Hip flexors?? I had no idea what they were, or how to make them do anything. Logan, one of my new Crossfit coaches, was referencing them while describing a power clean, and I had one of my wide-eyed, clueless moments. These moments were frequent lately, having started Crossfit just a few weeks before. But, I promised myself that despite my awkwardness, I would be brutally honest about my lack of knowledge.
Sheepishly, I spoke up, using a phrase that would soon become a regular part of my Crossfit vernacular: “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I don’t even know what a hip flexor (or fill in the blank with another body part/muscle group) is.” Each time those words came out of my mouth, I was received without judgment and with an eagerness to help me learn. But, as time went on, I became acutely aware of how completely disconnected I was from knowing my body, how it moved in space, how it worked or didn’t, and how to tell it to do more or do things faster. While attempting beginning scales for gymnastics or Oly Lifts, I frequently couldn’t translate a coach’s words into useful information for my limbs and muscles. After attempting a complex movement, a coach would ask me: “What do you think happened?” My only answer was a bewildered shoulder shrug.
As I puzzled over my lack of proprioception, I began to realize that years ago I had totally and unconsciously dissociated myself from my body and its movements, as if it were an untrustworthy and abusive companion from whom I needed to escape. Our communication had languished for decades, and even when we were in communication in my younger years, it was combative and hostile. Hating my body and how it moved was an old storyline. No wonder I felt oblivious most of the time in my Crossfit classes – at 35 years old, my body and I were perfect strangers.
When you grow up as the token “different” boy on the block, you learn it quickly. A spontaneous high-pitched laugh, an unconscious swish in my gait, a lisped intonation in my speech, or an off-handed effeminate gesture of my wrist and hand in a moment of surprise, joy, or frustration put a mark on my back. This was particularly the case, growing up as a closeted, effeminate gay boy in the 80s and 90s in the deeply conservative state of Idaho, and in a deeply conservative family.
“Don’t hold your hand that way, you look like a girl.” “You sound like such a girl.” “You kick/throw/walk/laugh like a pansy, little girl.” These phrases, uttered with contempt by my parents, coaches and peers throughout my younger years, instilled a hypervigilant self-consciousness towards how my body was naturally-inclined to move in the world. Despite my best efforts to curate how I acted and sounded to be “more boy,” my body would simply not cooperate; the moment I relaxed, my body would eventually rebel, and it would put me at risk yet again. Fighting off other guys became a regular activity of mine in junior high for these reasons. The boy’s locker room was frequently the battle ground when I would go change into my cross country uniform for practice alongside the football players, or use the weight room to lift.
My classic response to comments of, “You don’t belong here, you fuckin’ queer,” was to steel my gaze, pretend I couldn’t hear them, and act as if they didn’t exist—even when they were right in my face. When that didn’t work, and they would start to push, I would fight back. My Marine veteran father taught me how to punch, as if he just knew that a boy like me would draw unwanted attention to himself. So, I doggedly faced-off with any number of guys in this way –sometimes fending them off, sometimes ending in a humiliating defeat.
When I was wasn’t fighting, I sat with the ever-present threat that another fight could happen at any time, as guys would hiss “faggot” in my ear and laugh as they passed me in the hallways. Even though my body would flood with adrenaline and anxiety each time, I had to prove to them all that they couldn’t affect me. They especially couldn’t know that they had exposed the terrifying secret that I valiantly attempted to hide from everyone—I actually was gay. Finally, by high school, my brain and body had hit its limit, so I dropped cross country and track.
Eventually, I resigned myself to my effeminate nature and that people knew I was gay, since my best efforts at hiding had proven useless. So, amidst my bitterness in accepting these truths, I began a new mission with my body: punish it for its crimes. I started by letting my physical health lapse through apathy and neglect. When that wasn’t sufficient, I addictively drowned my body in a hazy, alphabet soup of party drugs. During the throes of this self-directed anger, perhaps I hoped it would waste away to nothing.
Even after sobering up, upon realizing that my best efforts at self-sabotage wouldn’t work, going to a gym to rebuild my health was something akin to regular dental cleanings or the occasional root canal—unpleasant, but necessary. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my primary coping strategy in a weight room was blaring loud music in my ears, completely disconnecting from people around me in the gym, and finishing as quickly and as impersonally as possible. I suppose that I needed to blot out any possibility that my body and brain would react as if I were still in the locker room or weight room of my teenage years.
Fast forward through years of personal psychotherapy and emotional healing.
Although I had long come out as gay to everyone in my life, moved to a more liberal city, found a community of people and a chosen family who cared deeply for me, and a husband who loved all parts of me, I had no idea that something was still missing. Despite my significant work at emotional and spiritual healing from those early years, I had not yet realized that I still needed to heal physically with my body in a weight room, doing the very things in the very kinds of places that once filled my body with dread and the readiness to fight. Little did I know at the time, but walking into JP Crossfit would become that missing puzzle piece.
Re-acquainting myself with my hip flexors was the first thoughtful conversation I had with my body in years. As with any reconciliation, it was awkward and stilted, but, with the help of my Crossfit coaches, it slowly got easier. My body began sharing more information with me than ever before. I learned a nuanced understanding of its soreness so I could better attend to its recovery. Areas of its limited mobility became clearer, and once-befuddling Olympic lifts slowly became a fascinating cavalcade of body parts and muscles working in synchronicity. And, what feels especially remarkable to me, I could actually feel and isolate different body parts/muscle groups while I was lifting!
The safety of the JP Crossfit community provided the emotional scaffolding for me to bring my full self into the room, including my effeminate parts; I could “sissy that walk” in one moment, get a 1 rep max deadlift in the next, and feel totally comfortable and supported by my fellow athletes and coaches the entire time. It took my body and me nearly three years of collaboration with my coaches to perform a kipping handstand push-up, and nearly four years to get a janky ring muscle up, but we got there. Understanding how to pace a work-out by moderating it inside my body still frequently eludes me, but that’s gotten better too. Our progress, although not linear, trends upwards.
JP Crossfit is a special place; I had no idea that joining this gym would mean something to me as a gay man, and how that piece of my identity would be a critical component of my body’s recovery journey. When I saw the 8-stripe rainbow pride flag and the transgender pride flag on its entryway walls earlier this year, it reminded me how much our LGBTQAI+ community is craving spaces like these — spaces to not only work-out in safety as our authentic selves, but spaces to reclaim, celebrate, and strengthen our unique, individual bodies from the traumas of rigid stereotypes of gender identity and expression that our larger culture instills within each of us. Coaches and straight, cisgender allies within our larger JPCF community have been crucial in making this safety real for me; I hope they all realize the profound impact of their openness, friendship, and unconditional affection.
My story is far from unique, and, as I write this, I am keenly aware that my experience is filtered through the privileged lens of cisgender, white maleness. When I consider the additional barriers my fellow transgender/queer/gender-non-binary/gender fluid athletes, particularly those of color, must’ve faced in their own journeys with their bodies, I’m in awe of their resilience. As I’ve seen a broader rainbow spectrum of these athletes join JP Crossfit over recent years, the maternal soccer mom inside me wants to rush over, give them a warm welcome, and make them feel at home and immediately a part of this community. I wonder about their individual stories, their journeys with their own bodies and their athleticism, and how their experiences brought them here. And if, by chance, there is any healing that needs to be done, I hope that this little basement gym with a big heart will help them too.