The most compelling evidence that the queer community has a secret plan to take over CrossFit is through 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.
However, he is not alone in this battle to make the sport more queer. Meet the people we met from across the U.S. joining Lanier in this fight to queer the world’s most “bro” sport.
Growing up, Reshad Asgarali, a 28-year-old digital marketer from Miami, Florida, did whatever he could to avoid sports and exercise. “I just felt like my more feminine qualities and mannerisms would make me a clear target to get picked on more so than I already was,” he said. But over time, avoiding exercise became a “lifestyle” that contributed to extreme weight gain.
Remarkably, Asgarali lost over 100 pounds through a healthy diet and exercising alone in his room. Even after this transformation, he was still too intimidated to set foot in a traditional gym setting. Eventually, he gained the courage to give CrossFit Dynamix a try. “There I was, this anxious gay guy lifting heavy weights, getting better each week, alongside some of the strongest people I’d ever met,” he said. “These same people would cheer for me, push me, and encourage me, regardless of my sexual orientation.”
Though CrossFit is often stereotyped as a “very macho sport,” Asgarali added, he said most people would be surprised by how accepting the community is. “At the end of the day the welcoming CrossFit community is something that can’t be found anywhere else,” he said. “That’s what kept me coming back.”
Michelle Kinney, a 35-year-old athlete, is a four-time CrossFit Games competitor, who earned the rank of “12th Fittest Woman in the World” after the 2014 Games. She is also the head coach at CrossFit Parkhill located in Denver, Colorado.
“In my experience, CrossFit and its affiliates have always provided me with a safe space to be myself,” she said. “CrossFit gyms are comprised of a unique collection of individuals from all walks of life with one common goal: fitness. Race, religion, or sexual orientation doesn't matter — we all want each other to succeed in the pursuit of fitness.”
While she said that CrossFit does a “good job” overall of being LGBTQ friendly, “there is always an opportunity to be better.” As an example, she suggested the company could do more to provide exposure for LGBTQ athletes on their official media channels. “With that exposure, we can create more awareness, acceptance, and support as a whole.”
In addition to being the only out gay kid in his high school, Stephen Wang, a 38-year-old IT worker based in Chicago, Illinois, has a condition called Poland Syndrome, meaning he was born without one of his pectoral muscles. The idea of approaching sports as a young gay man with a disability, he said, “was not something that was very comfortable for me.”
On the advice of a friend, Wang joined a CrossFit gym in 2011, a decision he referred to as a “game changer.” Rather than treat his disability as a nuisance — a sentiment he’d experienced in other gym settings — the coaches at his box, CrossFit Defined, “expect me to work through it and adapt,” he said. “I think it’s just another testament to CrossFit’s interest in embracing differences while treating people absolutely the same.”
With respect to LGBTQ athletes, Wang believes the culture in his box may be unique. CrossFit Defined holds an annual fitness competition each year to raise funds for various LGBTQ non-profits. About half of the competitors are straight, he says, and they happily wear the pride-themed t-shirt designed for the event all year around. “It's not like these straight men are wearing it as an act of solidarity,” he said. “It’s sort of the ultimate expression of ‘we really don't care who you are, or if you're gay because we don't care if anyone thinks we are either.’”
“Oh yes, henny!” said Will Lanier, a 33-year-old CrossFit coach based in Austin, Texas, when asked if he had encountered anti-LGBTQ sentiments in CrossFit. “But it doesn’t last long once you start kicking their ass in a workout.”
In 2009, Lanier decided to push back on CrossFit’s “overly hetero” culture with a simple idea: he invited his gym’s LGBTQ members (all six of them!) to work out together in a show of visibility. Little did he know how thirsty CrossFit’s queers would be for the visibility. Word of the workouts, dubbed OUTWOD, quickly spread and within a year over 100 athletes were regularly attending. Similar nonprofits have since started in Australia (WODOUT) and Europe (WODProud).
He encourages affiliate owners to get in touch if they’re interested in hosting an OUTWOD at their local box. “It’s an easy and fun way affiliates can show support for LGBTQ members,” he said. “Even if you’re not sure how large your LGBTQ membership is, you’ll probably be surprised by the turnout — people travel from all over to attend these.”
“A lot of us didn’t feel comfortable in high school athletics because they weren’t the most gay-friendly places to be,” said Nuno Costa, a 40-year-old CrossFit coach at CrossFit Invictus in San Diego. “But at CrossFit, it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s all about fitness and community.”
Costa is the only out gay man to quality for the CrossFit Games, a feat he’s accomplished every year since the competition began in 2009. He’ll be competing again at the 2019 Games (which begin this week) as an individual in the Master’s division. Costa also works for CrossFit, conducting certification courses at boxes around the country. In his interactions with co-workers, fellow Games athletes, and affiliate owners, “I’ve never been made to feel unwelcome,” he said. As an example of the support he’s received, he cited a short documentary CrossFit released in 2016, chronicling his journey to come out, overcome addiction, and ascend in the sport.
“I just think it comes down to being out and open,” Costa said, when asked how we can improve the CrossFit experience for LGBTQ athletes. He mentioned a recent situation in which a fellow gym member thanked him for “opening his eyes” to the experience of gay athletes. “It’s funny because I didn’t really do anything,” Costa laughed. “I was just living my life.”
“It was different and looked badass!” said Dillon King, a 30-year-old CrossFit affiliate owner, when asked what first attracted him to the sport. After King’s first trial class, he was so hooked that he signed he and his wife up for CrossFit on the spot — without even asking her.
But several years later, King felt the need to start his own gym, Flambeaux CrossFit — located about ten minutes outside of New Orleans — to ensure he could provide a safe space for his LGBTQ CrossFitters. He was moved to do so after the owner of a box he had been coaching at asked him to stop courting LGBTQ clients. “He was always nice with me, and I still to this day keep in touch with him,” King said. “But I didn’t want to feel hidden; I didn't want to be neutral.”
To his fellow affiliate owners, King had this piece of advice to share: “Acting neutral does not help LGBT members feel at home in your box,” he said. So when the topic of sexual orientation or gender identity comes up, King recommends “engaging in the conversation — it helps people feel heard and genuinely cared for, and builds the sense that your box's community is for everyone not just the heteronormative.”
Ten years ago, Keyne Quiroga-Anania, was diagnosed with diabetes, which she said served as a major wake-up call. “That diagnosis changed my life in a huge way,” she said. “I quit drinking the four to five cans of coke a day and stopped eating fast food for the most part.”
As part of her turn toward health and wellness, she found her way to CrossFit Ready to Live, in St. Louis, Missouri. She already had an extensive background in sports — including gymnastics, cheerleading, and a lesbian kickball league called Lez-B-Kickin — so didn’t struggle to adapt to a gym setting. But it helped, she said, that her box is about a quarter gay. “We are all very loud and proud,” she said.
Despite the large LGBTQ presence in her box, she says the culture can, at times, still venture into “bro-fest” territory that can “border on homophobia.” And she thinks even the most supportive boxes have room to grow, particularly with respect to their trans and non-binary member. As a small but meaningful fix, she suggested coaches start referring to barbells by their weight, instead of the “men’s” and “women’s” bars. “I think it tends to make those who either don’t identify with male or female excluded or in a position to have to identify themselves.”
“I’ve always been adept at sports,” said Eric Evans, a 28-year-old competitive athlete and head coach at Gold Standard Athletics, a CrossFit gym based outside of Los Angeles, California. “But it was also a tool I used to stay in the closet in high school and part of college.” Evans added that while he was never the target of any physical acts of anti-LGBTQ aggression growing up in the sports world, he did experience “emotional bullying” and homophobia.
Evans said he’s definitely noticed more LGBTQ members in CrossFit boxes around the country. But he is still one of just a few openly gay male athletes at the higher level of the sport, having qualified for the CrossFit Regionals — the step before advancing to the CrossFit Games — each year from 2015-2018.
Asked what could be done to help improve the sport for LGBTQ people, Evans said “it’s easy — just show support like hanging an LGBT flag.”
“Finding a place to belong is harder for a queer person,” said Brittan Freese, a 33-year-old CrossFit athlete, who relocated from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio three years ago. “It’s something I really consider before I come out, especially in Ohio where it’s less diverse than New York.”
Freese clarified that she didn’t seek out her gym, CrossFit CLE, because she knew it would be LGBTQ-inclusive, “but it definitely kept me involved in the community when I realized it was accepting.” She was particularly encouraged by the warm welcome she received at her box, “even if I don’t look like a typical CrossFit athlete. “Though Freese has always been active, she said she’s also often been overweight. “The CrossFit community is super supportive of that as well — my coaches call me an athlete and acknowledge my hard work and strengths.”
Still, she thinks most CrossFit gyms could do more to support queer athletes. “I’d say box owners like mine could incorporate a pride workout into the mix,” she said. “Or maybe celebrate pride month by showcasing openly queer and trans folks in some way.”
Though OUT-FIT, Morris has sold thousands of t-shirts to LGBTQ athletes across the country with the word “Proud” prominently slapped across the chest. “I get regular messages from athletes that don’t live in a major metropolitan areas like New York,” he added. “They usually feel anxious about wearing their new Proud shirt to the box.” But once they gain the courage to try, “they get positive feedback from their fellow athletes and coaches,” he said.
As for ways to make the sport more LGBTQ-friendly, Morris thinks the most meaningful changes will come at the affiliate level. “If each affiliate creates an annual Pride WOD that would be a good first step,” he said. “For affiliates that already have an annual Pride WOD, I would challenge them to schedule a quarterly Pride WOD to show regular commitment to the community.”
“I've been super lucky that the boxes I've belonged to have been really welcoming to my wife and me,” said Audrey-Fernandez Elliott, a 52-year-old CrossFit athlete at Sundown CrossFit in Santa Clara, California. But she says most of the CrossFit gyms in her area lean towards a “strong community vibe.”
Still, in CrossFit’s wider circle, she notices a “weird underlying sense of homophobia at times when guys start to ‘bro it up.’” She wishes more CrossFit coaches and affiliate owners would discourage anti-gay and trans jokes, for instance, though she suspects most won’t out of a fear of losing clients. “Even though it’s the right thing to do,” she said, before adding: “It’s not fun to be around the same types of people who bashed us in school.”
“It’s fucking fun,” said Chloie Jönsson, a 40-year old athlete who trains at Black Iron Gym in Reno Nevada, about what first attracted her to the sport. “It doesn’t matter if you are first or last, everyone still cheers for you just the same.” Jönsson said she also found the intensity of CrossFit appealing. “I struggled with drugs and alcohol abuse when I was younger, and I think a lot of times when people come out of that, we go to the opposite extreme, which is health and fitness.”
Jönsson famously filed a $2.5 million lawsuit against CrossFit in 2014 after the company refused to allow her to compete in the women’s division in the CrossFit Open — which in turn sparked a national conversation on the topic of transgender athletes in sports, culminating in CrossFit’s decision to change its policy last summer. “It’s so crazy to hear you say that I started a cultural conversation or a cultural shift,” she said. “I just knew it was wrong. If they were going to treat me this way, there were going to do it to others, too.”
Unfortunately Jönsson says her days of competitive CrossFit are largely behind her now, so she doesn’t currently have any plans to take advantage of the change she helped bring about. But she is happy to have played a part in allowing other trans people compete. “Greg’s decision made me so happy for all of the trans people I know who want to be included,” she said. “They can put themselves on the leader board, just like anybody else, and it doesn’t matter.”