On 2 August 2021, New Zealander Laurel Hubbard stepped up to compete in the women’s +87kg weightlifting event in Tokyo. At 43, Hubbard was the oldest weightlifter in the competition and regarded as a medal contender. Notably, Hubbard was also the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the Olympic Games.
Hubbard fell short of Olympic success after dropping a barbell loaded first with 120kg, then 125kg on three successive snatch attempts, placing her last in her group. Addressing the world’s media afterwards, she thanked the International Olympic Committee (IOC), praising their ‘commitment to the principles of Olympianism’.
‘They’ve demonstrated, I think, that sport is something all people around the world can do,’ Hubbard said. ‘It’s inclusive, it’s accessible. And I think that’s just really fabulous.’
But Hubbard also acknowledged that her participation had ‘not been entirely without controversy’. The inclusion of trans people in the world of professional sports has a complicated history.
Most arguments centre on guidelines for transgender women (those assigned male at birth) who hope to compete in women’s sports, with a recent review published by the UK sports councils concluding that there are ‘retained differences in strength, stamina and physique’ between trans women and cisgender women, even following the suppression of testosterone.
Transgender men face somewhat fewer regulatory barriers, though professional guidelines differ by sport. Generally, they are barred from competing in the female category once treatment with testosterone begins, and are asked to provide a written declaration of gender identity in order to participate in the male category. But there’s often a stigma to navigate.
There are, of course, differences in male and female sports performance, on average. According to data in the journal Endocrine Reviews, male athletes outperform females in disciplines such as running and swimming by up to 12%, while the Journal Of Applied Physiology concluded that female athletes typically display 40% less upper-body strength and 33% less lower-body strength than their male counterparts.
It is the job of sports regulatory bodies to control for differences by offering trans people clear and realistic guidelines for participation.
Critics of the UK sports councils’ review say it’s harmful to frame the ideas of trans inclusion and ‘fairness’ as conflicting ideals; that there’s limited evidence of trans people excelling in sport disproportionately and more research is needed. Other posited solutions include the introduction of an open gender category in some sports– removing debate about who gets to compete under the banner of ‘man’ or ‘woman’, while making sports inclusive for those who identify as neither.
It’s not a simple issue. The IOC’s medical and scientific director, DrRichard Budgett, conceded that there’s no ‘one size fits all’, because every sport is different. And people are, too.
But while debates over nanomoles of testosterone could be continued ad infinitum, to focus purely on regulatory guidelines is to ignore the role that sports and fitness already play in the daily lives of many trans people –amateur bodybuilders, aspiring boxers, weekend footballers, rugby league players, marathon runners.
The pitch, pool and gym can be an intimidating space for those who still don’t feel able to navigate them safe from judgement. But when fitness is inclusive, it can be transformative for health – both mental and physical.We asked six transgender men with a passion for fitness to share their experiences. Here are their stories.
The Surfer: Taylor Winters, 38
Winters, originally from Transylvania, is used to answering questions on his origins (‘People ask, “Does Transylvania actually exist?” ’ he laughs). After undergoing breast removal– or ‘top surgery’ – in 2019, he discovered a love of surfing, thanks to his reworked physique.
‘We used to dress up at kindergarten and, being a girl, I was always dressed in skirts and dresses. I used to make a big fuss about it and cry because I didn’t want to wear them. Growing up, we didn’t really have the internet to do any research. But I knew inside that I wasn’t a woman.
‘It wasn’t possible to begin transitioning in Romania. Back then, no one knew about it. So I lived with my dysphoria. I just had to manage it. I didn’t really have to “come out”. It was implied.Because I was dressing like a boy, everyone addressed me as a boy. My parents were supportive, so they never told me not to dress up like a boy. I eventually moved to the UK and started my transition. Even from a young age, I knew I’d get to live my life how I’m meant to, like a man.
‘I’ve always been active. When I was in high school, I used to play basketball for the women’s team. I used to play football, too, but with the boys’ team. When I was playing with the boys, I felt like I was part of it, but when I was playing with the girls it didn’t feel right; I felt out of place.
‘When I started hormone treatments, I gained a lot of weight. I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror. My friend, a PT, made a gym and diet plan for me. It amazed me how much weight I lost in three months. Testosterone helped a lot. My body changed from a female shape to a more masculine one.
‘Having top surgery made a huge difference. I can’t really explain how good it feels, starting from the point where you actually see your chest for the first time. I used to wear a sports bra because my chest was constricting me in sport. The satisfaction of throwing it in the bin was just the most amazing thing.Going to the beach for the first time after top surgery was amazing. I was self-aware because of my scars, but obviously nobody cares. It was wonderful.
‘I tried surfing for the first time this year and loved it.I’d really wanted to try it fora long time, but it wouldn’t have felt comfortable for me to expose my chest before
I had surgery. It probably would have affected my surfing before; now I can stand straighter on the board and keep my balance properly. My posture is getting better because I’m not hunched over trying to hide my chest. I’ve been doing that for 30-odd years.Now when I’m surfing I just get this complete feeling of freedom.’
The Weightlifter: Leo Chrzanowski, 29
Growing up in the US and inspired by westerns, Chrzanowski’s first sporting passion was rodeo. After transitioning seven years ago, he feels free to pursue his twin loves of horse riding and weightlifting. His efforts have clearly paid off.
‘I’m from Philadelphia but live in Scotland. When I was a teenager, we moved out to the country. I got into horseriding because my dad and my grandfather ran a stable. At 12, my dad got me a horse.I had a big gap in riding because of my transition. Then when I became male it helped me come back to that sport as an adult, feeling way better about it.
‘I’ve always known I was male. Ever since I could talk and had a general understanding of the world.As a kid, I was always dressing in boys’ clothes and trying to be perceived male. I would see my dad with his shirt off and take mine off, too. He would be like,“Woah, what are you doing?” It just made sense to me.
‘My family wasn’t open tome being transgender at all. I was 23 when I started transitioning. I spent a longtime in therapy because I was subject to a lot of emotional and physical abuse from my parents growing up. It took a lot of undoing damage for me to realise I could transition.
‘After I transitioned, I used a lot of programmes where you get to work on a ranch in return for food and board.I worked in Arkansas for three months and it was super gender-affirming to be a real-life cowboy.
‘With weightlifting, it was just like, “I’m a man, men lift weights. When can I start?”I wanted to be macho all the way. My weightlifting began when I started transitioning, but there was a lot of fear and lack of self confidence in the gym. It took me a year of parking outside and not going in, then going in at midnight and making sure no one wast here – I was petrified. But now I have a healthy relationship with the gym and I’m so proud of how far I’ve come.
‘Physically, the difference is night and day. I was a scrawny boy feeling my way through becoming male. Now, no one could clock me as trans. I don’t disclose it if
I feel like my safety is in jeopardy. I see it as a teaching point to be around a bunch of dudes, let them be misogynistic and talk crap, then say, “Well, actually, I used to be a woman, so maybe you should reconsider your opinion.” I’ve educated a lot of people that way. You never know what a person has been through, so if you can approach more situations with love and understanding, you’ll probably make more meaningful relationships.
‘It’s a dream come true that I get to lift weights and ranch. I’ve always been like the ultimate manly man, so now it all makes sense.’
The Boxer: Danny Baker, 34
Currently in training for the World Gay BoxingChampionships, Essex-bornBaker has always dreamed of boxing against other me non the professional stage.
‘I used to play football forEssex, but boxing was a passion from when I was a kid. The problem was that I didn’t always look like this. When I was 13 or 14, I would walk past a boxing gym and be desperate to go in. But I would’ve had to fight girls. In my brain I was always a little geezer. I couldn’t fight girls – I didn’t want to hurt them. So I just stayed away, which was sad. Now that I’m boxing, I’m flying; if I’d started then I’d probably be a pro by now.
‘I bit the bullet when I was 15 and went to my local gym. My lifestyle was different when I was younger – I was struggling with my identity and things at home. It was quite traumatic. I didn’t have it in the tank to box properly and suffered with my mental health. I left the gym.
‘I’d been in prison 13 times by the time I was 25. But I turned my life around and now I’m a support worker.
‘I love what the gym does for my mental health. I’d been in there just training on the bag and I thought, “This is my time.” I entered an LGBTQ+ white-collar boxing match to raise funds for the underage LGBTQ+ homeless.
‘Kellie Maloney, the boxing promoter [who transitioned in 2014], came in to do a talk.It was inspiring. She took a liking to me and introduced me to Jamie “Rocky” Johnson, who is a trans man but without testosterone. He was a pioneer. He directed me to a north London boxing club and I’ve really developed since then. Now I fight against cis men.
‘In 2023, I’m going to Sydney for the World GayBoxing Championships. It’s my lifelong dream to fight at a proper event. It’s an organisation set up to encourage LGBTQ+ sports across the world. I predict that I’m going to have a place as a boxer in the “normal” boxing world. I really believe that. I’m going to keep going, keep training and encourage others to register and get involved in the sport.’
The Rugby Player: Verity Smith, 40
‘Before rugby, there was nothing. I didn’t know where to fit in,’ Smith has said. Luckily, it turned out he’s pretty good at rugby, having played in both union and league before an accident left him partially paralysed in 2018 – the same year he became the first trans person to win the national ‘Prop Star’ Award.Now playing wheelchair rugby, Smith is focused on promoting inclusion with the charity Mermaids.
‘Growing up, I knew I was different, but no one knew what “trans” was back then. It was easier to come out asa lesbian than a trans man.Understandably, I struggled with my mental health.
‘Sport has always been important for me. I started playing football for Hull City ladies when I was nine or 10. It wasn’t for me. I was like a bull in a china shop. I started going to rugby instead and fell in love. I was bigger than the other girls and ended up playing county rugby, then union for a Premiership team. I now play wheelchair rugby league, but prior to that I played 26 years of elite women’s rugby union and rugby league.
‘The whole time I was playing I just wanted to be me. My gender was unspoken for a lot of people, but I got told if I came out publicly I’d lose my sport. I lost my parents young, so I didn’t want to lose something else. Playing sport gave me something to concentrate on. It gave me another family.
‘I actually got outed in the national newspapers four years ago. They incorrectly labelled me a trans woman.One paper said I was the reason why referees were leaving the game and that trans women shouldn’t be able to play sport. I lost a lot of friends. People say I tried to “infiltrate” the women’s teams, but I was there for more than 20 years.
‘After I was outed, I was required to apply to my governing bodies in order to continue playing women’s sport. I had to have doctor’s letters signing me off as fit to play. At one match, the opposition lied and said they’d had a letter from the governing body to say I was a danger to women. The referee didn’t know what todo. In the end I was removed from the pitch in front of all my mates. The other team refused to let me in my own changing room and toilets. It was horrendous.
‘I injured my back in 2018. I was playing for Rotherham and took a bad tackle that crushed my spinal cord. It took me six months to try wheelchair rugby. I eventually found Leeds Rhinos. I sent them an email saying, “I’m trans, am I allowed to play?”
I was so scared. People need to stop asking, “Am I allowed?” It should be, “How can we get you involved?”
‘The first time I went, I tried to leave and burst into tears.But I got through. I’ve been playing two and a half years now. I got my first try in theSuper League just before my top surgery. It’s a feeling of coming home, having a team again. Sport is life. Everyone should have the right to play sport as themselves.’
The Bodybuilder: Shay Price, 23
From a young age, Price idolised bodybuilders. Now, having spent half of his life as an openly transgender man, Price has overcome genetic setbacks to match his iron-pumping heroes.The next step? Competing on the world stage.
‘I started transitioning at 13, the same time I became aware of bodybuilding. Male and female bodybuilders are both amazing, but I knew thatI was trapped in the wrong body. I would create male characters in my video games and dress “male” as a child.
‘My first job was in a leisure centre, so I was in the gym pretty much every day. I’d see men training and that was my inspiration. Bodybuilding put the idea of the “perfect” masculine body in my mind. It was something I wanted to work towards. Being transgender, that’s a lot harder for me.
‘When I first started bodybuilding, I wasn’t on testosterone so it was hard to put on weight and lose water weight. I was very aware of my breasts and hip fat. Not having the male genetics to be in the top ranking for bodybuilding was quite hard on my body dysmorphia. Testosterone certainly helped.
‘I was very serious about wanting to bodybuild, and I still am. Back then, I had this one guy who was my friend and colleague. He’s older than me, so I look at him like a mentor. He was really supportive. He gave me some ideas about different ways to make my waist look smaller and things like that.
‘Despite that, at the start– and even going into new gyms now – I do suffer with anxiety. I still keep myself to myself and go to quiet, small gyms. Gyms where there are other gay people. In my previous gym, there were other transgender people.I’ve been open with the gyms that I’ve trained at and they have been supportive.
‘I now train by myself and focus on me. I go twice a day – half an hour of cardio in the morning, then work on a major muscle group. I do more cardio in the evening, and another major muscle group. Going to the gym is like therapy. I can go there and take my anger and frustration out. It just picks me up. During lockdown, I fell into depression quite quickly because the gym is pretty much my life.
‘I get quite a few messages on Instagram from people asking for training tips, asking where I had my chest surgery. I’m not a qualified Level 3 personal trainer, so I can’t give any professional advice, but I still try to help out where I can.
‘My goal is to one day compete in bodybuilding. It’s difficult. I haven’t seen any transgender guys on stage in the UK. I’ve seen a couple of guys smashing it in the US who are big inspirations, but I want to compete in the UK and prove to all trans guys that it’s possible.’
The Martial Artist: Jordan Jackson, 30
As a PT and three-time taekwondo gold medallist,Jackson is on a mission to ‘radically reduce the suicide statistics within the trans community through fitness and a positive mindset’.
‘Before I was openly trans, I was pretty much the only female that competed with males in sport. They used to think I was bossy, but I was just fiercely competitive. I discovered taekwondo at university. Back then, I was “stealth” – pre-hormones and surgery. I was competing against other males, but I was very much under the radar.
‘No one knew that I was trans because I didn’t feel confident to be open. It was2018 when I came out publicly. My taekwondo community accepted it. The only pressure was what I put on myself because I wanted to prove that I was just as capable of winning as anyone else.
‘Our philosophy in the sport is to do with equality – especially gender equality. From a competition aspect, it was daunting. I was up against 6ft 3in cis males and I’m 5ft6in, so they certainly had the weight and reach advantage.From a difficulty point of view, prior to testosterone it was certainly harder to compete. Now I fight cis and trans males.
I’m a much better athlete now; testosterone has made me stronger. There’s a huge debate about whether it’s unfair for trans people to compete in professional sports. I competed and won my gold medals a few months into taking testosterone, very early in my transition. So there were no physical attributes that had really developed yet.
‘I think it’s important that there isn’t segregation in sports. I like to create a sense of community. It’s okay to talk about being trans, you don’t have to tread on eggshells if you’re unsure of something. I named my business Stealth Fitness because I was under the radar and now I’m open.
‘When I was stealth at uni, going to the gym massively helped me conquer my gender dysphoria. It was a fundamental part of myself-growth. My training has been a huge factor in my confidence. I know the mental health deterioration that can happen when trans people don’t have a physical outlet. Unfortunately, many of them find the gym a very intimidating place.
‘There’s nothing worse than being stuck by yourself and having your thoughts go over and over in your mind.Self-harm and suicide statistics among transpeople are high. I’m trying to encourage these kids to come out into the world and let them know that it’s okay to feel the way you do. You can be yourself and do something about it, too.’
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