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CrossFit Is a Home for Queer People Like Me

This week a high-ranking employee made homophobic statements, but the organization on the whole has shown itself to be an ally.

by Spenser Mestel
Jun 8 2018, 3:18pm

CrossFit Virtuosity/Flickr

On Wednesday night, Russell Berger, CrossFit's Chief Knowledge Officer, was fired after posting a series of homophobic tweets.

The controversy followed a scandal last Friday, when the owner of CrossFit Infiltrate, a CrossFit gym in Indianapolis, cancelled a Pride-themed workout with an email to members explaining that "true health forever can only be found within humility—not pride."

Berger, an Orthodox Christian pastor who lives in Alabama, tweeted his support for the owner on Wednesday, writing, "As someone who personally believes celebrating 'pride' is a sin, I'd like to personally encourage #CrossFitInfiltrate for standing by their convictions and refusing to host an @indypride workout.” By that afternoon, Berger had been placed on unpaid leave, and a few hours later, CrossFit HQ announced his termination.

For some, the reaction was not swift enough, and many questioned how long CrossFit knew about Berger's views and who else in the company may share them. But it's impossible to discern the private opinions of CrossFit's employees and to divine what beliefs the company really supports. What is clear is that as an organization, CrossFit has mostly embraced LGBTQ+ athletes over the years, and many have found a welcoming home in the sport.

It’s impossible to ignore CrossFit’s strong history of promoting its gay and lesbian athletes. In 2016, the company made a half-hour documentary about Nuno Costa, who competes in the team division and is, to my knowledge, the only elite male CrossFit athlete who has publicly identified himself as not straight. (As far as I can tell, no top CrossFit athletes have come out as transgender or gender-nonconforming.) But even back in in 2011, when public opinion about same-sex marriage was still evenly split, the organization’s CrossFit Journal published an interview with the girlfriend of Samantha Briggs, a CrossFit Games athlete from the UK.

The story proved to be pivotal for Michelle Kinney, who would later become a two-time CrossFit Games athlete. In 2011, Kinney had just started CrossFit in Tennessee, and while she says she never hid her identity from her fellow gym members, she was never too vocal about it—until she saw someone from her gym post that interview. "That was really big for me," she says, "to see that the community, from what I could tell, is super accepting. I just felt like, for so long, especially being from the South, it was always about hiding or being like, 'This is my friend,' 'This is my roommate.' That was a turning point for me. Like, you don't have to keep being that way."

Eventually, Kinney became an elite CrossFitter, and a few years later, she saw Briggs at a competition and told her how much that interview meant to her. The admission didn't lead to a heartfelt conversation, perhaps because, according to Kinney, her sexuality has never been an issue in the world of CrossFit.

That same sentiment was echoed by Cassidy Lance-McWherter, who, in this year's CrossFit Open—the five-week competition that kicks off the sport's competitive season — placed first out of a field of over 160,000 registered female athletes. For the first workout, Lance-McWherter was judged by her wife, who is also the co-owner of their gym in Orlando, Florida. This past weekend, Lance-McWherter once again proved her dominance by taking first at her Regional and qualifying for the Games for the fourth time.

If, when, and how CrossFit HQ chooses to emphasize the sexuality of these elite LGBTQ+ athletes is a difficult decision. When I spoke with Kinney, she was happy to open up about her coming out experiences. When I interviewed Lance-McWherter, she wasn't particularly eager to discuss her private life with me. Both approaches are equally deserving of respect, and they allude to the complexity of speaking about and speaking for minority groups.

But representation is obviously far from the only facet of inclusion. In 2014, a transgender woman was barred from competing in the women's division of the CrossFit Open. She was eight years removed from gender confirmation surgery and had legally changed her gender marker to “female” in the state of California, so she sued for her right to participate. The case was eventually settled (the details were never publicly disclosed), but CrossFit continues to insist that athletes can compete only under the gender they were assigned at birth — a position at odds with the International Olympic Committee's transgender guidelines, which now allows athletes to compete without undergoing gender confirmation surgery.

Still, CrossFit HQ's response to Russell Berger sends a message to its millions of social media followers about whose voices they will amplify, and what constitutes civil discourse. But just as the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling didn't eliminate homophobia, neither will the company's tweets end anti-LGBTQ+ bias in the sport. This is especially true considering that CrossFit operates on a franchise model, meaning that the experience of most CrossFitters, whether queer or not, is determined by their individual gym.

Two years ago, I moved to Brooklyn and decided to try CrossFit myself. CrossFit Virtuosity was two blocks from my apartment, and even though I'd just competed on "American Ninja Warrior," I was still intimidated by the shirtless bros dropping barbells from over their heads. What helped get me in the door was the rainbow flag hanging in the entrance way. (Later, our owner would add a sign on the bathroom door explicitly marking it as available to anyone of any gender identity.) A few weeks in, I'd learn that most of those shirtless bros I felt intimidated by were also gay, and eventually, I'd find OUTFIT, a New York City-based "home for PROUD enthusiasts" that runs monthly workouts for LGBTQ+ CrossFitters and allies.

A few months later, I'd become an ambassador for OUTWOD, which describes itself as the "largest international initiative for bringing together LGBT+ athletes." For this year's CrossFit Open, the organization created a gender-neutral leaderboard, called the OPEN+, and it has hosted almost 200 events over the past seven years, which have included the gay metropolises, but also places like Nashville, Houston, and Richmond.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Josh New, who trains at CrossFit Vital, estimates that at least ten regulars out of the gym’s 100 members identify as LGBTQ+. New says that all queer athletes are welcomed regardless of their ability, but it's especially gratifying to see the success of one gay member, Carter Brashears. "As a kid who was usually picked last on the playground because I wasn't as manly as the others," New says, "seeing Carter get drafted competition after competition by the upper-level, straight competitors is a real sense of pride."

Two weekends ago, two Regionals athletes, Alex Parker and Meredith Root, experienced something that perhaps no other CrossFit couple has: They competed against each other in the women's division for a chance to go to the CrossFit Games. And this past weekend, Cassidy Lance-McWherter won her Regional and defended her Open title.

These accomplishments at the elite level are inspiring, but perhaps the most heartening news came from CrossFit Infiltrate, the affiliate at the center of this controversy. The day after the owner cancelled the Pride-themed workout, many of its members, coaches, and staff left the gym to protest the decision. Before Russell Berger even tweeted “celebrating ‘pride’ is a sin,” the gym had closed permanently, further proving what Lance-McWherter, Kinney, and many others already knew: that CrossFit is queerer than it seems.

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