Health

8 Transgender Athletes Explain How Fitness And Movement Changed Their Lives

Transgender people face a particular set of challenges when it comes to spaces where people exercise and compete. Here, eight athletes tell BuzzFeed Life about their experiences with fitness, movement, and competition.

1. The yogi

Danh Duong Photography / Via 500px.com

“Every time I practice yoga I am choosing to be happy and healthy.” —Sparkle Thornton

Sparkle Thornton, 33, is a yoga instructor and massage therapist who lives in the Bay Area. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, she started practicing yoga when she was 19 and became an instructor at age 25. This March she’s leading Yogay, a yoga retreat in California for queer and transgender people. Thornton shares how her yoga practice helped her realize that she wanted to transition, and how, almost 15 years since she started, yoga continues to be her source of emotional well-being and self-care.

When I started practicing yoga it started to really come up that I wanted to transition. Of course it was in there all along, the desire was there. I didn’t have the words for it but I knew that I wanted to grow up and be female when I was 5 years old. Yoga has this way of stirring things up, like whatever has been buried and whatever the things are that we are trying to ignore. For me that was that I was trans. It helped me to feel comfortable in my body. I really think yoga is why I’m still alive and why I’m happy and thriving now.

For me [practicing yoga] has always been mental health. I feel so much more able to face the world when I’ve practiced yoga. I don’t really trust myself to make good decisions until after I’ve done yoga. If I’m really worried about something or feeling impatient it’s probably because I haven’t practiced. It keeps my state of mind open and aware of what might be unfolding that I don’t have control over. So for me it feels like necessity. If I don’t do it, I suffer.

2. The running CrossFitter

Ben Pender-Cudlip

“I am actively in search of my body’s limits and I don’t think I’ve found them yet.” —Niki Brown

Originally from Iowa, Niki Brown, 30, is a web developer who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He grew up running track and cross country and playing soccer. He’s still a runner — a half-marathoner and, since last year, a marathoner. He also competes in local fitness competitions. He tells BuzzFeed Life about how his transition impacted his mental toughness and his connection to his body.

I definitely think transitioning has made me stronger mentally. Some of the stuff I’ve had to deal with — people not handling it well, family members not talking to me — I have to get past it, deal with it, get stronger. I think that translates to the mental toughness of [running a marathon]: “OK, I have to be running for four hours and when your knee hurts saying nope, turn it off. Keep going.”

My whole life I felt disconnected from my body, so working out helps with that.
I don’t even know if I have the words to accurately describe it. … It’s difficult to put into words. I am still getting used to being connected to my body in that way.

3. The MMA fighter

“My strengths right now are my determination and my will.” —Fallon Fox

Fallon Fox, 39, is the first professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter to come out as transgender. Initially interested in learning martial arts for self-protection, she started training Brazilian jiujitsu in late 2007, picked up Muy Thai a couple years later, and less than a year after that started training in MMA, in which opponents fight using a variety of styles from Brazilian jiujitsu and Muy Thai to wrestling, judo, and kickboxing. She will be featured in Game Face, a documentary about LGBTQ athletes, set to be released this year. She talks about getting inspired to learn MMA by watching other women fighters, what happened when UFC host Joe Rogan made public comments about her gender identity, and how professional competition can be more inclusive of transgender fighters.

The thing that inspired me the most was other female fighters, these older style fighters before women’s MMA became popular. I was blown away because women were actually fighting. They were letting women fight. I’d never seen that intensity, that assertiveness, that skill. … I felt I needed that for my own assertiveness. I felt I was lacking that for my own self-protection.

[It would help trans people if] promotions [the organizations that produce MMA matches] hire trans fighters. Or they can punish their employees and fighters who say transphobic comments and slurs. That would help us out the most, promoting the perception of reality that we are who we say we are. I suppose it should be looked at like this. [When MMA celebrities] say transphobic comments, they kind of set the pace for the kind of negativity that fans might have. They stir it up. They light the fire under it. When [UFC host] Joe Rogan said those comments, the fans would come to me online or while I’m fighting and say they heard it from Joe Rogan. That affected me in the beginning. It affected me a lot. I wasn’t used to that. I had to get used to having names yelled at me while I was trying to do my job.

4. The track star turned weightlifter

“I was a strong female, but not where I wanted to be, where I imagined myself being.” —Jordan Davis

Jordan Davis, 24, is a nursing student from Oklahoma City. He started taking testosterone in August 2014, but even before starting his medical transition, Davis says he always identified with guys and was almost always assumed by strangers to be a boy. In high school he was a state champion sprinter, but nowadays he’s more of a bodybuilder. He starts every morning with about a 20-minute high-intensity interval circuit of pull-up variations and pushups, and then, five days per week, spends about two hours lifting in the gym. He speaks here about how his transition has helped him feel more comfortable while working out, as well as how it’s impacted the way he thinks and feels about his body.

When you run track [on the girls’ team] the uniforms you have to wear are just totally not me. I was real uncomfortable; it felt like something I was forced to do. As soon as the race was over I would go put my clothes back on. I never really liked my body even though I was pretty cut up. Now my fat has redistributed, so it’s like my upper body is really big and I’m a lot more solid up top than I used to be, so it’s a lot more comfortable for me now that I am on T [testosterone].

I used to feel real self-conscious. I kind of still do because I’m still not as big as I want to be. I’m getting there…I have to kind of remind myself that most of the guys at the gym are cis male, so I’m like a 16-year old compared to them. I have to remind myself of that and look at where I came from. I keep my headphones in and focus on myself instead of looking around. It’s easier if you do it like that. [It’s better to] think about the goals that you’re trying to reach and not worry about people around you.

5. The CrossFit coach and competitor

“I embrace every change that happens to my body…I love how my body feels.” —Chloie Jonsson

Chloie Jonsson, 35, is an Olympic lifter and CrossFit athlete and coach in Morgan Hill, California. She started CrossFit in 2010, and told BuzzFeed Life (and her lawsuit complaint notes) that in spring 2013 she was told by CrossFit Games general manager Justin Bergh that competitors must register under their original gender. CrossFit’s general counsel later confirmed that she would “need to compete in the Men’s Division.” Jonsson, who medically transitioned almost 20 years ago at the age of 16, is suing CrossFit for discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and unfair competition. She talks here about loving her body and using it to move heavy weight, and how CrossFit HQ’s competition ban has affected her.

I love the feeling of working out and using my body. Like during Olympic lifting, to move the amount of weight that I can, it’s a super empowering feeling knowing that this little tiny frame can make something so heavy move. I’ve never had that [self-consciousness when working out]. I feel my best when I am working out. I work out in barely any clothing. I don’t prefer clothing; if the world could be naked that would be amazing. I’m pretty comfortable with my body.

It was pretty heart-wrenching when [the CrossFit ban] first happened because I was not an out individual. I identified as trans, but was stealth; I came out publicly this past year. The reason was because CrossFit said “no,” so I found a lawyer. They told me if you want to move forward, your entire life is going to change. It took me 60 days to really get comfortable with the fact that my entire community would know about me being transgender. It was a pretty big step. I knew I had to do it because what they were doing to me was wrong, and if they were going to do it to me they were going to do it to other people.

6. The martial artist and bodybuilding enthusiast

“I am definitely more aware of and in love with my body.” —Neo L. Sandja

Neo L. Sandja, 30, is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and lives in Atlanta. He’s the president and founder of FTM Fitness World, the first-ever bodybuilding competition for trans men. He trains Korean Taekwondo and has studied karate and Brazilian jiujitsu. He dances zouk, salsa, kizomba, and other Latin dances, and does bodyweight workouts at home: pull-ups, pushups, squats, etc. He speaks about gaining strength from vulnerability and the confinements of the gender binary.

Every time I’ve been vulnerable and accepted it without trying to control it, I’ve come out stronger. I don’t think the issue is in being vulnerable, but in allowing ourselves to experience vulnerability so that we can learn to be strong. The more vulnerable you become, the stronger you can get. I’ve certainly experienced dysphoria in many situations, especially in the gym’s locker rooms; I realized that every time I make the step to get out of my comfort zone, life becomes easier and I become happier.

I think the barriers come when you don’t fit in a particular box when people expect you to. We still very much live in a dual world and we have a long ways to go before we can understand and accept gender fluidity. People still expect men to be and act a certain way and women to be and act another way. But I think that’s the beauty of being trans. We can see it as a chance to redefine what being a man or a woman is, not for the world, but for ourselves.

7. The fitness coach

“I’m going to be me.” —Alex Gutierrez

Alex Gutierrez, 27, is a Florida-based fitness coach who plans to one day soon quit her day job to be a full-time personal trainer. She’s experienced numerous transformations over the last few years, from her 85-pound weight loss, to falling in love with exercise and deciding to make it her career, to starting hormone replacement therapy and undergoing her medical transition. She talks about how working out made her a stronger person mentally, and how it gave her the courage to transition.

Insanity [the 60-day, high-intensity workout program] built mental toughness that gave me determination. Once you go through the entire program you embrace the whole idea that small things repeated can lead to huge results at the end. The consistency, the discipline of doing simple little tasks can add up to a future. That can give you confidence that if you truly put your head to it and make a plan, you can achieve whatever the hell you want.

Because of working out … I went on hormones. It gave me courage. If it wasn’t for fitness, I don’t really think I ever would have transitioned. Insanity saved my life. It gave me the confidence I needed to make a final step to start hormones.

8. The triathlete and trans activist

“There is a confidence that has come for me in being authentically myself.” —Chris Mosier

Chris Mosier is an NYC-based triathlete and coach. He founded transathlete.com, a resource for information about trans inclusion in athletics, and started GO! Athletes, a support network of current and former LGBTQ collegiate and high school athletes. Last year he won the Staten Island Flat as a Pancake Duathlon, his first overall win in the male category. He discusses how his love of competition impacted his decision about when to transition, and why he’s committed to being an openly trans athlete.

Being an athlete has always been a primary part of my identity. I delayed my transition for over a year because I wasn’t sure how it would impact my ability to compete and participate in the sports I loved, and that was something I wasn’t willing to let go of easily. I was uncomfortable — triathlon is a very body-conscious sport, with skin-tight kits, and navigating the swimming pool was a challenge. I thought that I would eventually become more comfortable after transition, but I was concerned about my ability to be competitive. At that time I was doing well in my races in the female category. … I felt so uncomfortable with the classification of the female category that I wouldn’t want to share my results with anyone.

Figuring out my own identity was a lonely journey; I did not see myself reflected in any example I saw in the media or in sports. As an athlete, I did not know of any other trans male athletes who transitioned and were competing at a high level, and that is what I wanted for myself. I don’t want any other person — particularly a young person — to be able to say that. That’s why I am committed to be an openly trans athlete, and to my work with GO! Athletes. The media has a tendency to elevate certain voices and ignore important intersections of identity. I am committed to making sure not only trans voices are included in athletics, but that the voices of women, people of color, bisexual athletes, and other identities are all at the table when discussing policy, inclusion, and equity in sports. Sport is for everyone.

Interviews have been edited for space.

correction

Niki Brown competes in local fitness competitions. The original post mistakenly said he competes in local CrossFit competitions.

correction

The events described related to Chloie Jonsson all took place in 2013; rather than having qualified for the 2013 CrossFit Games, Jonsson was, she says, invited by a team to join them as an alternate. And, according to her lawsuit complaint, it was actually in spring 2013 that she was told by CrossFit Games general manager Justin Bergh that competitors must register under their original gender. CrossFit’s general counsel later confirmed that she would “need to compete in the Men’s Division.” An earlier version of the post mistakenly said it was the 2014 CrossFit Games Regionals, that Jonsson qualified for a highly competitive spot as a team alternate, and that it was at that time that CrossFit HQ told her she’d have to compete in the men’s division.

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