8

All about being on the cover of a magazine

tumblr_2016-Jun-13It’s been a week since it was announced that I’m the cover model for the July issue of Women’s Running and I’m still trying to gather my thoughts on all of it. I’ve been trying to sit down and write this for weeks now, since well before the news even broke, but I’ve struggled to fully grasp it all. Most of last week has been spent with my phone vibrating with notifications faster than I could even read them. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Google Alerts, and texts. It’s been distracting to say the least!

I won’t lie, being on the cover of a magazine is kinda cool. I can’t act like I don’t think it is, especially when, apparently, I’m making history by being the first openly transgender woman on the cover of a women’s fitness magazine. I’ve been told I’m even the first trans woman on the cover of any fitness magazine, but I don’t don’t know that’s actually true or not. Honestly, it doesn’t make much of a difference to me so I haven’t bothered to look into it.

A lot of people have asked me what it all feels like. My answer is usually just something about it being super surreal and totally weird. Sometimes, I make a joke about how this is just my 15 minutes of fame and it’ll all be over soon. While my friends and coworkers have asked me about it, most of the attention is online so when I step away from the computer or my phone I get to go back to being a normal person. I like that. No one has recognized me (yet) out on the streets or anything and I’m thankful for that. I don’t want to be recognized! Though, if you are reading this and you do recognize me, totally say hi! For real! I’m awkward, but friendly.

As cool as all of this is and as proud of it as I am, I was hesitant to say yes. It wasn’t that I wasn’t excited, I was. It’s that being a trans woman isn’t exactly all unicorns and rainbows. As you’re probably aware, our country is currently in the midst of a big debate about whether or not people like me are even human and deserving of simple basic rights. You know, things like access to restrooms. For most cis people (cis just means “not transgender”), this is relatively new, but we’ve been dealing with this for forever. The only difference is now this is happening with a lot of media attention. This isn’t the post to go into detail about how hard this world makes it for people like me to exist, but trust me when I say it’s extremely dangerous to be transgender right now. And it’s even worse for transgender women of color than it is for those of us who are white.

When Women’s Running’s editor-in-chief, Jessica Sebor, emailed me to ask if I wanted to be on the cover, part of me wanted to immediately write back with a resounding FUCK YES, but I couldn’t. I knew I had to really think this through. I spoke with my wife about it, I reached out to a few friends, both trans and cis, for their thoughts, and I slept on it. I almost said no.

I’m no stranger to visibility. I live my life very visibly. I’m open about being trans and wear that on my sleeve. I’m proud of it because it’s part of what makes me me. Between a number of articles I’ve had written about me before in regards to being a trans athlete and/or the startup I co-founded, MyTransHealth, I’ve also had a fair bit of attention outside of my daily life. To be honest, most of it kind of makes me feel weird. I say yes to things I think could be a net positive for trans people, but I generally don’t like intense amounts of attention on me. When I’m with friends, I’m certainly an attention-grabber, but outside of small groups of people I’m comfortable with, I get very uncomfortable. I don’t even like when I have to get up and speak at my company’s weekly all-team meeting.

This visibility is totally different though. This isn’t just a small one-off article that few people will actually read. This is the cover of a fucking magazine—I mean, it’s not TIME or Sports Illustrated, but Women’s Running has a respectable readership level. And because I’m, apparently, making history, there is a lot of attention around the cover from various news sources. Huffington Post, People, Cosmopolitan, USA Today, Shape, New York Magazine, BuzzFeed, Adweek, TIME, Today, NY Daily News, Jezebel, Pink News, New York Times, Hello Giggles, Pop Sugar, Business Insider, Perez Hilton, Greatist. Well, you get the idea. There’s been a lot. Plus, tweets seen by tens of millions of people. This is a lot.

I had to think about all of that. I knew there’d be attention and visibility, though, I didn’t quite expect this many news outlets to pick it up. This kind of attention isn’t just exhausting, but it’s dangerous. NYC is a hugely diverse city, but we have much more than our fair share of anti-trans violence. While most people will forget about me pretty quickly, I still risk being recognized by violent transphobes while out in the world. I have to endure an influx of internet bigots harassing me online and starting threads on Reddit and wherever else to talk about me. Over the past week, I’ve been called a man, it, freak, pedophile, and all kinds of other things thousands of times—yes, I broke the number one rule of the internet and read the comments. This is all par for the course for anyone like me who even dares as to so much as exist, but it’s greatly elevated over the normal level right now. While the reality of the last week has actually been much better than I expected it to be, I had to really think about this risk.

I also had to think beyond myself and about the rest of the trans community. Am I fueling unwanted visibility for trans people everywhere and giving into the cisgender voyeurism of trans lives? Am I making things harder for others, the way that Caitlyn Jenner has? Is another magazine cover really what trans people need? Ultimately, I would never want to do anything that makes things harder for others or sells out my community for a quick dose of fame.

And let’s not skip over the article itself. I wanted to know exactly what I was going to be on the cover of. I asked to read a draft of the feature before agreeing. I wanted to be sure the article was accurate and positive for trans people. Women’s Running, of course, had no issue with letting me read a draft ahead of time. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect an issue here. Women’s Running has always been amazing with anything else I’ve worked with them on, but I had to be sure.

Finally, I had no desire to be “the face of transgender running.” Or even the face of anything. There are many others like me out there and I could never speak for them all. We’re all unique people. I do my best to be clear that when I talk about my experience, I’m speaking for myself. Still, I was already likely the most well-known transgender (woman) runner out there. Trust me, that’s not saying much. Mostly, it’s just because I’m a loudmouth on the internet and not because I’m special in any other way. I’m certainly not the fastest. I’m definitely not the most well-spoken. There are plenty of high school and college trans athletes who are more deserving than I am. And on the trans men side of things, let’s not forget we’ve got the amazing Chris Mosier kicking ass and making the US National Team for the duathlon. Really, I’m not all that special, I’m just a loudmouth.

Anyway, you’d think I’d have already figured most of this out after being a finalist for the Cover Runner Contest last fall. I entered because why not? I didn’t think it’d go anywhere. I was shocked when I was a finalist, but I still didn’t expect to win (and I didn’t). I never felt like I needed to actually face it as a reality.

Ultimately, I said yes to the dress cover, obviously. The shoot happened less than two weeks later at 5 freaking a.m. in Brooklyn (normally an hour from Jersey City by subway). I spent a few hours running 30ish feet at a camera while photographer James Farrell, said “one more time!” which turned out to mean “a hundred more times. We brought a few outfits with us, but I only ended up wearing two of them—I changed in a Starbucks bathroom.

I was really nervous to do the shoot. I’m not photogenic and I’m very particular about how I’m photographed. To be honest, though, it was a completely fun experience and everyone I worked with that day was super amazing. I didn’t want it to end! Not because I wanted to keep running laps in front of a camera, but because I was enjoying the time hanging out with the crew. And, yes, I got to keep the clothes!
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After the shoot, it was pretty quiet until the week before the magazine came out—the interview for the feature had been done well before I was asked to be on the cover. Since then, it’s been a total whirlwind. Women’s Running had me make a video to introduce myself and asked if I would take over their Instagram and Snapchat accounts for a day. I did Instagram the day the issue hit shelves and Snapchat this past weekend. And, of course, there have been a bunch of talking to writers for articles about the cover.

In the end, I know I made the right decision. With everything blowing out of control over the last few months about bathrooms, this feels like a bit of a win for trans people right now. Of course, the timing of this coming out right after the awful and hateful attack in Orlando was a coincidence, but many reached out to tell me that this news served as a much needed ray of light for them. My heart has been so heavy since last Sunday, but knowing I was at least part of something positive for the LGBT community last week means a lot to me.

In the last week, I’ve had so many people contact me to tell me what it’s meant to them to see someone like them on the cover of a magazine. Not someone who is already a celebrity, but someone who is an everyday person like they are. I certainly don’t want to be anyone’s role model, and I shouldn’t be either, but I wanted to be able to show other trans people what’s possible. I wanted to do something that would give some amount of hope to other trans people right now, especially those who are seriously doubting whether or not they should transition or can survive in this world as a trans person.

Lastly, I just want to hit one last point since I saw someone comment about this. The feature does discuss the fact that I have had surgery. I was never asked about this. This was information I volunteered because it was relevant to my answers during the interview. Savita was respectful and never asked anything inappropriate. Besides, it’s not like it isn’t public information at this point anyway. I’ve written 10,000 words about it here!

On a shelf

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I am a transgender woman with mental illness and I am a finalist to be on the cover of Women’s Running

Women's Running Cover Runner Contest

I’m a finalist!

Because my life is totally weird, I’m currently a finalist in the Women’s Running Cover Runner Contest. The eight finalists were chosen from over 3,000 applicants and the winner will find herself on the cover of Women’s Running magazine.

To be perfectly honest, this is a super surreal thing to me. When I entered, I didn’t think there was any chance I’d be chosen as a finalist. Just a quick look at the bios of the other seven finalists makes it clear some really amazing women with incredible stories entered. When I read their bios, my immediate reaction was that I don’t belong among them.

I do have a lot of conflicting feelings about things like this. If you read my bio on the site, I’m not hiding being transgender. I’m pretty upfront about it. However, I’ve always hated the idea of being treated like I’m special. I don’t want to be on the cover of a magazine simply because I was born with the wrong junk and being trans is all the rage in the media these days. I have no desire to play into the voyeurism of trans lives by cis (not trans) people.

If this blog post is not your first introduction to me, you probably know already that I’ve done a bunch of interviews for sites about being a transgender runner, not to mention all the stuff I’ve done for MyTransHealth. I’m sure it looks like I’m someone who seeks attention and loves to have the spotlight on her. The reality is, these things always make me feel intensely awkward and uncomfortable. I’ve even done a few interviews that I never publicly linked to because I didn’t want to add anymore attention.

I’ve also turned down just as many interviews as I’ve done. My first question anytime I’m approached for an interview is what is the story about and what’s the angle? If it feels like my involvement can have even a small positive impact for trans people, I’ll accept. Otherwise, I say no. I look for articles that are trying to highlight the struggles of trans athletes or trans people at the gym and are taking the stance that transphobic bigotry is not acceptable. If a writer isn’t willing to take that stance or is just looking to write the same voyeuristic story about a trans person’s life that’s been done over and over again, I have no interest.

This brings us to the Women’s Running Cover Runner Contest. Why do I want to be on the cover of a magazine? Honestly, it’s not having me on the cover of a magazine that’s super appealing to me. The reason I want to be on the cover and why this matters to me is because for a women’s running magazine to put a transgender woman on their cover means they’re willing to take the stance that trans women count the same as cis women in athletics, or at least running. They can’t put a transgender woman on their cover and then say she’s not a woman. This is really big to me. Of course, a magazine cover doesn’t instantly change the world, but Women’s Running is a major running magazine and having a transgender woman on the cover would still be pretty rad and, at the least, makes a statement. It doesn’t have to be me, it doesn’t matter who it is. It just so happens that right now I have this opportunity to be a part of their support for transgender athletes.

Women's Running Cover Runner Contest

Now, that’s all fine and well, but if you read my bio for the contest, you’ll see that what I really talked about was mental illness and how running has been there for me to help me through. It’s no secret that I suffer from depression. I’m not ashamed of it…anymore. I talk openly about not just about having depression, but also spending a lot of time feeling suicidal and wanting to die. I do this because I don’t think it should be a stigma. I think it should be something that can and should be openly talked about.

The question asked for this contest was “how has running changed your life?” This was my response:

Running has literally saved my life time and time again. When I was transitioning, running was a safe place to deal with all of the things going on in my life and process both the ups and downs of it all. There is no way I would have survived transition without running. Even outside of transitioning, running has always been there for me as an escape from my depression and a way to work through everything so I could move past it. It’s brought me peace and bliss when I most needed it. I’ve started runs feeling on the verge of suicide and by the end had a huge smile on my face and saw nothing but the beauty in the world. I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t have running in my life.

This isn’t hyperbolic, this is my life. Running isn’t just this amazing thing I love to do because it’s fun, feels great, and makes me feel awesome. It’s literally my lifesaver. The more I run, the more put together and stable I am and the less I want to die. This is what I wrote about because this is the answer to that question. Running keeps me alive.

So, yes, a transgender woman on the cover of a women’s running magazine is pretty rad and super important to me, but my story for how running has changed my life is about mental health. To break it down to the simplest terms, being trans has affected my running, but my running has affected my mental health.

I really do hope I win and I hope you’ll take the time to visit their site every day to vote. I also hope you take the time to read the bios of the over seven finalists. And if you think one of them should be on the cover more than me, please vote for them every day.

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How transitioning changed me as a runner and do I have an advantage as a transgender athlete?

transgender runnerI’ve written about a lot of this over the course of the last few months, but a few people have requested a post dedicated to how I’ve changed as a runner because of transition. Since I’ve read two articles about transgender athletes in the past few days, I figured it was finally time to write about it myself. While my experience has been in line with the experiences of other trans women I’ve spoken to regarding the topic, I do want it to be noted that this is very specifically about my experience and it may not be universal to all transgender (women) runners.

When I decided to transition, I knew things would change for me as a runner and this was something I was going to have to come to terms with. I tried to research it as much as I could, but I was only able to find two articles which specifically discussed effects on runners. I knew to expect to be slower, but I didn’t know by how much.

When I finally started on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which consists of estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone blockers, I realized this was no joke. Within just a few weeks, I was already noticing that building and maintaining muscle mass and strength was much, much more difficult. I used to have huge calves, but I watched as they quickly downsized. I lost five pounds within the first couple months, all of it was muscle, as far as I could tell. I was glad to have the testosterone out of my body, but this wasn’t a side-effect I was too thrilled with.

As I started gearing up for my Richmond Marathon training cycle, I was having a lot of difficulty mentally adjusting to the physical changes in my running. Despite knowing ahead of time things were going to change, I struggled to fully accept it. I still had no idea where to set my expectations and I felt like I didn’t know my body anymore. I didn’t know how or when to push it anymore. I generally only run by feel and perceived effort level, I don’t look at a watch to pace myself. I used to be able to guess my pace within +/- 10 seconds reasonably reliably, but I could no longer do this. I had no idea what pace I was running anymore. I also didn’t even know what paces to be shooting for either. Setting expectations for myself is where I struggled the most. I didn’t know what goals I should have or what paces to aim for while training and I didn’t know how to measure my progress towards any goals anymore.

Prior to starting HRT, I ran a 3:08 marathon which breaks down to a 7:12 minute/mile pace. Unfortunately, I don’t have a recent 5k pace from just before transition since I don’t run a lot of them. My all-time 5k PR is 20:29, a 6:36 pace, but leading up to the 2012 Chicago Marathon, I was doing 10-milers at around 6:50. So, realistically, I should have been able to do something like a 19:15-19:30 5k.

Now, after almost nine months on HRT, I can’t even dream of hitting these paces again. My current 5k pace is just slightly faster than my old marathon pace and my new marathon pace is 83 seconds slower than it used to be (a 3:44:55 finish). And the thing about my new marathon time is I ran about 20% more miles during my training cycle. I upped my running from five days per week to six. I broke my weekly and monthly personal distance records. And I still ran 36 minutes slower than I used to.

In the past, I would run really easy runs and recovery runs with my wife when she would be out for a tempo or mid-intensity run. These would be very easy for me and she’d help me keep my pace slow when I needed that (a recovery run should be about as slow as you can possibly go). Now, it’s become the opposite, she runs her easy and mid-intensity runs with me, but leaves me in the dust on her harder runs. (As a side-note, I’m actually not bothered by this at all! I’m excited to see her growing as a runner and getting faster and faster. Seriously, she’s getting out of control and accidentally PRs races now!)

Now that I’ve completed a serious marathon training cycle while on HRT, I’ve been able to figure out where my expectations should be a bit more. I know I’ll never get close to those old times I used to run, but I’m starting to feel as though I know where I’ll likely be able to get to. Right now, I generally can expect to run 60-90 seconds slower than I used to at any given effort level. I’m also finally able to feel things out more while I’m running. I’m able to estimate my pace, though with a little less accuracy than before, and know when to push it. I’m still lacking a lot of confidence in my body’s ability to do what I want it to when I’m pushing it on a longer run, but I’m hoping that will come given more time.

What all of this leads to, I guess, is…do I have an advantage over cisgender (not transgender) women? Is it wrong for me to be competing as a woman? Everyone is going to have their own opinion on this and there is a serious lack of scientific research on the topic, but I do feel being a transgender athlete gives me a little bit of credibility to discuss this here.

My honest answer is no, I don’t have an advantage and, yes, I should be competing as a woman. 

Yes, I was able to train at a certain level before, but even prior to HRT, I was still well within the realm of what non-elite women my age are capable of running (I was still very much slower than even sub-elite women). Being that running is my hobby—okay, it’s practically my life—I never even came close to approaching a level of training that would have been able to take advantage of my testosterone driven puberty 1.0. I was able to build more muscle mass and strength, but all that is long gone now. When I started HRT, I was actually in the middle of a seven week break from running thanks to hip tendinitis so I wasn’t even in shape anymore when I started. Beginning running again after my injury and with HRT felt like starting from scratch. I hated running for months and I wanted to quit so badly. It wasn’t until around the fifth month that I finally started to feel like my old runner-self and liked running again. I was slower, but it felt the same.

Currently, my testosterone level is at the very bottom of the normal female range and closely monitored via regular lab tests. So the reality is the vast majority of women actually have more testosterone than I do and, therefore, are likely to have a slightly greater ability to build and maintain muscle mass (speaking from a general sense, of course). Coupled with my lower testosterone is my larger skeletal frame and higher bone density compared to cisgender women my age, height, and weight. This means with all other things being equal, I’m carrying around more dead weight in my bones than a comparable ciswoman who may make up the weight difference with additional muscle. While bone density may be a debatable topic for contact sports, when it comes to running, heavier bones just means more weight to carry around. The only advantage here is the decreased risk of bone-related injuries, such as stress fractures. However, my running has been far from injury prone in other departments. I’m just as likely overall to get injured.

One advantage I have over my former self is that I’m much better at handling running in warmer weather than I used to be. However, this is a documented advantage that women have over men, so if anything, it strictly puts me at the same level as cisgender women.

There are lots of little things as well that probably go in both directions. I have larger lungs and previously had a higher capacity for oxygen consumption, but having been out of running for almost two months zapped most of my increased aerobic threshold before I even started HRT and it hasn’t seemed to come back at all. Plus, I have no idea how to breathe with a sports bra on! These things are really constricting! There’s also the fact that my hips are shaped more like a typical man’s hips so I should have an advantage in that department, but my battles with hip and ankle tendinitis would indicate that I maybe I don’t. I don’t really know how this one plays out, to be honest.

In the end, taking all of these things in account, I truly feel as though I’m on equal footing as cisgender women. If you look at my real-world performance, I put in more work to run much slower than I used to. While there are many factors involved (course, weather, training, current fitness level, size of field, etc) so it’s not a foolproof way to measure this, but, a year ago, I finished in the top 6% of men at the Chicago Marathon and, this year, I finished in the top 10% of women at the Richmond Marathon (again, with much more training). I used to be within four minutes of the male qualifying for Boston. Now, I’m ten minutes away from the female qualifying time. Taking a look at the numbers (and I will gladly share more race results and information to anyone who wants it), I compete at roughly the same level compared to other women as I used to compared to men before I started hormone replacement therapy.

What’s your take on this? If you’re s cisgender woman, do you have a problem with me running as a woman?

Are you a transgender athlete? What’s your experience been like?