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CrossFit, Sports, Leaderboards and Gender Identity.

January 3, 2015
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The new leaderboards at Rocket, explained.

I really thought that the gym my husband and I own would be the one place where I wouldn’t fumble on gender politics and their surprising manifestations. I mean, I know they’re everywhere, but…  They pop up where you least expect them, even for those of us who have dedicated the lion’s share of our adult life to addressing them where they hide; everywhere from education to sex to athletics. I, personally, have used all the various skills that I have to help people understand not only the differences between sex, gender, sexual orientation and expression, but to also help people understand why it matters on a level of fundamental human rights.

Until a few days ago, I thought I was pretty solid in matching my actions to my words. Until, that is, some athletes earned spots on the leaderboard, but didn’t want to claim them, because the list on which they earned a spot did match their biology, but not their gender identity.

FUCK.

Although I know this isn’t about me, I’d be leaving out a big detail if I didn’t say that I felt like shit. I had, basically, set this beautiful table and invited everyone, but when it came time to eat, there was no seat at the table for these athletes. While my shitty feeling is utterly irrelevant, it showed me that I did have to take responsibility for that oversight. And I had to fix it, for everyone.

Now, to be clear, they were not mad in any way. Anyone who knows us and our gym knows that we are a really sweaty rainbow and go out of our way to support equality, love and identity however it manifests. But still, there we were. Looking up at the board together, and sure enough, if you want a place on the board (which you earn) then you have to be willing to identify as either a man or a woman. And that simply is not a comfortable place for a lot of people. Many of whom are amongst my favorite people, and who work out at Rocket.

SHIT.

But, yay. We had been handed an opportunity to solve a puzzle that would impact a whole lot of people, just in our gym alone.

If it were a cartoon, run at high-speed, the last 10 days of sorting through this would be comical. It involved chatting with statisticians, mathematicians, queer friends of all presentations, coaches, athletes, my husband, my daughter and my dog (who had precious little to offer.) Phone calls, text messages (across hemispheres!), emails, coffee… It would have shown smoke coming out of my ears from anger at the binary as well as confusion trying to subvert one system while making a new one that was fair, logical and statistically rational. And also tequila.

We ran through EVERYTHING we could think of. Most of which didn’t work for a variety of reasons.

Gender Neutral Boards? NO. For a lot of reasons, most of which get down to the unavoidable reality that the boards would be mostly men. (By which I mean “cismen,” a term that people ought to know, if you don’t already. It means men who were born with anatomy generally accepted as male, assigned the sex of “male” at birth and that see themselves as men.) (Obviously, the same logic applies to the word “ciswoman.” Assigned the sex of “female” at birth, and feel like a woman. I am a ciswoman.)

A third category? NO. That would “otherize” people in a way that just feels bad to me. Like there are humans, and then these other things. Nobody I asked wanted to be part of the “other” group. Which didn’t surprise me, but I did need to check with others. (That pun was not intended, but I’m totally leaving it.)

Force people to line up and shut-up? NO. Not okay. At the very least, we needed to acknowledge that the binary didn’t work for everyone. The very least we all deserve is simple acknowledgement of who we are.

Get rid of leaderboards? We actually thought about this one. But no. A lot of people love them and are motivated by them. And the workouts, as written are the one common language amongst CrossFit gyms, despite the fact that, as gyms, we all vary massively. Fran is Fran no matter where you go. (Fran is also scaled, with different weights for men and women. A move that is intended to address biology, but does not address gender identity.)

I roped more than a dozen people into this conversation, which had now grown well beyond just the small handful of athletes for whom this was becoming immediately necessary. This is an issue of culture. Although our little gym is just one place, I want it to be a place at which everyone knows that they do, in fact, have a place.

And who knows, maybe some of our athletes who have never thought about these issues will now. As a result, we could help spread a little more compassion into the world outside our doors.

Which is not an irrelevant point. We have an opportunity here to increase awareness. After all, if the leaderboards hadn’t occurred to me, they probably hadn’t occurred to a lot of people. If the humanity of this very personal and relatable situation made something very clear to me, it could probably do that for others. We were handed an opportunity to use something tangible to make a seemingly complicated situation, simple.

Interestingly, one of the ideas that we rejected did hand us a small truth on which we built our very simple solution. At one point we “joked” about making the leaderboards say “cisMEN” and “Everyone Else.” While obviously not a workable solution, it came from a conversation with a friend who runs support groups in the LGBTQ world. Because when looking at “privilege” in this world, it often boils down to that.

Now, “privilege” was not a word we were willing to use in this instance, because no one was trying to seize an advantage with a political motive in a way that subjugated the opportunity of others. And we don’t want Rocket to be “that” place where everything is political. (Really, we try to avoid politics altogether, opting just to lead by example.)  At the same time, it was undeniable to us that the advantage went that way. So we had to think about the fact that if we did call it out that way, some people would feel uncomfortable.

We decided that was okay. Having to think about something new, or from a new perspective, can be uncomfortable, but it’s also the only way that things change. (And honestly, our members are so awesome, we knew it would be a short-lived discomfort.) Although that idea was totally rejected, because it’s totally stupid, it allowed us to do what we did. Which ended up being very small, but offering everyone the chance to think about something in a new way.

That said, here’s what we did.

Next to the words “Men” and “Women” on the leaderboards, we put the symbol for transgender people. Simple. We didn’t change any definitions, but, to us, that symbol serves as a modifier of the word before it. In our eyes, the signs now read “Men, whatever that means to you.” And “Women, whatever that means to you.”

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What do the new leaderboards mean?

And then we posted this sign, right in the middle of all the leaderboards. But let me take a minute to expand on what it means.

  1. “Men” and “Women” on the board refers to competition standards based on biology. When it comes to athletics, the competition standards are at least believed to be rooted in addressing the athletic advantage that cismen have over ciswomen. There are some men and women who undergo hormone therapy and surgery in order to help their physical body match their gender. They, then, either gain or lose that natural advantage, depending… (But regardless, their genitals, and what they do with them, are none of my business.) I have written at length about how fucked up CrossFit has been in dealing with trans athletes. That’s another subject, but feel free to read up on it. In this case, we were simply trying to address that even if we inherited these workouts and this binary competition standard, that doesn’t change what we believe about gender identity: You get to identify however you want.
  1. Biology does not define gender. Gender identity is, to a large degree, a social construct. There are some differences between “men” and “women” that are physiological (though far fewer than most people think.) If you are a man named Sally or a woman named Fred, it’s fine with us. We happily acknowledge that you don’t rock the binary. But if you’re a man named Sally, and your biology is all female, you are not likely to earn a spot on the men’s side, so you are welcome to earn a spot on the board where your biology allows it, and we will not demand that you identify as a “woman” to do so. Just, “whatever that means to you.” We also won’t force you to call yourself out specifically, but if you want to, you are more than welcome to.
  1. Your gender does not define you. It does not confine you to a list, a category, an acceptable range of behaviors and emotions, or anything else. As a result, we won’t define or confine you either.
  1. You define you. Period. You tell us what you want to be called, you tell us how you see yourself, you tell us what you need from us. It is our place to help you be the best you that you can be, based on your own goals, your own sense of self and whatever else you bring to us. Period.
  1. We’re glad you’re here, and we’re glad you’re kicking ass. And this, more than any other point, means the world to me. Through this whole process of trying to sort this out, the thing that I have been most struck by is the fact that I did not have one moment of anxiety in terms of how our community would accept whatever change we came up with. Not one. Why? Largely because you’re already here, kicking ass, being awesome and being loved. Just like everyone else. Like, really, no different from anyone else.

Every time we sweat together, and achieve together, we change the world together. As simple as it sounds, just being present with each other is how we learn to stop otherizing “those people.” Whether we’re talking about sex, sexuality, race, religion, gender or anything else. When we get to know each other as humans sharing an experience, we break down borders in our hearts and in our communities.

So there you have it. After almost two weeks of trying to figure out how to acknowledge that not everyone fits into the binary, while also acknowledging the competition standards of this sport, this is what we did. This is about gym culture, not about competitive athletics, it’s not a call to change The Games or anything else. It’s about how we treat people in our own gyms, which are beholden to no standard other than that of human decency and integrity.

It seems so small. It’s really just an invitation. To be who you are. To know that you’re not stuck. To think about things that you’ve never thought about before. To know that everything still works just fine. To…..

I don’t know if this is the end of the story. But I do hope this is the beginning of many conversations. And I hope we are not the only gym to do this. For the most part, nothing has changed.

But everything has.

UPDATE, November 2016: We got rid of leaderboards. For a lot of reasons. The gender binary was one of them, but only one. The larger issue is that we’re not about “winning” so much as doing. And now we have even more gorgeous brick walls to look at. 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2015 6:57 am

    I can’t express how much I just want to like this all day long. I coach high school girls (biological) cross country and we are JUST barely starting to consider challenges with the binary system as a state. Besides the more basic issue of people being assholes sometimes, the largest challenge that we face is biology. A biological female who identifies (and wants to compete as) male is at a biological speed disadvantage, so no one is going to complain about that. However, a biological male who identifies as female? She’s going to be way ahead of the ciswomen with whom she competes. I don’t have any answers as to how we keep things “fair” for everyone, but I love your description of the process you all underwent. Bravo.

  2. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    January 4, 2015 8:29 am

    As I’m sure you can guess, we went through about a million permutations before we arrived here. And they were all crazy-making, the “what-ifs” and “buts” were so many…… I mean, SOOOO MANY permutations of not only sex and gender, but how they impact athletic performance. If you really start exploring it, it gets more and more complicated. So, in the end, all we could do was make sure that people know we “get it,” and we see them for who they are. And if we have a man with female biology who earns a spot on the men’s board, I will have no problem putting him on the men’s board. But I was most thrilled to realize that we didn’t have any men in our community who would game the system in the reverse way. It’s about how you live your whole life, not how you score your WOD. So to speak.

  3. Alyssa Royse permalink*
    January 4, 2015 10:58 am

    This post is spreading far enough outside of CrossFit that I feel like I should explain how the leaderboards and benchmark WODs work. These boards are for WODs that CrossFit gyms around the world do. They are all the same. Each WOD (workout) is a combination of moves (or sometimes just one move) and you are ranked based on how many times you do it, or how fast you do it or….. The deal is that it is a single standard, and everyone does the same thing. Most of them have two weights listed. In theory, one for men and one for women. Whichever weight you do is the “list” you earn a spot on.

    And now that I say that, that might be the next modification we make to the boards, just list which weight you did at the top, and whoever does that, gets on that list. Seems obvious now. (Though then you get into the whole thing of, what if someone who is athletically advantaged as a male, but goes for the lighter weight and then it’s all men on all the boards, all the time….. I mean, hopefully you can see how hard this puzzle is to piece together in an equitable manner.)

    The “problem” is that if someone does the “women’s” weight because that’s their biological reality, and the weight they can do, but the identify as a man, it’s just not okay with me to not acknowledge that. But if they don’t want to be called out specifically as one thing or another, then I can’t force that either. And I would feel really shitty about just not having a spot for them, if they earn one.

    We write the two different weights on the board. We rarely say “men and women” for the weights, we just say the weights. They are what they are. But everyone knows the standard they refer to. And it gets back to the pre-established benchmark WODs that are standard around the world…..

    And they’re not supposed to be easy for anyone. They’re supposed to be hard. Not everyone can do them, and that’s okay. (I will never be on a leaderboard and rarely do the workouts as written, modifying things all the time.) This is definitely not an “everyone gets a cookie” situation. It’s dealing with what happened when you earn a spot, but don’t want it because of your gender identity, even though you do want it because you earned it.

  4. Susan permalink
    January 29, 2015 9:37 am

    I am the parent of a transgender athlete. I, too,would love to like this a million times. CrossFit has such a culture of inclusion, and has been so healing and powerful for our family. It’s so good to know people ‘get’ it.

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