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Controversy Surrounds Transgender Participation in Professional Sports

Chloie Jonsson's battle against CrossFit to compete as a woman
Chloie Jonsson Photograph by Franklin Avery

Chloie Jonsson cycles through her clean complex, perfecting her form. With heels planted firmly to the mat, her hands grip a chalked-up barbell. Mind to muscle, eyes on the mirror, she watches her body in motion. She glides the bar up her shins and with a quick hop, flips her hands back, elbows up, and rests it on her clavicles while sinking into a squat. Rising again, steady, bar still at her neck. Release. The 165-pound weight slams to the rubber mat with a slight bounce.

For her second of three daily workouts, she films her routine on her phone to send a video update to her trainer. A midday check-in to keep tabs on her progress. Except for a call from her attorney that morning to let her know that the case was filed the only thing on her mind was her training.

Breathless, she walks to her iPhone to stop the recording. It's blowing up. Calls, social media alerts, text messages from friends. "We support you no matter what," one tells her.

"I knew at that moment everything in my life had changed," Jonsson says. "But I had no idea what would happen next." Stunned into quiet, she stared into space. "Completely overwhelmed," she continues. "My mind detached, I guess, to process everything."

TMZ broke the news a few hours after her attorney filed the case March 6 in Santa Cruz County Superior Court. "CROSSFIT SUED BY TRANSGENDER ATHLETE: You won't let me compete with women!" bellowed the caps-heavy headline, accompanied by video and an Instagram shot of Jonsson powering through a barbell lift.

"A transgender woman is going to war with CrossFit—claiming the fitness titans refused to let her compete in the women's division at the upcoming CrossFit Games because she was born with a penis," the March 6 article reported. From there, the story erupted into international headlines.

"My Facebook and email exploded with messages," Jonsson says. Some offered words of encouragement. Others, epithets and threats. "I hope you die," more than one person wrote.

"Some of their comments brought me back to my high school days," she says. "I was bullied a lot back then, but I learned to protect myself. I hadn't heard things like that in a long time."

For most of that week, Jonsson holed up with friends, Buck Tole, and his wife, Diana, in their Morgan Hill home. They fielded online messages for her, filtering the negative and relaying the edifying.

Though she knew a lawsuit taking on the wildly popular fitness franchise would garner some attention, nothing prepared her for the magnitude of the scrutiny once it hit major news outlets. Critics called her a gold digger for seeking $2.5 million damages and a cheater for wanting to compete against born females. LGBT advocates hailed her as a champion for civil rights.

Jonsson's legal strike against the Santa Cruz-based gym chain has only heightened an ongoing debate about equity in sports. It placed her in the ranks of MMA fighter Fallon Fox, ex-college basketball player Kye Allums and golfer Bobbi Lancaster, as well as other trans athletes who had to fight for a chance to compete against the gender they now identify with. Her demands: change the rules to allow post-op trans athletes to compete with their identified gender.

The case also squared Jonsson against Greg Glassman, the tough-talking but doughy bellied CEO of the fitness faction, who a former affiliate describes as possessing both incredible kindness but also a "rattlesnake intensity." A guy who once informed members that "We have a therapy for injuries at CrossFit called STFU," as in "shut the fuck up."

Glassman founded CrossFit in 2000 after his unconventional tactics as a personal trainer (such as making clients scurry up a 30-foot column) got him kicked out of most gyms in the Santa Cruz area. The regimen focuses on a workout of the day, dubbed WOD, a randomized and widely varied minutes-long set of weightlifting and high-intensity cardio designed to induce what CrossFitters call a mess-you-up-moment of drop-dead fatigue. To convey the experience of what an early client called a whirl of agony and laughter, Glassman made his logo a vomiting clown he called Uncle Pukie.

The unconventional mash-up of Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics and functional calisthenics quickly developed a cult following. Its focus on metrics—racing against the clock and increasingly heavier weights—appealed to people's competitive side. By the end of last year, nearly 10,000 affiliates had sprung up across the country. The company, controlled entirely by Glassman after his 2012 divorce netted him 100 percent ownership, brought in $100 million in revenues last year.

In 2013, more than 138,000 athletes signed up to compete in in the preliminary round of the CrossFit Games. Jonsson was among them, but, according to Glassman, she was in the wrong category.

By way of his legal counsel, Glassman insists that Jonsson holds an unfair advantage over other competitors.

"The fundamental, ineluctable fact is that a male competitor who has a sex reassignment procedure still has a genetic makeup that confers a physical and physiological advantage over women," CrossFit attorney Dale Saran wrote last fall in response to Jonsson's request to compete. "That Chloie may have felt herself emotionally, and very conscientiously, to be a woman in her heart, and that she ultimately underwent the legal and other surgical procedures to carry that out, cannot change that reality."

At 5-foot-4 and 140-something pounds, Jonsson, 35, is similar in size to many competitive female CrossFitters. Her tattoo-covered frame is muscular, but compact. She shrugs off comments about her physiology offering some undue leg up over the competition.

"That's based on a lot of misunderstanding," she says, recounting her dizzying leap into notoriety while sitting at a cafe in Los Gatos, straining to keep her brindled French bulldog, Charlie, from bolting. "Most criticism, I tune out. I still haven't read a full article about me."

The controversy, while connecting her with a broad network of supporters, also outed her as a transgender woman, something she kept private to all but a few close friends and family.

"It came down to a really tough choice: my privacy or standing up for myself," Jonsson says. "If I wanted to fight for what I believe is right, if I wanted to take on this battle, I had to give something up."

In a sense, she had to come out for a second time.

As early as she can remember, Jonsson says, she felt out of place in her born-male body. Raised in Los Gatos with two older brothers, she always felt like the odd one out. Effeminate and incongruous. "I realized I was different," she says. "Of course, that attracts the wrong kind of attention. Kids can be cruel." The bullying escalated with each grade. One day, Jonsson refused to go to school.

"It all poured out then," she says. "I opened up to my family. That was the moment. I couldn't hold it in anymore. I knew I was attracted to boys, but I wasn't gay. There was something else, something more than that. Something more complicated." Her parents already knew.

"She was born a woman," her mom, Linda Shrader, says matter-of-factly. "That was evident right away, before she was 2. We realized she was special. When she decided to transition, we were there to help her."

By 16, Jonsson began living as her felt gender, switching pronouns and adopting the name Chloie. She thought it sounded pretty and the unconventional spelling was a little edgy. Occasionally, she'd slip in for a support group at the Billy DeFrank Center, an LGBT outpost in downtown San Jose. Despite the harassment at school she excelled at her studies and graduated high school a year early.

"I was a total nerd," she says. "Thankfully, school gave me something to focus on. And my parents, they were always supportive of me. That gave me a lot of strength."

Once school ended, she felt cut adrift again.

"I did my own thing for many years after," she recalls. "I didn't have many people to relate to. I tried to blend in. For a while, I wandered around from place to place, around California, around the country. Partying, drinking, flying by the seat of my pants. There was still a lot of displacement inside myself."

Seven years ago, she underwent sex reassignment surgery. The change motivated her to clean up her life, pick up running and join a gym... continue reading