Proud of your body through sport
When I do sports, I feel flexible, strong and free. Moving your body is a way to forget the world around you and completely lose yourself in the moment. Still, as a trans person, sports do make me feel uncomfortable at times. In which locker room or team do I belong? How will other people treat me? These are questions that have always been on my mind, but now that my body is changing, they feel more urgent than ever. When I try to find out how other people deal with these questions, I mostly find a lot of news articles about transgender athletes in professional sports. Where are all the trans and non-binary people who don’t want to win an Olympic medal, but who just want to exercise in a comfortable manner? For this article, I spoke to three of them: René(e), Luluh, and Romy.
René(e) Karsten, 26 years old (they/them) – actor at Live Your Story, film theater employee
“I’ve truly tried all different kinds of sports, but the one I’ve done longest is basketball. Other than that, I do individual sports, like cycling, running and swimming, including in triathlon form. I usually exercise with my best friend. It helps to do it together with someone you know well and with whom you feel comfortable. Right after secondary school I cycled to Barcelona with her. The fact that you can physically complete such a big journey is really amazing. You cycle up a mountain and think, “I can’t do it anymore”, but then you can.
For me, the times when I exercise are the moments that I can get out of my head, it’s a great way of finding release. Before, when I’d cycle to the swimming pool without a binder, I’d feel really horrible, but once I got in the water that feeling went away. Through sports, I find pride in my body and I can enjoy doing things with my body. Not to become extremely muscular, but because I can see the strength of my own body.”
“Besides my job in a film theater, I’m an actor and educator at theater foundation Live Your Story, where we open up conversation about topics like discrimination and gender through theater. Amongst other things, we’ve made a show with the KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association) with which we go to soccer club cafeterias and we perform for youth, trainers and referees. I play someone who quit soccer because they didn’t feel at home anymore in the sport because of transphobia.
During my studies, I played soccer myself, but I stopped. I didn’t feel comfortable anymore in a women’s team and I also couldn’t see myself playing with the men. When we performed the show, I noticed that that experience still got to me. When I quit soccer I didn’t really talk to anyone about it, I just stopped showing up. Now, I’m proud that because of the show I go to places all across the country and stand for who I am.”
“Now that I’m on hormones, exercising makes me aware of my body in a fun way: I notice changes in my body much quicker. It’s not like I put on muscle within the first month, but I did feel that way. I am aware that the way I speak can elicit a reaction from people, because for them it doesn’t match the locker room I came out of.
What has bothered me most is what other people think about which team you should be in. With the triathlons I participated in, there were only two categories: men and women. I emailed the organization and asked if they would add a third category and they did. Sometimes it sucks that you have to be your own spokesperson, but through that you can create space for yourself. You’re not a burden, you’re just asking to be welcomed like everyone else.”
“You’re not a burden, you’re just asking to be welcomed like everyone else.”
“In the media we see that with trans people playing sports it’s always about numbers and manipulating the competition. The discussion is always: ‘You don’t fit in the system’. But we exist, and if we don’t fit the system, the system is wrong.
Luckily there are spaces that are safe and accessible for trans people, like Queer Gym (in Rotterdam), Arie Boomsma’s gym (Vondel Gym) and in Utrecht there are ‘queer boulder nights’, for example.”
“Something I hope to do is go on a cycling holiday in South-America or Cuba. Right now my biggest dream is to exercise without breasts, and luckily that will become a reality soon. I’m even looking forward to running, and I don’t even really like doing that!”
Iris M Illari a.k.a. Luluh Bodega, 27 years old (she/her, he/him) – ballroom dancer, student and dance teacher
“Since I was about seven, I’ve always danced in my own room. Back home in Ecuador we didn’t have money for dance classes, so I would watch Shakira videos. She was kind of my dance teacher. While playing outside, I would always be busy with moving and playing sports, like volleyball and soccer. I didn’t go to any real dance classes until I was 21.”
“I’m studying to be a dance teacher at the AHK (Amsterdamse Hogeschool voor de Kunsten, or Amsterdam Art School). When I told people at the AHK that I was starting hormones, it went really smoothly. Classmates also responded in a nice way. At the beginning, we would do a round of names, and I said, ‘but you can call me Luluh’. Everyone did. That was magical to me.
Not everyone in the world of dance is like that. For instance, we had two choreographers from the field and they were a bit old fashioned. My body didn’t match the standard female body, but I told them I wanted to dance with the women. The nice thing is, that then you create a moment that makes them think instead of you. Because the norm that they’ve learned is outdated.”
“Ballroom dancer Gaby Vineyard introduced my best friend and me to vogue and ballroom. We loved it, but it took a year before we picked up the courage to go to the first class. Now I’ve been a ballroom dancer for three years and the most beautiful thing about it to me, is that it’s a way to get to know different queer communities. And being on the stage gives you such a rush of adrenaline.
Ballroom originated in the United States, it was a way for brown and Black trans people to express themselves. Ever since I was a child, I felt that I was more than the world could see, but I repressed it. Within ballroom, femme queens, trans women, have high status. My best friend discovered who she was through ballroom and that was really inspiring to me. She died two years ago and a few months later I knew, ‘I’m a trans body. I’m not gonna deny that’.”
“Sometimes I find it hard that my body is changing, for example when I wear a bra. I don’t like bras, but my boobs are growing. When I dance, I’m rolling around the floor and that is uncomfortable. But every time I feel that, I also think, ‘okay, aight, at least I’m feeling it’. Transitioning has made me a more confident dancer, but I also feel a bit out of shape, because I have to relearn my body. At the moment, I only wear wigs, that makes me feel nice and more like myself. When I’m dancing, sometimes I’m stressing out and thinking: is my wig still okay?”
I teach Vogue Fem classes. That style of dance is really an expression of where you come from and what your story is. Not too long ago I was in Madrid to give a workshop. People turned up shy and with drooping shoulders, but when they left, they stood up proud and tall. That’s why I do it. Vogue comes from brown and Black people, but our community is inclusive. So all queer bodies can vogue.”
Romy Rockx, 31 years old (he/him) – personal trainer and founder of Queer Gym in Rotterdam
“I used to do a lot of theater, which meant I didn’t always have time for sports. I did play competitive rugby at a high level, but not until I was older. I didn’t start fitness until I started a course to become a personal trainer. I had done a fitness class here and there, but I didn’t understand why I was doing it. Now I understand really well: fitness is just playing, with your body and with weights. And I love to play.
With fitness, you are confronted less with gender, because you’re not in a ‘gendered’ team or competition. Although it is often said with fitness or crossfit, ‘this is a men’s barbell and this is a women’s barbell’. One of them is fifteen kilos and the other twenty. Let’s just say that! Those kinds of terms create a division.”
“There is a kind of masculine experience in lifting. You can feel your muscles thicken. That’s a very bodily sensation that to me is really gender affirming. I actually think it’s nonsense – as if all men have a lot of muscles – but it does feel that way.
It’s important that you can wear whatever you want while exercising. If you like wearing three hoodies and really slouchy sweatpants, then you can. You don’t always have to make a statement if that doesn’t feel safe.”
“I didn’t start transitioning until I was 28, and especially when you’re in the more ambivalent phase of your transition, you don’t know: should I explain things to people? Which locker room should I go to? I thought, maybe there is a place for trans people to go, but it didn’t exist at the time. That’s when I founded Queer Gym. My parents both donated 1000 euros, so that I could study to become a personal trainer. Through some contacts I found an anti-squatting space and that’s when I started giving classes.
“It’s about finding freedom in your body, instead of hearing that you can’t join
At Queer Gym, it’s about fun and movement, in the broadest sense of the word. It’s about finding freedom in your body, instead of hearing that you can’t join because you’re too fat, too slow or too femme. It’s your body and everyone can become stronger. Everyone! Progressing doesn’t mean you lift heavier weights every week. Progressing is also when you feel less tired or you walk out of the supermarket with your bags and think, ‘hey, that’s easy!’
There have been times in my life when I didn’t move a lot, and those were really unhappy periods. I know that when I exercise, even if it’s only for ten minutes, I feel better in my body. If you don’t feel good or you’re waiting for things for a long time, at least you moved that day. It’s a basic need, and you might as well make it fun for yourself.”