"The gym gave me a glimpse of who I am and now I am becoming that! The excitement and relief can be overwhelming."
I first met 30 year old, transgender powerlifter Jaxson Jay out at PTC Sydney when he was prepping for Australia's invite only powerlifting event ProRaw 8. But recently, when I published an article on women's PED use in strength sports, I was lucky enough to have Jaxson share his thoughts on femininity. I definitely appreciated him pulling me up on some dangerous generalisations I started to make in my article and exploring my personal thoughts on the issues. As a transgender strength athlete, I feel Jaxson is in a unique position to offer really valuable insight into issues around gender and testosterone. This interview is not about PEDs, but about his personal story, passion and the strength he has derived from training.
Jaxson is coached by Luke Shakespeare and trains out of DBS Barbell Sydney. Most recently, he competed at NSW GPC States at PTC Sydney achieving a 182.5kg squat, a120kg bench and a 197.5kg deadlift to bring his competition total to an inspiring 500kg. Prior to commencing his transition, he competed at ProRaw 8 at a bodyweight of 60kg and achieved impressive lifts of 140/90/170 with a total of 400kg. He points out that his lifts have changed dramatically and continue to change all the time since starting testosterone, "I’ve put 12.5 kg on my bench press in 4 months!! (WTF seriously????)".
Which is your favourite lift? Bench Press
Can you remember your worst stalling period and what you might have done to push through it? I have always struggled with squat. It is by far the hardest lift for me, I went through a period where I could barely squat without my form breaking down for months – what did I do? I squatted more – I stripped back to a weight that I could do without my form breaking down and I did high volume sets e.g. 6x6 and 8x8 with long paused squats (3 second pauses) 3 x a week. I squatted until I saw the light.
I took on Luke Shakespeare before ProRaw8 and did 8 weeks of conditioning before the strength phase of the program, it was intense! But that is where I saw the most improvement in my squat, it became very consistent after his program.
""Training is a major part of my journey because it brings out a part of myself that is authentic and genuine. I need to feel that to survive!"
How and when did training become a part of your life? I owned horses before I moved to Sydney when I was 19, they kept me very busy looking after them twice daily and riding 4 x a week. I moved to Sydney and did nothing physical, it wasn’t long before I noticed how hyperactive I am, the anxiety set in and the sleepless nights so I joined a gym to expend the extra energy. It wasn’t until I started exploring the possibility that I was transgender that I realised that this anxiety and restlessness I had was all part of the ongoing feelings of mismatch between my body and mind. The gym and training was and is pivotal to managing these symptoms. For most of my 20’s the only place where I really started to feel myself, and to engage with myself, where I got a taste of who I am/wanted to be was at the gym. Moving my body and developing strength made me feel more myself than anything else. Being strong physically made me strong emotionally and mentally which helped me cope. Not only this but it gave me something to hold on to, a part of me that I could live with.
I was a gym bunny until I got bored and my bro in law introduced me to Trent Nguyen at PTC Sydney, a powerlifting gym. When I joined he said to me ‘everyone here competes regardless’ so I started a training program and competed at GPC nationals in 2014. I went 112.5/82.5(GPC NR)/120 When I started training in powerlifting I was instantly hooked, this sport is about strength but not about who can lift the most. I was blown away at how easy going the PL community was and how invested they were in their own strength and how they projected that to other lifters. After about a month of training at PTC I told Trent that I felt rude to put my earphones in, in case people want to talk or say hi or break down my lifting. The community of PL was what hooked me in the most.
How did you arrive at powerlifting? My brother in law is an MMA fighter and invited me to train with him at a performance based gym PTC Sydney. I really loved all the equipment and the lifters at the gym and joined a month later. I worked out at a conventional gym before this and was so bored.
What do you like about it? Like I said, mostly the community feel, the comradery. I like the passion that people put into lifting for themselves and for others. I’ve seen so many awesome lifters become coaches in their own right just because they have so much passion for the sport and are genuinely invested in other peoples performance. This inspired me a lot and got me hooked in to my own lifting and performance. I really loved the shift away from what I looked like over to what I could do and how I could do it. I loved breaking down lifts and discussing programming and nutrition with all the people at the gym, it was stimulating and I developed personally as a result. I say this in the past tense but it is still the same today. The guys I train with at the gym discuss PL and nothing is off topic. They throw around ideas and develop each others lifting in a communal way. It is collaboration at its best! Its very encouraging and supportive of even the new guy who is just starting out.
What is your definition of transgender? Transgender is a term that is defined as a person with a gender identity different to their assigned sex at birth. Transsexual is a term defined as a person who assumes the role of the gender other than the gender assigned at birth. However, transgender has become the term used more popularly today as a gender identity that is different than their assigned sex at birth. For me I am transgender as I identify as male but was assigned female at birth. I am taking hormones to assume the presentation and physiology of a biological male. Not all transgender people identify solely as a gender other than the gender assigned at birth and not all transgender people take hormones or change the way they look to present more closely as their gender.
"Living in your own skin is so real it can be too intense. When I began medically transitioning I was thrown at full throttle into my body, having been surviving in a dissociative state previously, now I experience everything in full colour and light. "
Can you give me a bit of a personal background to where you’ve been and where you are now? - whatever you are comfortable to share. I knew from a very young age (4) that I was uncomfortable in my body however I didn’t know why, and I had no capacity to express my discomfort or even really understand it. This discomfort was made worse, and at times unbearable, by assuming the gender roles of my assigned sex – such as wearing dresses for family photo shoots, gendered clothing, and when activities were gendered.
Because I was unable to express my discomfort I developed ways to survive through numerous coping mechanisms, some were healthy and productive such as training/sport/activities and some were destructive an unhealthy such as self harming/risk taking.
What really fuelled me all the way to my PL days was the expression or idea that girls couldn’t do the same things, nor do things as well as a boy could. This idea infuriated me even as a child and I would constantly challenge people with this idea directly, or would challenge the societal notion that girls couldn’t do things as well as boys. I became confrontational and obnoxious and I never excused myself on this front regardless of the topic, or the person I was challenging. This is still a belief for me, however I don’t feel it as acutely now that I have realised myself and am becoming myself, I believe part of the reason that fuelled me so much is that I took it as saying –because of the way you are, you can’t do these things- and I couldn’t accept that, not on any level, and I could not accept that for other people either and I found myself pushing for gender equality even in primary school!
Every single body deserves a chance or a shot at whatever it is; gender, race, sexuality make up huge parts of our identity but do not define our capacity to perform. Our capacity to perform should never be questioned based on these physical and psyche attributes, for me it is a violation of some natural law, by questioning someones performance based on what they are made up of instantly disempowers them. We all have the capacity and we all deserve a chance, even if we are perceived to have more obstacles than others.
One of my most effective coping mechanisms for dealing with my inner turmoil was to maintain an extremely busy lifestyle. I filled up every hour of the day with activities such as full time work, gym, university. I kept on with project after project to keep myself from getting in touch with myself.
The discomfort which is generally described as dysphoria, or dysmorphia, is a feeling of dissatisfaction and unease with a part or parts of the body. In my body there was a major mismatch between my physical body and my brain and mind. I thought and felt one way but my body was another. This feeling was constant, every day and at times would be so intense I couldn’t sleep, I would self harm to interrupt the anxiety it produced, I would find it difficult to leave the house, I developed social anxiety. This ongoing dysphoria was worse through puberty and gradually consumed me until I turned 26 and had to stop running away from it. I began counselling and over the course of 4 years I stubbornly came to begin to accept myself and grant myself the life that I needed to keep on living.
As I grew up I developed a deep web of self rejection and denial, I felt so wrong yet I had no idea why and I needed to survive. I met a transgender person when I was 23 and he opened up a lot of questions for me, I realised for myself that I was transgender when I was 26 and it took me 3 years to develop the courage to come out to my family and to start making changes. I changed my name first from Chloe to Jaxson in 2015, I have a very supportive family and friendship network who all helped me figure out my name. Then in June 2016 I began the medical transition which involves taking testosterone. Initially I began with testogel which increased my testosterone blood levels from 1.5 – 17. I began Reandron 1000mg/ml which is a 12 week injection that slowly breaks down in the body, I didn’t find this really worked for me as my blood levels dropped to 6.3, so I changed to Primotestin 250mg/ml fortnightly injections. I have changed a lot since I began the medical transition; physically I have grown a lot of hair! Mostly on my legs and stomach and face. The structure of my face has changed and become more square, I have a wider brow and squarer jaw. I have developed more muscle in my legs and shoulders and back, my shoulders are much broader as well. I have also developed a deeper voice which changes constantly and probably will keep changing for another year. Over the last 2 months I have been recognised as male out and about 90% of the time.
Emotionally I have changed as well, I am much more settled now that I am honouring myself and becoming who I am. That person I saw glimpses of at the gym is now coming out in other areas of my life which is a relief. I am able to stay grounded around other people and engage meaningfully socially.
In terms of transitioning, I'm interested in the practicalities in terms of lifting...competition and training. Training doesn’t really change too much, I train for competition. I usually train with a goal in mind. When I started transitioning I had just come off the back of 2 years straight competing ever 3-4 months and I was very drained. My bench press had not really changed in those 2 years so I decided to concentrate on equipped bench pressing with the goal of competing at Sydney cup. Training like this plus the testosterone added 12.5 kg to my raw bench press and i pressed a solid 130kg in the bench shirt (which I had outgrown by the time I competed!!!!). Now I am training for push/pull in December and will compete next year, however I am considering competing equipped rather than raw 3 lift.
Now that I identify as male I compete in the male division 67.5kg and under. This is obviously a massive shift for me. I have competed with women up until now and had always pitched myself against them. The bar was very high with the competition I had and definitely unsurpassable for me. Lifting with women was a highlight for me even though I was never comfortable as a woman. I loved the strength and the determination, female PL is very different from male PL in that the community and the vibe is so supportive, understanding. There was competition but we all encouraged each other, understood each other and backed each other. At the high level comps we all knew each others limits and knew whether the lift was a winner, or a PB. The atmosphere was excellent because of the context of feminism for me. Female PL is the ultimate in female camaraderie, teamwork and strength. These sentiments are within my own experience as a 60kg lifter. Don’t get me started on the SHW women! These women inspire me as well, if not more. To be honest, I never payed any attention to male lifting at all, I actually found it boring until now because it has more context for me. Before now watching a sub 80kg male lifter hit a 200kg squat was irrelevant to me, not I can see how strong some of the male lifters are probably because the context has changed for me.
"Lifting with women was a highlight for me even though I was never comfortable as a woman. I loved the strength and the determination! Female PL is very different from male PL in that the community and the vibe is so supportive and understanding. There was competition but we all encouraged each other, understood each other and backed each other."
Jax with some of the women of the female Powerlifting community - Sarah, Laura & Josie @ ProRaw 8
Yep, I would totally agree. I’m only really interested in female lifting - because it gives my own performance context (whether that is good or bad I have no idea…) I think it's good thing, because of that context. It is relevant to you and your lifting which will make you and other women perform better because of the community that you build through your work as a powerlifter, a female athlete and a journalist (is that what you are?!). Also by building communities of women, and other minorities (like trans ppl) and then shining a light on them through this kind of work you are creating visibility. Visibility for minorities has always paved the way for equality, and by equality I dont just mean equal rights for all, I mean that visibility provides support to a vulnerable community, this support represents solidarity which says to other people in those communities that it is ok, and GREAT to be a woman who lifts heavy weights, its great to be transgender. This kind of solidarity is key to representation and advocation. This shit changes lives!
If you previously measured yourself against female competition, how do you approach the new context? Does it make you concentrate more on your personal abilities rather than the competition etc. I previously measured myself against female competition even though I wasn’t necessarily comfortable in a female body. I was lucky that I was relatively strong for my weight and then gender and had a lot of opportunities to compete against the best in Australia. While I was strong, and I have a killer bench press I could never stack up against the top 5, this never deterred me though because the benefits that I gained from competing against these women made me stronger. It also made me explore new training strategies, It was exciting to hit a new standard to have that standard be shifted higher again by the top ladies. It is a very exciting time to be a female powerlifter in Australia!!
Now I am competing as male, I go into competition with a huge deficit. My lifts are nothing compared to the competition that I am used to competing against. This hasn’t really changed my perception of lifting or my own process though, I’ve always trained to improve strength in the three lifts, I have always trained to release the stress I build from my internal struggles. This won’t change, however with this fuel I will progress which is all I can ask for, it is all any lifter can ask for, to keep moving forward and to keep getting stronger and improve technique.
One thing that will shift for me going forward is that I will be lifting more using equipment, I plan to compete at least once in 2017 in a 3 lift meet equipped. I used an equipped bench program to improve my raw bench press and it worked a treat. The hope is that by using equipment I will be able to handle heavier loads and build the neuromuscular framework required to squat and deadlift a decent weight for my new weight and gender division raw.
How important is competing to you? Competition is very important – it provides me with goals, it keeps me on track, I learn more competing about myself than if I only train in the gym.
Have your goals for lifting changed at all? Because the competition has shifted even higher my expectations have increased. This will change the way I push myself in the gym for the competitions in 2017. I will also compete equipped at least once in 2017 and I hope I will gain a lot out of training in equipment that will carry over to my raw lifts.
You’ve competed at the highest level in Australia with ProRaw - which is invitational. Do you have your sights set on competing in the male divisions? I will compete in the male divisions yes but I definitely do not lift to the calibre of the male lifters in my weight class. I think it is realistic to assume that ProRaw8 was my last ProRaw!
Are the weight classes different? No but I was 63kg in June this year and I currently weigh just under 70kg! so I will go from competing at 60kg to competing at 67.5kg
Are there trans powerlifting competitions? As far as I know there are no transgender specific powerlifting competitions. I know there was recently a powerlifting competition at a transgender specific fitness expo in the US. I also believe there is a Powerlifting competition at the Gay Games, however I haven’t heard of anything locally.
Have you explored any restrictions you might face? Currently it is easy for a female to male transgender person to compete in the male division even in drug tested sports and federations as long as the testosterone levels are the same as that of a cisgender (born male) male.
When I registered for Sydney cup in October this year as Male I was contacted by the NSW official who said that he didn’t know the process and would need to contact the other officials to decide on what to do. The president of GPC contacted me and asked me to write up a transgender policy for the GPC powerlifting federation. I took my hat off to these guys for showing up and sorting out this area of their policy. Especially for their willingness to work with me on it. Respect.
Are there any changes, for you with training? Are there any differences in your programming, appetite, recovery, diet etc. With training I test my maxes and upper limits a lot more, I am more likely to include heavy singles into my training at fortnightly or monthly intervals, this is because my strength and technique has changed so much since starting transitioning and continues to change. I do this to see where I am at and what my upper limits are. I push conservatively though because I know that my chances of injury are much higher at this time while muscle is building and my ligaments and tendons are trying to adapt and keep up.
My appetite changed, I can eat a lot more than I used to however I get hungry less, probably due to blood sugar handling balancing. I developed a distaste for sugar and caffeine and basically anything refined or processed, it is much easier for me to stick to a diet now. I have low protein and am working hard to improve this, my cholesterol took a massive dive and so I am working on improving this as well. I have basically added more protein into my diet and a lot more good fats like avocado, nuts, coconut oil, olive oil, chia seeds etc. I take a lot of supportive supplements which has helped with fatigue and possible side effects of taking testosterone (like acne). Recovery is RIDICULOUS! I literally can’t feel anything when I train, I don’t feel tight or sore or strain in the slightest. I barely get DOMS at the moment. This tells me that I can increase my rep range or that I can get away with the extra heavy singles. I felt my muscle become much tighter though as a result of the effect of testosterone on protein synthesis and muscle development but they seem to be much more explosive due to this, the stretch reflex is much easier to engage now than it ever used to be.
I do struggle stretching out these muscles though and find I get a lot less relief from stretching and have chosen active recovery and warm ups to include with the static stretching. I require a lot more magnesium nowadays than I ever used to take.
What kind of effect you've noticed if any from meds with your strength? As I mentioned above, the testosterone has really increased my strength. I bench 12.5kg more than my most recent comp press, I can squat my max wrapped weight raw without too much of prep or peak. I haven’t deadlifted much so I will be interested in what I can do at Push/Pull however I will be happy just to match my current max with the little prep that I’ve had.
Training is a major part of my journey because it brings out a part of myself that is authentic and genuine. I need to feel that to survive! It wasn’t just that I was doing masculine things either, It gave me a vehicle to express my nature and role play myself. Now that I have begun to medically transition and my physiology is changing, I am beginning to see this feeling seep into other aspects of my life. The gym gave me a glimpse of who I am and now I am becoming that. The excitement and relief can be overwhelming! As I mentioned above the neuromuscular drive of my muscles has changed, I seem to be able to coordinate everything easier and stay a lot tighter than before. I have gained muscle mass however it seems that the quality of muscle has changed, I am much denser and the muscle is tenser than it was, which has amplified the stretch reflex action in the squat. My upper body strength and power has improved greatly since I began the transition as well, my bone density and distribution has changed in my upper body and my shoulders are much broader, while my bench press technique is the same I have noticed that I am able to muscle my way through previous sticky points.
Its pretty standard that almost every interview I’ve ever done involves at least in some way, me asking about self esteem and body image. Do you identify (or have you) with the common theme of women afraid of becoming “bulky” etc. Or do you have totally different self esteem issues? or none at all? As a transgender person I desperately wanted my inner self to be reflected physically and I wanted to become very muscular and bulky when I started training at the gym at 19/20. I struggled with body image and unhealthy food habits all my teenage and adult life. For me training released so much stress and tension, and allowed me some space to express who I really felt I was inside that it negated some of these issues. It made me feel more in my body than not. Now that I am changing physically and hormonally I am seeing myself reflected physically and it brings me so much relief. The shift I made when I started powerlifting was from body image to strength and technique which was really important for me because training wasn’t really changing my body image the way I needed it to.
The self esteem issues I have had may be slightly different than what most women experience in sport however are similar in how they can affect a person I think. The insecurities that I have now have changed from what they were before transitioning. Before transitioning I felt my body acutely, the dysphoria that I experienced from being in the wrong body and experiencing the mis match made me feel very small, low confidence. I had no pride in my body,only in what it could do, but even then that meant very little to me. For a while training kept me going because it was the only environment I could express my inner self in,but no one else ever saw or recognised this person only I could feel it. The way I looked and trained meant nothing to me except this. Towards the end there training stopped filling this void and I became very anxious. For a long time I felt like a shell of a person but now that has changed and there is more space to feel like myself and let myself grow and come through. Because of the physical changes my sense of self is developing and I am beginning to improve my self esteem. I have insecurities now like a lack of confidence in myself. The feeling of being a fraud, a fake male. Not feeling male enough to exist in the world, trying to be less socially awkward. Especially now competing as male I feel a kind of pressure or a kind of deficit like I don’t really belong in that gender group.
How has your lifting community reacted to or supported you? The gym that I train in DBS barbell is owned by a couple of top fellas who really strive to develop a community feel. They are really passionate about every aspect of powerlifting and strongman. When I changed my name in November 2015 everyone at the gym took to it and I was very rarely referred to by my old name. Ando, one of the owners of the gym told me that he and his brother caught up around feb/march for breaky and struggled to remember my old name!
When I decided to come out as transgender/male to the gym I changed my lifts on the leaderboard from under the female division to under the male division, I posted a photo of the new leaderboard to our facebook group and I got a lot of congratulations! I have had really amazing support from the group of guys and girls at the gym, they are totally on board with the pronouns and I have never been misgendered. They talk openly about testosterone and the effects it has had on my training, they are respectful but they in no way ignore the process. It is a really awesome feeling to not just feel accepted, but also to feel included and celebrated within the strength community. Members of the gym notice the change in my voice, in my strength levels and they notice other physical changes, they don’t ignore it but talk about it openly with me. DBS barbell is a seriously awesome gym full of upstanding individuals, my transition and their support of my transition is a real testament to that.
It is unfortunately, a very common story that transgender people are rejected, excluded and bullied in public spaces. This can be done directly to them or indirectly through passive means and exclusion. This can wreak havoc on someone who is already vulnerable while they are going through these changes. I don’t know a single transgender person who hasn’t struggled with some level of self acceptance, and having other people reject them only fuels this feeling that there is inherently something wrong with them and that they don’t deserve to, or are not worth any ones time. While this sounds dramatic it is a very real thing for many transgender people to feel isolated and excluded especially in public spaces. At least half of people identifying as transgender attempt suicide at least once in their life, while I like to think I have the support network around me to prevent this, the lack of self worth and brittle self esteem can be broken so easily, and it takes an incredible amount of strength and trust to rebuild it. I feared rejection for many years and my fear played a huge role in my struggle because it made me put off this process for years. To be accepted and supported in my gym gives me more than they probably know, in terms of self confidence, a safe place to train and be myself. My personal development has benefited from these individuals and their support more than it would have without them.
What’s the best thing about being physically strong or training strength? Being physically strong fuels my emotional and mental strength, powerlifting challenges my confidence and gives me obstacles to develop not just physical strength but all other facets. For me it has helped me deal with varying levels of self rejection in my adult life. Now I am transitioning my physical strength holds me up at times where I question other parts of myself.
How does what you face in training carry over to the rest of your life? The resilience and strength I develop in training has flowed into my personal life and has contributed to my personal development. Particularly the resilience, I have needed to draw on all levels of strength to stay alive and grant myself this process of change.
Who inspires you? I have a few inspirational people from the lifting community that I look to. Amanda Price is one of them, she inspires me because she is a SHW female who deals with layers of different struggles to out perform herself and others (read an amazing article Amanda wrote, "What if You're Already Bulky?"). She is also open about these struggles and admire her for both dealing with them and pushing forward and talking about them. Critta Stamatiou is another inspiration from the lifting community mainly because he is really strong, and because he has overcome a lot through injuries and surgery to be on top of the game, I draw inspiration from him to reach my goals even though they may feel unreachable. Janae Marie Kroczaleski is another inspirational person from the fitness community as she is transgender and was a professional powerlifter and bodybuilder. She shares her stories of struggle and celebration of self openly, her struggles are similar to other female lifters in that she has felt the need to fit into an accepted body weight and figure type for women, and has struggled with self esteem issues around being loved and attractive. She has taken to the transgender community and been a great role model for transgender people coming out and finding themselves.
Do you have a mantra or a quote that you draw strength from? Strong is strong
Do you even not lift? I’m a full time chiropractor and I tutor anatomy at Macquarie university in Sydney. My life outside of lifting is blowing up with career opportunities and ongoing professional development. I love my job, my patients and the students I teach. This year was so challenging for me personally but all of my patients, colleagues and students have taken my changes in their stride and accepted me. I was so fearful before coming out and going through the transition but everyones reaction, support and the level of respect they have shown for me and my journey has renewed my faith in the world. People are incredible, I just needed to give them the opportunity to show me. I’ve got 2 jack russells and a one eyed cat called Howard, I spend most of my spare time with my partner or in my garden.
Jaxson and his finace Hilary 2017
Thank you for sharing your story with us Jaxson xx