Being a Trans Weightlifter

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When I first transitioned, I was super active in the trans community online, and fairly open about it in-person, but then I hit a point of exhaustion, and stopped talking about it so much. I shared the fact with fewer people and in general, just didn’t bring it up in conversation. And that rest, that break from constantly examining my identity and my place in the world was what I needed. I needed to just exist for a few years and find other parts of myself beyond my trans identity, and to see what else had changed about me during the period of my transition, either because of it, or irregardless of it.

About two years ago, I realized I was unhappy with my body, not from a dysphoria sense, but from just the realization that for the first time in my life, I was kind of “out of shape.” I was always active and outdoors-y as a kid, so structured exercise was never really required. But now, college and grad school had taken their toll and while I was still skinny, I had so little strength and so little, just, general work capacity. So I got some dumbbells and worked out in my bedroom for six months. I saw a ton of improvements, so I got a barbell, some plates, and a squat rack and set up a gym in my basement and started lifting. And then I got really hooked.

Since I started lifting, I’ve realized my identity as an athlete has become inextricably linked to my trans identity. I often come back to the Jessi Kneeland quote that:

“[Weightlifting] makes me braver, less afraid of failure, and more able to embrace the process of anything worth pursuing…lifting weights has consistently helped me to break down labels and boundaries in my identity and to reinvent myself every day… Yesterday I was someone who couldn’t do that. Today I’m someone who can.” 

Coming out as trans and transitioning six years ago may still be the hardest and bravest and best thing I’ve ever done for myself, but weightlifting has been the best thing I’ve ever done for my transition.

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Being into fitness and weightlifting while also being trans is difficult, because I still struggle with intensely hating my body in many ways. But weightlifting makes me love pieces of my body, individually. I love my quads, seeing my back muscles move, and even how visibly defined my arm and shoulder muscles are now. However, I still often hate my body as a sum of its parts, especially when I’m around other people. But when I’m alone and lifting and focused in the moment and can abandon all pretenses of self-consciousness, I find I can love my body. I can love the mind-body connection I have; love feeling my body move; savor feeling it strain as I feel out my physical limits. It’s absolutely addictive and I can’t imagine going back to not having this positive relationship with my body to help balance out the negative. Just like with the mental discipline and appreciation for hard work and incremental progress that comes with weightlifting, the longer I lift, the more that mind-body-connection-comfort seeps over into other areas of my life. As a trans athlete (and I would imagine even for cis athletes who struggle with similar feelings of discomfort in their bodies), fitness and weightlifting present a route to feeling comfortable in my body that I never would have thought possible a few years ago.

There’s definitely some contradictory elements to the process — while I want to be more muscular, being more muscular for me also means appearing more traditionally masculine, with broad shoulders and skinny hips, which is uncomfortable for me, despite my deeply-held belief that muscular ladies are amazing. I wish I could say I had transcended that discomfort, but I still think about it every day.

Besides feeling better about my body overall, as important as that is, the end goal of weightlifting for me is probably (hopefully) competition and joining the community that grows around it. That said, especially in a competitive environment, I worry that people may assume I have (or accuse me of having) an unfair advantage, or that I’m only strong or muscular because I used to have male testosterone levels, but I’ve been on hormones for six years, and only lifting for about two years. When I transitioned, I was a stick, and weighed only 115 pounds. Now I weigh 140 pounds and with the exception of pull-ups, I am overall much healthier, stronger, fitter, and more capable now than I was before I transitioned and started hormones.

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The good news is that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) joined the NCAA and recently released guidelines that recommend that transgender athletes be able to participate in the Olympics without surgery, and that athletes transitioning from female to male can compete without restriction, and athletes who transition from male to female:

“must undergo hormone therapy and demonstrate that the total level of male testosterone in the blood has been below 10 nanomols per litre for at least a year prior to competing.” 

Looking more closely at those numbers, the IOC is allowing for a wide range of variance in measuring testosterone in female athletes, which makes sense. For reference, a testosterone level of 10 nanomoles/L is roughly equal to a level of 290 ng/dL. According to Mayo Clinic, the reference range for the testosterone level of a cisgender woman 19 or older is 8-60 ng/dL. As last measured, my testosterone level was 49 ng/dL. This puts the upper limit of the IOC’s range significantly higher than the reference range, which I assume is because many cisgender female athletes have testosterone levels that are significantly higher than 60ng/dL, due to genetics, diet, resistance training, and any number of other factors. Ironically, it’s actually quite possible that some trans women athletes on hormone replacement therapy could potentially be at a disadvantage against some cisgender women athletes when it comes to testosterone levels.

Even though I certainly don’t intend to try to compete in the Olympics, the IOC decision is particularly important to me, as the IWF and USA Weightlifting have said they will use whatever standard the IOC puts forth for transgender athletes. And while I lift because of all of the personal reasons I’ve talked about, and would continue to lift even if I could never compete, competition (at some level) is absolutely something I want to do, and was something that seemed unlikely to happen until recently, so having the opportunity is very exciting (and scary)!

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