible to compete against women, let’s find some guys to compete against,” Christensen reasoned. “At 41 years old at that time, I would be in the masters category. There would not be many in that category and even fewer women especially at a higher weight class. We thought this would be fairly simple.

“I went to went to USA Boxing and said that I’d get in a ring with a guy. As long you aren’t disrespectful to me and don’t deadname me, I didn’t care.”

She applied for athlete and non-athlete membership in USA Boxing. She had her eye on attending a officials clinic in the area as well to be around the sport when not fighting.

Her application lingered for weeks and that was denied due to the administrative red tape that sometimes ensnares transgender people.

“My application was flagged because I hadn’t changed name and gender marker on my state ID yet,” she said. “USA Boxing contacted me and stated that they saw the photo and that the photo is clearly a woman but the name is a ‘man’s name.’ I explained that I was transgender and I didn’t think it would be a big deal, and that is when we started talking about competing in the men’s class and they said ‘no.’

“The said they I can’t compete in the women’s class because ‘we consider you a man.’ But we also can’t allow you to compete in the men’s class because ‘we consider you are woman.'”

The strange catch-22 situation extended to her non-athlete application.

“They explained that if you are transgender and apply as a non-athlete you still have to meet the transgender athlete requirements,” she bemoaned. “So they are telling me that my hormone level and how long after surgery has anything to do with keeping time or ringing a bell or working a glove table? It was pretty obvious to me that these people were looking for any reason they can to keep me out.”

Her frustration stretched throughout summer and fall of last year. Christensen reached out to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and submitted a request for an investigation of her case by USOPC. She has been informed by her investigator that an action plan for her case has been written, but they couldn’t share it with her.

Between last April and now, Christensen and her coaches at ICOR have been marshalling support for a looming fight against policies that make little sense. One staunch supporter was a fellow trans person who loves the sport, and who is teaching it on the East Coast.

(Photo courtesy of Nolan Hanson)

A boxing ally battling in Brooklyn

Within legendary Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, N.Y., Nolan Hanson intensely instructs those whose passion for the sweet science matches is own. His style is reminiscent of the grizzled old boxing lifer/corner man, even though he’s a young 33 years old.

“I think transness is really compatible with boxing, not just as an identity but as an approach,” he said. “Boxing is complicated. It’s a science. There’s never just one thing going on.

“You can never separate one thing going on from a fighter’s whole physicality and how that interacts with an opponent, and you are on offense and defense at the same time in all moments. In that way, it’s really sort of sympathetic to transness for me.”

Before his own transition, Hanson fought in the women’s amateur ranks but knew where his truth was. When an injury sidelined him, he moved into his medical transition while also founding Trans Boxing in 2017. The program is designed to give access to this sport to transgender people who are finding themselves increasingly shut out of competitive sports.

As a transgender man who is a USA Boxing-licensed coach, he said that stories like Christensen’s are far too common. He noted that the same policies keeping Christensen out of the sport have kept him out of competing in amateur boxing after transition. That’s why he is aiding her struggle in any way possible.

“Four years of quarterly testing is excessive, and the policy is subjective,” Hanson stated. “It’s entirely a lack-of-knowledge issue. I think people’s biases are so deep and fixed that, at least in my experience, just presenting the knowledge isn’t fixing the problem. It’s steeped in a sexist and misogynistic notion that women are weaker than men and that anyone who has gone through male puberty has an advantage over someone who hasn’t, which is not true.”

Hanson, and others such as professional fighter Patricio Manuel, strive to use the sport as a means of outreach to those who have no exposure to transgender people. He feels change is happening, albeit slowly.

“On a small scale, people’s perceptions have shifted,” he said. “However, to be honest, if I were talking to a trans guy who was competing in the amateurs, I would tell him to be stealth if possible. Obviously there is a certain amount of privilege with that that does not extend to every trans person.

“My hope is that people’s perceptions if what it means to be trans will change by interfacing with real trans people and not headlines on social media.”

Christensen is part if an effort to open up the sports, but says the fight continues to make USA Boxing more open (Photo courtesy of ICOR Boxing)

Getting hit, but keep moving forward in boxing

Christensen has taken a piece of Hanson’s example. She and others at ICOR have started an effort similar to Hanson’s in the middle of a state that has seen legislation against LGBTQ people passed in the last few years.

She hasn’t given up on the goal to get in the ring in competition. That goal hinges on not just changing a policy, but seeing a change in attitudes and perceptions. In that bout, Christensen knows she’s the underdog, but she feels her fight is for other underdogs, too.

“There is definitely a cultural problem among USA Boxing regarding transgender people,” she said. “Even if you change policy you still have the cultural problem. There’s got to be people standing up for inclusion and doing it at the highest levels.

“Young people may not have the resources to fight this fight, but they could have potential decades in boxing if its accessable for them. As it currently is, most of these people will be barred from it.

“That is why I’m decided I was going make a big deal out of this. I’m not going to be a world champion or Olympics, I’m in my 40s, but if the door is shut this young people aren’t going to get in. That is why I’m going to fight this fight.”