THU JUN 27

Found Family Spotlight:
Mikelina Belaineh

NEWS

Found Family Spotlight:
Mikelina Belaineh

We’re proud to be from Brooklyn, a borough teeming with the vibrant and diverse energies of its people. This patchwork of identities is what makes our neighborhood special, but the journey to authentic self-expression isn’t the same for everyone. For some folks in the queer community, embracing their individuality means finding a sense of belonging and acceptance outside of the family they were born into.

To mark this year’s Pride Month, we’re celebrating connections that run deeper than DNA: the found families LGBTQ+ folks form within their communities that offer unconditional love and support. We’re taking a closer look at how the bonds forged in these chosen networks have empowered our neighbors in New York to thrive, inspire, and amplify queer joy.

We had the opportunity to speak with multi-hyphenate Mikelina Belaineh (they/them): artist, athlete, and advocate who focuses on creating safer, more inclusive communities through their extensive work in criminal justice reform. Mikelina chatted with us about how their experience as a college athlete at a conservative university energized them to envision a better world for LGBTQIA+ folks. Their queer and trans advocacy had its origins on campus, and has since blossomed into an intersectional career focused on uplifting marginalized people of all kinds.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Mikelina helped build and scale a local violence-reduction program in Boston. They continued their work at the prestigious Vera Institute of Justice and The Last Prisoner Project. Mikelina’s expertise in gender and sexuality inspired their research on women in the carceral system, and paved the way for a career in academia. Recently, they’ve developed and taught two college courses and co-authored several books.

Mikelina’s steadfast commitment to self-betterment comes from their found family: Doc, Euro Trill, Kevyn Octavio, Malachi Verral, and Max Adler. Without their acceptance and encouragement, Mikelina wouldn’t have been able to wholly embrace their queer identity. While they attribute their sense of determination to growing up playing sports, they explain how they couldn’t have achieved the final step of self-acceptance — connecting their mind, body, and identity — alone. Read on to learn more about how Mikelina’s found family pushes them to combine physical strength and mental fortitude in their quest to change the world.

Brooklyn Brewery: Tell us a little about yourself.

Mikelina: My name is Mikelina Belaineh. My pronouns are they/them, and I’m an amateur boxer and a community advocate.

I grew up in an Ethiopian Eritrean diaspora in conservative Texas. As a closeted, queer, trans kid, sports were the one place where I felt like I could really be myself. They gave me an outlet to work out a lot of the hard feelings that come with feeling like you can’t be who you are in the world. They gave me a place to build confidence. It was a great therapy for mental health challenges that I faced, and it’s really how I learned to come into my power and stand tall and proud.

BB: How did growing up in a conservative environment help you realize what you wanted to do with your life? How did sports play a role in that?

MB: I went to Texas A&M University for undergrad. It was ranked the least LGBTQ+ friendly public institution in the country. Being in an actively hostile environment like that is where I found my advocate voice. I started organizing on campus for my own safety, and for the safety of my peers. That helped me realize that it’s what I wanted to spend my life doing: building safer, more inclusive communities for everybody, including myself.

BB: How did you get into powerlifting?

MB: When I was organizing in college, I was also competing on the collegiate powerlifting team. I became the collegiate national champion for my weight class. When I went to law school following Texas A&M, I continued powerlifting because it’s something I really fell in love with – it gave me structure, and a place to process, and feel powerful. That feeling really supported me in my organizing work and surviving law school, which was a tough place to be for somebody like me. I attribute a lot of what I’ve been able to do as an organizer to powerlifting. Powerlifting made me, in a big way.

I was a professional powerlifter for 10 years. Through training, competing, and the hardships I experienced as an athlete, I was able to develop the skills and the competencies I needed to survive and excel as a student, as an organizer, and ultimately as a person in life.

BB: How did you meet Doc?

MB: When the gyms were closed during the pandemic I was training in the park, and that’s where I met Doc, my first boxing coach. He brought me into the world of calisthenics and boxing and has been an essential part of my life ever since.

At first, we weren’t super friendly in the beginning. We were working out around each other for a while because he was just this intimidating dude that I assumed would not be cool with me because I was so trans and queer. But he made the first move – he walked up to me and was like, “You know, we have this group that works out here all the time and we’re always around each other. Why don’t you join us?” That felt like such a warm invitation, and it meant the world to me. It felt like a statement from him. Since that day, we’ve been best friends – for the past almost five years now. He’s often my emergency contact. He’s who I put down. He’s who I know I can rely on in the city. He’s like my brother, my uncle, my mentor, my coach.

Meeting Doc really changed my life. I’ve had a lot of really great coaches, but I’ve never had somebody that believes in me so unequivocally as Doc. He has been my confidant, my mentor, my companion. He’s gotten me through hard times in the ring, hard times in my life, relationship issues. He’s become one of the main people that I rely on. He’s shown me just how strong I am and can be. With Doc, I’ve exceeded every limit that I ever thought I had for myself physically and mentally.

BB: What’s your favorite part about boxing with Doc?

MB: My favorite part about boxing with Doc is that I feel powerful. When I think that I’m done, and I don’t have anything left, he pushes me beyond and has helped me to grow in ways that I could never imagine. Yeah, I feel like a superhero when I’m with Doc, and now I feel like a superhero all the time because of Doc.

BB: Has boxing helped give you the confidence to come out as trans to your family and your community?

MB: Boxing helped me come into my body and into my power in a way that gave me the confidence and the capacity to look at the fear of coming out as trans to myself, to my family, and to the world.

BB: How do you show up for your found family?

MB: Sports have been such a huge healing modality for me, especially as it relates to coming into my transness and accepting myself. I call myself the people’s coach. I have a number of trans-masc friends who are also trying to feel powerful in their body, and own the identity that the world says that they cannot have. I spend a lot of time bringing strength and conditioning knowhow to my friends. We spend time working out together, and talking about mental health and physical wellness together. I try to translate the lessons that I’ve received and share that with my people so that they can feel aligned in the same way I do. Bringing my spirit into alignment with my body is a lifelong journey and it takes daily practice and daily work – I’m happy to be on the journey.

BB: Why is community so important to you, in terms of helping you overcome your fears and embrace your confidence?

MB: I am who I am because of my community. I appreciate their support in my moments of fear, like stepping into the ring the first time – but that fear never goes away. Every time I step into the ring with somebody new, I have to overcome that fear again and again. The reason that I’m able to do that is because of the strength I can pull from my boxing community and from my trans and queer community. Any time I’m faced with fear that feels too big, I can just take a step back and think of how they see me and believe in me. That gives me the strength I need to be like, “I got this. I am scared, but I can do this.” My community makes me brave.

BB: What does found family mean to you?

MB: I’ve been blessed with my biological family – they taught me a lot about what it means to build family and spend time with family. As much as I love them, I needed a new kind of family to help me come into my queerness, my transness, and to fully accept myself. My found family are those people that have loved me all the way, even when I didn’t know how to love myself. My found family are people I found through sports. They’re people I have found through parties, through community events, and Riis Beach – the first place I could be topless in public and be masculine. They’re the people that showed me whoever I am is okay, and that I can be loved that way. My found family is my everything.

BB: Can you recall a particular moment or experience with your found family that deeply impacted you or strengthened your bond with them?

MB: Any time I get to be outside dancing with my queer and trans people of color, I feel the most liberated. Especially having grown up in Texas, where I was the only queer trans person of color I knew until I was 27 years old. Then I came to Brooklyn. To be able to be at a block party surrounded by people that look like me – and unlike me – and are just their own beautiful, Black, queer, trans selves… that heals my spirit every time. I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity to connect with my community in that way.

BB: How do your found family bonds show up in everyday life?

MB: We check in with each other about our lives, our health, and how we are navigating our relationships, all while being in the right relationships to ourselves. It’s not very different from my biological family in terms of how I check on my brother, sister, aunts, and uncles. That’s the same way how I check on Doc, how I check on Kevin, how I check on Euro. We take care of each other, because we know each other in a way that the rest of the world doesn’t really get to see or know us.

BB: What do you envision for your immediate future and the future of your found family’s evolution?

MB: We want to take health and wellness — that superhero level of thriving — to the world. Unfortunately, access to health and wellness is not available to everybody. For a number of different people, it might feel too intimidating or too scary to go into a gym that is super gendered and not always inclusive. That’s why the park is such a beautiful place to train — it’s kind of a very “come as you are” vibe. You don’t have to pay for a membership. You don’t have to have a certain dress code. You can just show up. My future is trying to find more opportunities to scale that. It doesn’t feel good to heal by yourself. We heal as a community, and that’s what we’re about.