.Transgender in Sports – CrossFit

Chloie Jonsson's battle against CrossFit to compete as a woman

THE WEIGHT: It took three years of training for Chloie Jonsson to qualify for the 2013 CrossFit Games. Photograph by Franklin Avery

“As I got older, I realized
that I wanted to be healthy,” she says. “I wanted to be strong.”

Running turned into lifting. Eventually, a few years ago, she discovered CrossFit, with its frenetic mix of lifting and against-the-clock WODs. At first, she was rail-thin. It took years of daily hours-long workouts to develop her carved, athletic build.

“CrossFit clicked,” says Jonsson, who became a personal trainer. “I dove in and fell in love with the sport.”

Teammates fell in love with Jonsson, too.

“She’s hilarious,” says Jason Hatch, her training partner at Morgan Hill CrossFit. “Super lighthearted, always with a smile on her face. The only thing she takes seriously is her training.”

Online, Jonsson developed a following. Her Instagram garnered more than 8,000 followers. People followed her “fitness journey,” commenting on her workout selfies and personal record updates.

“Even online, her personality and sense of humor comes through,” says Tole. “But if you talk to her clients, they’re extremely loyal. She works with people who have kicked cancer, with autistic kids and other special needs kids. She has the biggest heart and uses her job to help people. Her clients are completely loyal to her.”

When Jonsson decided to sue CrossFit, the company’s affiliate gym owners and members stood by her. Some clients ordered black T-shirts, their fealty emblazoned in white letters: “Doing it for Chlo Chlo.”

Qualifying at regionals for the nationally televised 2013 CrossFit Games was monumental, a feat celebrated by her “fit fam,” training buddies and clients. The next step was to register. But she couldn’t find any information in CrossFit regulations about transgender athletes.

“The initial emails were anonymous,” Jonsson says. “We asked what a transgender athlete had to do to compete, like offer proof of surgery, that kind of thing.”

CrossFit pressed her to identify herself. Once she did, they immediately disqualified her application to compete with other women, holding that they had an “obligation to protect the rights of all competitors and the competition itself.” The company lobbed a snarky letter, claiming she misunderstands “the human genome” and the basics of biology.

“Chloie was born, genetically—as a matter of fact—with an X and a Y chromosome and all of the anatomy of a male of the human race,” Saran, a CrossFit athlete and ex-Marine, wrote to Jonsson’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy. “Today, notwithstanding any hormone therapy or surgeries, Chloie still has an X and Y chromosome. The principle [sic] intent of the CrossFit Games is to determine the fittest man and woman on earth. What we’re really talking about here is a matter of definition, of what it means to be ‘female’ for purposes of the CrossFit Games.”

The International Olympic Committee has allowed post-op trans athletes to compete against their identified gender since 2004. But it wasn’t without a fight. More than 15 years ago, the IOC abandoned the practice of using chromosomes to verify sex and eligibility after finding that some born-female athletes tested positive for a Y chromosome. Instead, they measure hormone levels. Unless CrossFit conducted a karyotype test on Jonsson, there’s no way for the organization to know anything about her chromosomal makeup.

The Ladies Professional Golf Association revised its rules in 2010 to allow transgender players after Lana Lawless, a retired police officer, competed in the league three years after sex-reassignment surgery. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) drummed up a similar policy in 2011, allowing trans athletes undergoing hormone treatment to compete against their identified gender. Several major sports organizations have adopted the IOC rules, which require reassignment surgery. Even California high schools have no obstacles for transgender athletes, as long as the individuals have made a clear lifestyle choice rather than seeking out a competitive advantage.

Genetic experts tend to disagree with CrossFit across the board. Dr. Walter Bockting, president of World Professional Association for Transgender Health, says hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery bring a trans woman’s bone density, muscle mass and soft tissue makeup in line with that of cisgender women, those whose outward identity matches their anatomical sex at birth. “Differences within the sexes are considerable and often times larger than differences between the sexes,” he wrote in a 2010 study on transgender athletes. Any physical advantage of a male-to-female trans athlete is a matter of hormones. Once they remove testosterone-producing glands, they lose that advantage.

“Almost always when a transgender athlete tries to compete in their chosen gender, the hammer comes down,” says Loren Cannon, a philosophy professor at Humboldt State University and female-to-male transgender runner and swimmer. “We’re socially conditioned to think in gender binaries. But the science is there showing us that there’s more to it than that.”

Danica Patrick, the most successful female NASCAR racer, ignited controversy when she started to reach the upper echelons of the sport, Cannon points out. People said her petite frame—5-foot-2 and 100 pounds—offered an advantage on the track by weighing the car down less. Cannon experienced similar criticism when he started competing in ultra-long-distance runs, where his slight, 5-foot-2, 120-pound build gives him an advantage over typically heavier male runners.

“There’s a natural diversity in body types,” Cannon says. “You can never eliminate that. You could find any number of genetic advantages from one athlete over another.”

When CrossFit dropped Jonsson from the games, she says it reminded her of the rejection she felt as a kid. “It was like the biggest punch in the stomach; I’ve never been told I couldn’t do something because I was transgender,” she says.

Pulling together her case, which was filed in March in Santa Cruz County Superior Court, Jonsson prepared as much as she could for the attention. After nearly two decades, she decided to drop by the Billy DeFrank Center again.

“I tried to mentally prepare for the unknown,” she says, “and since I transitioned so early, I didn’t really stay connected to [the LGBT] community. It really was like coming out again.”

Nine months of back-and-forth with her attorney and CrossFit passed before she committed to the lawsuit. Athletes shouldn’t have to “out” themselves to compete, Jonsson argued. Their personal histories should be protected by the franchise.

The lawsuit charges CrossFit with discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress. As the case makes its way through the court, Jonsson has redoubled her training.

“From December to now, her performance level has tripled,” Tole says. “It’s incredible, and it took a lot of hard work.”

Barred from competing in the CrossFit Games in July, Jonsson scored high enough in the opens to land a spot at The Granite Games, a similar event held next month in St. Cloud, Minn., outside the aegis of the CrossFit brand.

Weeks out from the games, she’s nursing a shoulder injury but eager to compete. The outpouring of support from other trans athletes and other CrossFit affiliates—”everyone but CrossFit HQ,” she says—has given her a renewed focus.

“I love seeing people stand up for themselves,” Tole says. “When she first had to come out, she was stressed that we would ask her to leave. Of course that was completely wrong. We’re in this all the way together.”

The spotlight, overbearing at first, has only reinforced Jonsson’s resolve.

“I don’t want special treatment,” she says. “Just the right to try.”

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