In recent years, we’ve seen transgender men and women achieving success in competitive bodybuilding. While there is growing awareness and acceptance of gender fluidity, life for a trans athlete can still be tough.
Bodybuilding for everyone
Traditionally, most sports are divided into men’s and women’s divisions. This is great if you are cisgender but what if you want to compete as a trans man or woman? With 1% of the UK population now identifying as gender variant, how can governing bodies make sure sport is fair for everyone?
In most sports, governing bodies have developed specific transgender policies. The strength, stamina and physique of the participant is often assessed on a case-by-case basis to ensure their inclusion in sport would warrant ‘fair competition’.
Nowhere to hide
In competitive bodybuilding, things are particularly tricky. While performance is a massive factor, on competition day entrants are ultimately judged on aesthetics. This means that in most mainstream competitions, trans bodies are required to take ‘passing’ to a whole new level.
FTM Fitness World is the leading authority in transgender bodybuilding. With past themes including “Unified Transformation” and “The Warrior Within You”, its TransFitCon competition in Atlanta is a community-owned event open to everyone, with a focus on “healing”. All proceeds go to local organisations that positively impact the trans community.
According to the event’s organisers: “whether you’re on hormone replacement therapy or not, or pre-op or not, all weight classes will be judged equally.”
One attendee praised the event, saying: “I am occupying a space that not many people get to. I am a part of a radical social movement. I am building myself from the ground up, physically, emotionally and spiritually. And I am walking a path that only a few others walk.”
As of May 2018, we have no similar event in the UK, although we do have trans bodybuilders competing in mainstream competitions. So what are the challenges faced by trans people in sport and bodybuilding?
- The Gender Recognition Act 2004 allows people with gender dysphoria living in the UK to legally change their gender
- 1% of the UK population identifies as gender variant
- Transgender people in the UK are legally protected against discrimination under the Equality Act 2010
Trans People in Sport
The participation of transgender people in competitive sports is a controversial issue. Opposition to transgender athletes usually focuses on hormonal and physiological factors
- Transgender people are the least active group in sport
- Sports organisations are allowed to exclude transgender people if they feel it is ‘necessary for fair competition or the safety of competitors’
- In 2015 the International Olympic Committee reformed its requirement for athletes to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
Opposition to transgender people in sport usually focuses on hormonal and physiological factors that may give a trans athlete an advantage. Trans people often remain on hormone replacement therapy throughout their lives. For trans men this involves taking testosterone; for trans women it involves taking estrogen and testosterone blockers. Trans women not taking estrogen are often perceived to have an unfair advantage.
- Effects of taking testosterone include increased body musculature, increase in energy levels and redistribution of body fat to a more masculine pattern.
- Effects of taking estrogen include redistribution of body mass, increased fat on thighs and hips and a significant drop in strength and muscle mass.
- In the Olympics, male to female athletes are tested for appropriate testosterone levels. Male to female athletes can compete without restriction.
Because baseline data has only been captured in the past few years, we’re only just beginning to understand the mental, physical and legal challenges preventing transgender people from participating in sport and physical activity.
- 81% of transgender people avoid public toilets, gyms and leisure facilities
- 1 in 4 LGBTQ+ people associate physical activity with negative experiences at school
- 55% of LGBTQ+ men and 56% women are not active enough to maintain good health
- 47% of LGBTQ+ people say they find sports and gym culture unwelcoming and intimidating
- 19% of transgender people have been hit or beaten up for being trans
- 500+ hate crimes against trans people are reported in England every year.
- 88% of trans people have experienced depression at some point
- 10% of transgender people have been an inpatient in a mental health unit
Presenting as your preferred gender, taking hormones and undergoing gender reassignment surgery all present transgender bodybuilders with a number of unique physical challenges.
- Changing body shape In many ways, HRT is like puberty. While bodybuilders like to be in control of their body mass, a rush of new hormones can make this difficult.
- Energy levels People on HRT often experience a significant surge or drop in energy. Male to female bodybuilders may struggle as their energy-boosting red blood cell and testosterone levels fall.
- Strength Male to female bodybuilders on HRT will usually experience less upper body strength – making lifting difficult. For female to male bodybuilders this will often be the other way around.
A 21 year old automotive technician from Houston, Texas, Ajay hopes to be the first trans Mr Olympia.
Born female, Hong Kong’s genderfluid Law identifies as a male in social settings but competes as a woman.
Janae Marie Kroc
A cancer survivor, former Marine and world champion bodybuilder, Janae describes herself as both transgender and genderfluid.
After placing third in the National Bodybuilding Championships, Tommy hopes to inspire other trans people to follow their dreams.
A chef from California, Cody came second in his first FTM (female to male) transgender bodybuilding competition in 2016.
So is it harder to be a bodybuilder when you’re transgender? In many ways, yes. You’re dealing with a rapidly changing body, everything from how your body stores fat and build muscle down to physical chemistry – how you feel, how much energy you have. Not to mention the layers of prejudice that you will be battling every day. On top of that, male to female bodybuilders may want to limit their efforts for fear they will be called out over having an unfair advantage. Gender testing practices in sport are humiliating. No one wants to have their identity questioned, but particularly not a transgender person. We don’t have any of that in bodybuilding – the person is judged as they look and feel on the day. We know that many transgender people enjoy bodybuilding – it allows them to test their limits and really inhabit their new skin.