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How the World's Most 'Bro' Sport Is Making Space for LGBTQ People

CROSSFIT IN DURNAM, OCT 2018

Being bad at sports as a teen didn’t just make you non-athletic in the suburbs of Salt Lake City — it also made you a queer. And since I was queer, by the transitive law of homophobia, I figured I must also be bad at sports (I was also bad at math). So why even try?

With sexuality and athletic ability linked in my mind, I tended to avoid gyms, sporting events and REIs throughout my childhood — anywhere, really, that straight men might congregate and chest-bump one another without warning. But as a result of avoiding these spaces, I developed an unhealthy relationship with exercise (meaning a non-existent one) until I was well into my 20s. 

That’s when I found CrossFit.

Before you stop reading, allow me to acknowledge upfront: Yes, CrossFitters are obnoxious. We talk about it constantly, speak in a language with enough jargon to justify its own Duolingo course, and are one #fitfam post away from being kicked off the proverbial group chat. With that mea culpa out of the way, I’m hoping to discuss an interesting trend within the self-proclaimed “sport of fitness.”

CrossFit, the tire-flipping frat bro of the fitness community, is actually pretty damn queer. 

But it wasn’t always this way. In 2009, when I first joined CrossFit NYC — or, more accurately, dragged by a friend sick of hearing me complain about being out of shape — I was one of a few openly gay members. Walk in today, and you could easily mistake it for a Bed Bath & Beyond during peak cruising hours. This isn’t just a coastal city phenomenal, either. Most of the more than 50 CrossFit athletes I spoke to for this article reported sizable, and growing, LGBTQ memberships at their local box (sorry, that’s “gym” to you civilians.) 

The most compelling evidence of the queer community’s secret plan to take over CrossFit, though, is the explosive growth of OUTWOD — a group founded by Will Lanier, a 33-year-old Austin, Texas-based coach, that hosts CrossFit workouts for the LGBTQ community. In 2009, just six people came to the group’s inaugural event in New York. This year, OUTWOD hosted 40 workouts in June alone, surpassed 15,000 followers on Instagram, and is on track to welcome over 5,000 queer athletes at workouts the world over from Belgium to Boise.  

So how did CrossFit — whose unofficial mascot combines two of the LGBTQ community’s least favorite things: clowns and vomit — become so popular among the queers? 

Chloie Jonsson 2

Above right: Chloie Jonsson

***

“I don’t know, but I fucking want you here,” Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s 63-year-old founder and CEO, told me when I asked why he thought so many LGBTQ people were drawn to the sport. “That doesn’t make me a fucking hero, by the way, it’s just basic human decency.” 

“Also,” he added, “it’s effective.” 

Since joining CrossFit NYC, I’ve lost 40 pounds and learned to do things I never thought possible, like walking on my hands, snatch my bodyweight over my head, and rock athletic wear without any sense of irony. If CrossFit helped me, of all people (I once scored a goal for the opposite soccer team while chasing a butterfly) it can help anyone. But effectiveness alone doesn’t explain why I stuck with CrossFit when other proven methods — like personal trainers, Jane Fonda videos, and trapeze classes — all failed, to varying degrees of embarrassment.

“Well I’ll say this,” Glassman said. “CrossFit is the only gym experience I know of where personal interaction is every bit the norm.”

This was very much by design, he added, and a response to the big-box athletic chains where he got his start as a personal trainer in Los Angeles in the 1980s. “I come out of Gold’s Gym, where all the pretty boys and girls just put their earphones in. The message was: leave me alone.” Glassman’s training techniques — which involved a lot of high-intensity circuits and noisy grunting on the part of his clients — unduly disturbed these gym bunnies to the point of getting him kicked out of the area’s athletic clubs.

So in 1995, Glassman opened up his own space in Santa Cruz, Calif., and set about creating a communal gym culture that would become the antithesis to those that rejected him. You won’t see headphones, televisions or even mirrors in most CrossFit boxes, for instance. With nothing to distract you (or flex in front of) it suddenly becomes “abnormal,” Glassman said, “not to say ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and shake hands” with fellow gym goers.

“It’s an instant family,” Glassman added.

While it’s definitely this type of talk that makes people think we’re headed towards are very own Jonestown moment, Glassman’s origin story also probably sounds pretty familiar to many LGBQT people. Set it to music — shunned by the mainstream only to thrive in a community of his own making — and we’d practically have the latest queer anthem on our hands.

More so than any weight lost or skills gained, this emphasis on community building is also a big reason many of the LGBTQ athletes I spoke to said they were so drawn to the sport — for many of us, CrossFit is the first opportunity we’ve had to discover our inner Sporty Spice free from the unspeakable horrors of a high school gym class. 

Crossfit Founder Greg Glassman And Will Lanier

Above: CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman and Will Lanier

Lest I paint too pink-washy a picture, the LGBTQ community’s relationship with CrossFit has not always been one big rainbow explosion of crop tops and leg warmers. And Chloie Jönsson, a 39-year-old CrossFit athlete at Black Iron Gym in Reno, Nev., knows this better than most. In 2014, Jönsson was part of a team vying to qualify for the CrossFit Games — the community’s annual fitness competition beginning this week in Madison, Wis. But as a trans athlete, she was told she’d have to compete in the men’s division, despite the medical community’s near consensus that trans women hold no advantage over cisgender competitors.

CrossFit initially doubled down amid the backlash that followed. The company’s general counsel penned an aggressive letter claiming Jönsson’s rejection was based on “a very real understanding of the human genome” that “you are either intentionally ignoring or missed in high school.” CrossFit ultimately changed its policy last summer, after sustained pressure from advocates. But many remain disillusioned by the company’s original handling of the situation.

Critics appear to include Greg Glassman himself. “It was embarrassing,” he said. “What I wanted to tell Chloie is that I don’t care what box you check — it should be entirely up to you.” 

Perhaps fueled by his frustration with this experience, Glassman has become more vocal in his support for CrossFit’s LGBTQ members in recent years. After Russell Berger, a high-ranking CrossFit employee, publicly equated the celebration of Pride with “sin” on Twitter, Glassman fired him within hours. 

“You can be religious all you want, but when you say homosexuality is a sin, you’re saying someone is earning of damnation,” Glassman said of his decision. “I see that as code for violence, and we have absolutely no room for that — you’re gone.”

Dillon King2

Above: Dillon King (left) and buddy.

CrossFit’s CEO may have our back, but the broader community within the sport — originally comprised mainly of members of the military, police, and even some Christian churches — has some decidedly conservative influences. Many within CrossFit viciously mocked the company’s new trans-inclusive policy while others rushed to Berger’s defense after his firing despite his deeply homophobic comments. 

Dillon King, a 30-year-old coach in Metairie, Louisiana, started his own gym for precisely these sorts of sentiments. “The box I was renting space from didn't want me to advertise training that was LGBT focused,” King said. So he founded Flambeaux CrossFit to be “unapologetically welcoming” of queer athletes. “I’m proud of creating a space where even some of our pre-op trans men feel comfortable working out in a sports bra when it's 90 degrees outside.”

But even in this environment, King contends with bias.

Recently, he was chatting with a member who mentioned she found transgender people “weird,” and that having a trans family member must be “hard.” “Well, I’m transgender — and yes it’s hard,” King replied, hoping for a teachable moment. Instead, the member quit his gym.

Though OUTWOD workouts are fun and social, Will Lanier says he started the group mainly as a way to push back against the “overly hetero” culture in many CrossFit gyms. “Bro culture runs deep,” he said.

“There’s just always that one dude uncomfortable with the fabulous gays in class.” But during his events, which double as fundraisers, “the gays are in charge,” Lanier said. “We get to blast Britney, dance between sets, and ignore the weird looks we get from other members.” 

Of course, we have just as many cheerleaders within the community as detractors — after the owners of CrossFit Infiltrate in Indianapolis refused to let a group of LGBTQ athletes organize a Pride workout, citing religious objections, so many members quit in protest that the box was forced to permanently close. But the very need to advocate for LGBTQ inclusion in this way would seem almost laughable in other fitness communities. It’s notable, in other words, that no high-ranking Soul Cycle employee has been engulfed in a homophobic tweet storm, or that an equivalent to OUTWOD in the yoga world (YAAASYogis? NamasteNANCIES?) is still not a thing.

Will Lanier 2

Above: Will Lanier (center).

For me and many LGBTQ athletes, CrossFit is not just a good workout: it’s a second chance at gym class — same short shorts, maybe, just minus that pesky fear that a game of “smear the queer” might one day be taken too literally. 

Not all CrossFit gyms, however, are created equal.

While most of the LGBTQ athletes I spoke to had no problem finding a supportive CrossFit box to call home, they could also recall plenty of instances of homophobia and transphobia within the sport’s wider culture — leading some of us to question our affiliation, at times, with a community that doesn’t always seem so thrilled with CrossFit’s increasingly rainbow-tinged hue.

“I’ve always been a proud trans business owner,” said affiliate owner Dillon King. “But I was also always a little weary of being proud of a company that wasn’t proud of me.” For many LGBTQ athletes, CrossFit’s recent moves in support of the queer community have gone a long way towards mending old wounds. Now that CrossFit updated its policy on trans athletes, for instance, King said he feels, “nothing but pride in the company I’ve shaped my life around.”

Asked what more could be done to support CrossFit’s LGBTQ community, Glassman pledged, at a minimum, to give the Russell Berger treatment to any affiliate owner or employee who publicly engages in hate speech. (“They can go form their own hate-filled version of CrossFit if they want.”) But as for more subtle ways to improve the day-to-day experience of queer  athletes, Glassman admitted to needing some direction.

“Tell me,” he said. “I’m listening.”

Will Lanier’s latest effort, the OUT Foundation (of which Glassman is a major donor), is attempting to do just that. The Foundation organizes public education campaigns, for instance, which Lanier hopes will bring about a longer-term cultural shift within the sport. This past winter, in an effort cheekily called the “Don’t be an Asshole” tour, he recruited athletes like Chloie Jönsson to travel to boxes across the country to discuss ways even the most LGBTQ-friendly CrossFit affiliates can be more inclusive of their queer athletes.

“A lot can be solved with simple tweaks in language, like referring to gym equipment by weight instead of gender,” said Jönsson. “That’s not even just a trans thing — some guys have small hands, but get shit if they use the ‘women’s bar.’”

The OUT Foundation is also starting to look at some of the more entrenched, structural ways the LGBTQ community continues to be excluded from athletic spaces like CrossFit. The Foundation’s scholarship program, for instance, gives free CrossFit memberships to low-income LGBTQ people, and a separate fund helps offset the costs for gender-affirming surgeries for trans athletes. “For lots of reasons, gyms continue to be really intimidating and inaccessible places for LGBTQ people,” Lanier said. “We want to do all we can to bring them into health and wellness.”

Of course, CrossFit is by no means the only athletic community struggling with inclusion. “Sports has long been very hetero and binary,” said Jönsson. “It’s not going to change overnight.”

So while we wait for the world to catch up?

“I don’t know, keep blasting Britney?” Lanier suggested. “Keep dancing between sets.”

Outwod At Crossfit Atlanta

Above: OUTWOD at CrossFit Atlanta.

Tags: Voices, Sports

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