CrossFit and Transgender Athletes, Pt. 2

Back in 2014, I wrote a blog post about Chloie Jönsson, a transgender athlete, and how not only would CrossFit not allow her to compete, but how awful and transphobic their response to her and handling of the situation was. At the time, I’d been interested in CrossFit for awhile, but was hesitant to join a gym, both due to anxiety about joining a gym in general, and also because of the way Chloie’s story set the tone for me regarding CrossFit as a sport and an organization.

I wasn’t a CrossFitter back in 2014, just a basement weightlifter, but fast forward to 2018, and I’ve joined a CrossFit gym and gotten really into it, even participating in the Open this year, but have also realized that even if I put in all the thousands of hours of work and sweat and magically got to a point where I could qualify for Regionals, CrossFit probably wouldn’t allow me to compete, both because I’m trans and non-binary, and also, technically speaking, part of my HRT regimen is spironolactone, which falls under a “banned substance” according to CrossFit rules, and I don’t expect they’d be open to making any sort of exceptions for trans/non-binary folks. CrossFit’s stance is definitely is in contrast to both the NCAA and IOC, where I’d be able to participate both in collegiate athletics and in the Olympics, according to their guidelines for transgender athletes (if I were in college and/or good enough to be an Olympian).

Anyhow, for now it doesn’t matter, I’m not competitive enough to even come close to qualifying for anything, so I’m just doing the Open for fun. It’s just disheartening to know, that despite how wonderful and supportive my CrossFit gym is, that the larger sport and organization of CrossFit doesn’t always reflect that support, acceptance, and camaraderie, at least not for everybody.

Finally Trying Out CrossFit

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I moved earlier this year, and with it, lost my nice basement lifting space. At my new place, I walk by a small CrossFit box every day, so I figured, “Why not? I’ve been thinking about trying CrossFit forever, it’s convenient, and I need a place to lift.” Also, one of the coaches lists “transgender justice and advocacy” as one of his interests, so it just felt like everything was lining up.

The gym also has this statement on its website, which I think is great and should be something that all gyms (or service-oriented business) should have:

“We’re a community that strives to be supportive of all people, regardless of your background — you’re welcome regardless of your skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, or economic background.”

Granted, the gym is a $160-200/month expense, so that’s already prohibitive to many people, but the thought is nice, and sometimes even just using the word “gender identity” means so much and can make someone immediately feel safer. The gym even has two single-stall bathrooms with gender-inclusive signage, so I feel like I’ve really lucked out.

Lifting in a gym, with coaches and other people around, was a huge hurdle for me, given my self-consciousness and anxiety about being a trans woman in a gym space. Fortunately, everything has gone really well, and it’s definitely one of the bigger positive milestones of the year for me! I definitely think a smaller, less intense, and less competition-focused CrossFit gym is the right fit for me — I’ve really enjoyed having other people around to work out with and talk fitness with; I find that I push myself harder with other people around; and it’s a lot easier to just show up and follow the programming than to program workouts for myself, though in exchange, I’ve lost some of the ability to focus on squats, deadlifts, and Oly lifts to the degree that I want.

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Since joining, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that I have pretty OK technique on the Olympic lifts, and also that the weight that I can move is pretty respectable! So, it’s something I’m very proud of, but I also feel like I will be able to really refine my technique with active coaching and feedback, which is something I struggled to do on my own (especially on the snatch). I also feel more free to push myself at a gym, since I don’t have that lingering fear of injuring myself alone in my basement.

On the cardio side of things (metabolic conditioning, or ‘metcon’ as CrossFit calls it) I’m awful and have no capacity for it, but on the plus side, I feel like I’m making newbie gains, which is always gratifying.

Overall, joining a gym has been an incredibly positive change for me, and has had just as much of a positive impact on my life as when I started exercising on my own!

 

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)!

Nerds and Sports

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I grew up as a Star Wars-loving, science-fiction-addicted geek/nerd type who was picked on by jock/popular types and who bought into that narrative, so of course, I grew up hating organized sports. I still did hiking and biking and outdoors-y activities at my parent’s behest, but now I sometimes feel like I missed out on a lot of what competitive and organized sports can offer besides just physical activity — the development of discipline, an outlet for competitive behavior and expression, learning teamwork and social skills, etc.

I don’t feel that I missed out on those lessons themselves just because I didn’t play sports, but I do feel that I missed out on an avenue for a physically-involved manifestation of them, which I think might have worked pretty well for me. When I have kids, I’ll probably want them to be involved with some kind of sport, or at the very least, have a fair chance at trying to enjoy them.

Again, I’m not suggesting that sports is the only place (or even that it’s necessarily the best place) to learn these things, or that all athletes take these sort of values away from their experiences, or that the activities I did in place of sports didn’t teach me many of these same things, but sports do represent another place, and everyone learns and develops differently — shouldn’t all kids have as many options and opportunities to develop as possible? I feel confident that there are other people out there, who, like me, grew up as a geek, but who would have really benefited from and enjoyed participating in sports, but who chose not to because of bullying, harassment, or a heightened fear of embarrassment, or just the assumption by coaches and teachers (and themselves) that they would fail at them.

I’m 28 years old now, and weightlifting is still teaching me a lot about mental discipline, the value of incremental progress, and setting and sticking to long-term goals, all of which are things I’ve struggled with for most of my life. Now, a good amount of that may be just a new-found maturity, but when I look at young athletes like @katrintanja or @mattiecakesssss who really have their stuff together (though they may also just be extremely exceptional individuals), I can’t help but shake the feeling that I would’ve taken something valuable away from participating in sports throughout my youth.

It makes me really sad that some kids potentially miss out on organized sports growing up, just because of some arbitrary stereotypes. Being a geek or nerd and being athletic are not things that are diametrically opposed. In fact, there’s a substantial amount of similarity and overlap. I am nerdy about my love of weightlifting and its athletes. Even for ‘non-nerds’, collecting baseball cards or playing in a fantasy football league are pretty indistinguishable from say, Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons. Video games (not even counting sports video games) also offer a lot of parallels to sports: character management, leveling, and min-maxing are pretty akin to diet, training, and programming; and other skills definitely have more direct analogues: teamwork and strategy, reflexes and skill, and so on.

While I definitely think the line between geek or nerd and athlete has blurred a lot since I was younger, I would love to see even more overlap — in both directions — more athletic kids who felt comfortable having and expressing really geeky or nerdy interests, and more geeky and nerdy kids who didn’t feel like they were going to fail at something athletic just because they have glasses and like reading and science fiction. Sure, some geeks or nerds still may not be interested in sports and some sporty kids may not be interested in nerdery, and that’s perfectly fine, but in the end, being an athlete and being a geek or nerd both come down to being passionate about something! All it means is that you love something, practice it, learn all you can about it, compete for enjoyment and to exercise your mastery of a skillset! In the end, it’s all just to express your love of the game!

Note: Please leave a comment if you feel any of this is way off base, or was substantially different from your experience! Or just if you have something to share, like if you were into both nerdy things and sports!

CrossFit and Transgender Athletes, Pt. 1

I really enjoy watching CrossFit and I am rooting for several women competing in the 2014 CrossFit Games. I love that these women athletes are so dedicated to their sport and to the pursuit of functional strength. They are strong, active, and well-built, and in many cases look very different from the type of femininity that is often idealized in popular culture.

Given this, it is strange to me how transphobic the reaction of many in the wider CrossFit community has been when confronted with the idea of a transgender woman wanting to compete in the CrossFit Games. I understand that many CrossFitters are probably very supportive of (or at least apathetic about) transgender people in general, but while reading about Chloie Jönsson, the overall response felt very transphobic, mocking Chloie and misgendering her constantly.

Dale Saran, CrossFit’s general counsel, had these transphobic gems to add:

“Competing in a sport is very different from the conclusory statement in the first paragraph of your letter, that ‘[t]hus, by all accounts, both physically and legally, Chloie Jönnson is a female.’ This is simply wrong as a matter of human biology and if you can’t see that, there really isn’t much to talk about. […]

Chloie was born, genetically — as a matter of fact — with an X and a Y chromosome and all of the anatomy of the human race. Today, notwithstanding any hormone therapy or surgeries, Chloie still has an X and a Y chromosome. […]

We have simply ruled that based upon [Chloie] being born as a male, she will need to compete in the Men’s Division. The fundamental, ineluctable fact is that a male competitor who has a sex reassignment procedure still has a genetic makeup that confers a physical and physiological advantage over women. […] Our decision has nothing to do with ‘ignorance’ or being bigots — it has to do with a very real understanding of the human genome, of fundamental biology, that you are either intentionally ignoring or missed in high school.” (source)

Saran seems to operate on the idea that a Y chromosome is all that defines a man, and seemingly has very essentialist and a very binary view of gender. I’m also assuming that due to the high cost, CrossFit doesn’t verify the chromosomal makeup of women competing in the CrossFit Games with karyotype testing, but even if they did, Saran might be surprised to find that there are very possibly cisgender female CrossFit athletes with a Y chromosome.

“The International Olympic Committee abandoned the practice of using chromosomes to verify gender and eligibility more than 15 years ago. In the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, the IOC tested 3,387 female athletes. Of those, eight tested positive for a Y chromosome, to the surprise of both officials and the women themselves. Because intersex conditions and women with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome are more common than one would ordinarily presume, the IOC ultimately determined that gender verification would not consist of a karyotype test, and instead would be a measure of testosterone levels.” (source)

It seems like there is this odd cultural notion leftover from the early 1900s that a cisgender man might claim to be a woman to compete in women’s events and give himself an unfair advantage, and at some point, this idea has been conflated with the idea that a cisgender man might undergo hormone replacement therapy and/or surgery, just in order to gain an unfair advantage against female athletes. This is completely absurd. The only time when an athlete decides to transition is when they are transgender. However, some people still perceive a hostile or malicious intent — that transgender athletes are somehow ‘gaming the system’ and trying to gain an unfair advantage.

However, it is recognized by prominent athletic associations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) (link updated in 2016, old 2004 requirements here) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that for transgender women on hormone replacement therapy, testosterone, musculature, and capacity for muscular development falls to levels that are well in-line with that of cisgender female competitors within about a year. The IOC requires that an athlete’s testosterone be “below 10 nanomols per litre” for a year before competing, and the NCAA does not specify an exact level, but requires documentation of hormone replacement therapy and monitoring of testosterone levels, and likewise specifies a time period of one year from the start of hormone replacement therapy. Neither organization requires any surgery.

People will still argue about things like bone structure/density, lung size, v02 max, ratios of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers, but when it comes to athletic performance, being a transgender athlete confers no significant physical advantages that cannot already be accounted for in the general variation of cisgender female athletes.

If the Olympics allow transgender athletes to complete, it seems strange that CrossFit won’t, since many of its fans want to see CrossFit as an Olympic event someday. Many CrossFitters also have college athletics backgrounds, and given the fact that the NCAA also allows transgender athletes to compete, it seems that looking both backwards and forwards, CrossFit is the anomaly.