Alistair’s story: fitness as a trans man (Guest Post)

It’s Trans Awareness Week, and like Nicole, I wanted to bring in a voice we don’t usually hear on this blog. I interviewed my dear friend Alistair via email; most of this post is his words.

First, just a brief introduction?

I’m Alistair, I’m one of your friends and I’m a white trans guy with passing privilege, and a chronic disabling illness. I’m 40, for perspective.

Can you tell me a little bit about how your relationship to fitness has been related to your experience of being trans?   

Growing up, I wasn’t involved in organized sports, but I was involved in dance and theatre as a young kid.  As I approached puberty, my only experiences with fitness came in the form of PE class, which was uncomfortable for me – I was Very Bad at Being A Girl, and sex-segregated environments always left me feeling like an alien, though I didn’t understand why at the time.

I came out as a lesbian at 19 and presented in a progressively more butch fashion as time went on. The first time I experienced fitness in a positive way was in the explicitly feminist environment of the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club in the early 2000s.  Founded by a queer woman as a body-positive female boxing club, this was a space in which my larger, study body became an asset – in boxing, the more mass you have, the more force you can deliver at the end of a punch.

When I joined the group of amateur boxers training to compete, the dynamics of the gendered space became inescapable; on the weekends when the recreational classes happened, the Newsgirls were the only people in the boxing gym. On weeknights, the competitors shared space with an almost entirely male boxing club. We constantly had to assert ourselves to maintain our space to work out, or we would be gradually squeezed away from the equipment and floorspace. We also learned to constantly watch out for each other, because while people like me were mostly invisible, feminine-presenting women attracted a lot of attention from the boxing club guys, and usually not in a good way.

Life factors and injury resulted in a drift away from the boxing gym. I gradually put on weight over the next five years or so while physical fitness took a back seat to other things, exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t comfortable in any fitness space available to me (university athletic centre, YMCA, commercial gyms). My gender presentation became increasingly masculine, and wearing a chest binder was not, for me, compatible with exercise (constriction, temperature increase, chafing as sweating happened, etc etc.) As a visibly queer, masculine-presenting woman (at the time) I got harassed in women’s bathrooms enough that even considering using changerooms was always extremely difficult.

What, if anything, has shifted since you transitioned?

When I came out as trans at 32 and began to transition, those spaces were out of reach entirely. There was a “family changeroom” that was available at the Y but you had to ask for access to it, which never felt good to me – once you start being read as male, you need to be careful about entering spaces designated ‘family’ if you don’t have children with you. Once I started testosterone, my voice and facial hair started to change, but I didn’t feel safe in the mens’ rooms either. I’m a sweaty person, so changing after working out isn’t something I can skip, and at the time I was reliant on public transit so it would be a long ride home in wet clothes.

Alistair at his wedding in 2016

My first partial access to fitness settings came after I had completely healed from my top surgery (double mastectomy with reconstruction). Getting rid of the chest binder let me at least take a full breath while exercising, and having a flat chest made changing in the mens’ room possible, if not always comfortable.

I’m extremely lucky in that I have passing privilege now – I’m always read as male by people I interact with. In fact, most of the time people think I’m a straight white cis man, which is its own kind of uncomfortable. Even my overweight body isn’t othered, because the rules are different for men. In any context that doesn’t involve genitals or taking off clothes, I’m almost always safe.

What are you doing now for movement?

I didn’t find a fitness modality that works for me until earlier this year, and it turned out to be one I never would have expected: a kind of dude-yoga developed by a former professional wrestler who severely injured his back doing pro wrestler things and was desperate to save his career. He didn’t go back to pro wrestling, but his yoga-without-the-woo system developed a life of its own, with workouts accessible via DVD or app. It’s yoga with an emphasis on isometric exercise: increasing your heart rate by maintaining full-body muscle tension while holding poses and moving through series (use of a heart-rate monitor is encouraged so you can tell how hard you’re working). Most importantly, it is endlessly modifiable no matter what your level of fitness, injury, size, or disability – seriously, there’s a series of workouts for people who can’t get out of bed. The founder has a big, barky personality that’s not to everybody’s taste, but he is also surprisingly positive and gentle in attitude, and the guided workout clips are full of unexpected pep talks while you’re sweating through a plank pose.

This system seems to work for me in a bunch of ways that others haven’t.  As a person who was once operating at a much higher level of fitness, I tend to get warmed up, think “oh this is good, I can do more” and then overdo it and can’t move for two days, so systems like Crossfit that exalt maximum effort aren’t a good fit for me. This is the opposite, embracing the idea that something is better than nothing, and that consistency leads to slow incremental improvement. So, if I overdo it one day, I can increase the modifications the next day but still complete the workout, giving me the benefits of movement and exercise, and perhaps most importantly, I can experience success and a feeling of accomplishment.  Another incredibly important factor is that I can do this at home by myself, where I can pause if I need to, I don’t have to wear a shirt, there’s nobody to see me shaking and walrusing around on my yoga mat, and I don’t have to use the mental and physical energy to go to a different location and be around people.

Alistair with his groomspeople, me and Naomi

What do you pay attention to to determine if a space is welcoming or safe for you to work out or do a sport in?  (Suddenly I’m reminded of your axe-throwing bachelor party). 

Safe space can be really tricky, and there’s a complicated sort of calculus around safety. Vibe is a key if difficult-to-define factor — is it “girl power” or feminist? Are there safe space signs and symbols (triangles, rainbows*, explicit statements of safe space or ‘everybody is welcome here’)? What does the staff look like? Do people have pronouns on their nametags? Most importantly, are there individual spaces available for changing and showering, and do you have to ask for access to those spaces?

*This is why I have a big problem with people appropriating the rainbow for “we’re all in this pandemic together.” That symbol already has a specific meaning, and it’s a critical safety indicator for some people.

I’m safe in my passing privilege, until I’m not.  My top surgery scars have faded and I’m furry enough that they’re not terribly obvious, but that doesn’t help me if I accidentally drop my packer (prosthetic penis) while I’m trying to change out of my wet bathing suit quickly and facing a corner (believe me, silicone bounces).Bathrooms are ok, until the stall doors don’t lock, or there’s no toilet seat, or twenty-seven urinals and one stall (I’m looking at you, Rogers Centre), or everything in sight is covered in urine and there’s no toilet paper. Men are generally fairly good at minding their own business in bathrooms – thanks, latent homophobia! – compared to the policing that happens in women’s spaces, but the threat is always there. NB, this is nothing compared to the dangers that trans women face in bathrooms.

What one thing do you wish people knew or understood about what it means to navigate health and fitness as a trans person?

I have two things. 

First: private spaces for anytime nakedness is involved are critical, and they need to be freely accessible.  That lone one-person bathroom stall or ‘family changeroom’ isn’t available to me if I need to ask Ryan at the front desk for the key, outing myself in the process.

Second: There are as many ways to be trans* as there are trans* people, but for lots of us, transition isn’t so much an event as it is a mode of existence. I came out as trans and began my transition eight years ago; I told people to call me Alistair, I legally changed my name and gender marker, I started hormone replacement therapy and had top surgery because those were the right decisions for me and I was lucky enough to have access to them. However, I’d still be trans* if some or all of those things hadn’t happened.

Eight years later my body is still changing, and I can’t say that my transition is complete because I may decide to have further interventions later. I’m in a constant state of becoming – I think we all are, but for some of us it’s more explicit.

Thank you so much… please write more for us!

Me, Alistair and his friend Naomi at his wedding

6 thoughts on “Alistair’s story: fitness as a trans man (Guest Post)

  1. This is so great! Please thank Alistair for sharing his experiences and perspective. I really value it!

  2. Thanks so much Alistair (and Cate)! I am so glad to learn that private change spaces within change rooms at the gym are a trans rights issue; I had not realized this before now, and had read them as about typical heteronormative naked body anxiety. I’m really grateful for this new perspective!

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