She had been living ‘stealth’ since she was 16, hiding that she was transgender.
No one asked Chloie Jönsson about it and she didn’t dare tell. Instead, the CrossFit athlete spent more than a decade doing what we all do, regardless of race, sex and gender: she tried desperately to fit in.
“I wanted to not identify as transgender and just identify as female,” said Jönsson, who came clean to her parents at 15 years-old and underwent a name change, hormones and therapy all before she became a legal adult.
“By doing that, I isolated myself. When people who got close to me found out, I would change groups, run from a situation, run from myself, because I was trapped by my own secrets. It took a very long time to deal with that.”
It took what seemed like the worst-possible scenario at the time for Jönsson to deal with it: her secret becoming national news.
“[Being transgender] is an actual thing that needs to be recognized,” said Jönsson, who hopes her actions have, in a small way, helped pave the way for easier athletic entry. “If the International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn’t dismiss it, why are so many other sports?”
It started innocently enough.
Jönsson, who found CrossFit in 2011, was training for the upcoming CrossFit Open. It was 2014, she was eight years removed from gender reassignment surgery, legally recognized as a female in California and hoping to go on a team to the CrossFit Games. Maybe she should reach out to someone in CrossFit, she thought, just to make sure they had all the info needed.
Jönsson assumed the sport’s regulations would be the same as the IOC: if you were more than two years removed from surgery, on hormones for a lengthy period and had proper legal documents, you were good.
She was wrong. CrossFit didn’t think the 5-foot-3 Jönsson —who weighs 135 lb.— had minimized the potential gender advantage. She was, in their eyes, still a male. It didn’t matter that there’s no record of Jönsson as a male (that’s how young she transitioned). She was barred from registering as female.
And Jönsson—who had told maybe 10 percent of the people in her life that she was transgender— had a choice to make.
“[Being transgender] is an actual thing that needs to be recognized. If the International Olympic Committee (IOC) doesn’t dismiss it, why are so many other sports?”
“It was definitely a catalyst for me,” said Jönsson, who filed a discrimination lawsuit against CrossFit in response. “I felt like, if I didn’t say something and stand up for what I believed in, I would probably never, ever do it.”
The lawsuit wasn’t the small, private battle she envisioned. Instead, Jönsson saw her picture on television one day and crumpled to the floor. She had been outed. Her case —her secret— was public. There was nothing she could have done to ever brace herself for the kind of firestorm that ensued. It was terrifying. It was also a relief.
“It was important [to speak up] and is still important on so many levels,” Jönsson said.
“There’s nothing more freeing than being as vulnerable as you can to the largest audience. If you are honest and vulnerable there’s nothing left. I could finally be me, I wasn’t scared of what people would say because everyone knew everything.
“For the transgender community they have such a long way to go, which is sad. We are still arguing about gay people getting married let alone transgender people having the right to use the bathroom they want. What hits me most are the kids. I get emails from young adults to say thank you and I think that’s the most powerful thing. It’s one more person that understands that they can be who they are.”
The lawsuit, which sparked public support from Jönsson’s friends, including then-training partner Amy Mandelbaum and CrossFit athlete Christmas Abbott, was eventually settled. Jönsson can’t discuss specifics, saying only that she took it as far as she could and that the whole process was exhausting.
Her friends took over her social media accounts, to shield her from some of the backlash, while Jönsson—who was featured on CNN, the Huffington Post and Self Magazine to name a few— went months feeling like her every move on Facebook and Instagram was being watched.
“[Sueing CrossFit] was definitely a catalyst for me. I felt like, if I didn’t say something and stand up for what I believed in, I would probably never, ever do it.”
Cagney is the decidedly more outspoken of the pair, often using her platform or Black Iron Gym to raise awareness for initiatives like OutWOD or fire back at attacks on her friend.
“I’m open now about being transgender, but I don’t blast it over social media,” said Jönsson, who has hobbies and other parts of her life listed in her profile instead. “That’s just part of me, it doesn’t make up my whole person. I’m a person first. I think it’s cool for people who follow me for a while and then realize I’m transgender and have either a positive reaction or adverse reaction to it.”
“Most people haven’t known until I told them or they found out elsewhere. You can’t just look at someone and know they are transgender. They’ve been in history for hundreds of years, we aren’t going to just stand out. It’s not just a man in a dress. We are everywhere. It’s hard because you can’t force people to try to understand things or to open their minds. And that’s one of the reasons why I don’t shout it out. I just want people to get to know me first and then find out I’m transgender.”
About a month ago, an 18-year-old transgender athlete showed up at Black Iron Gym. He had found Jönsson’s story, researched how supportive Cagney was and decided to move there. He had no job or place to live, but he wanted to be part of the welcoming environment.
“Since this whole CrossFit thing happened, it’s been over a year since I thought about it, and then he shows up. And I’m like, ‘Wow, this really is the reason I did this,’” Jonsson said. “It wasn’t for me, it wasn’t to bring attention to me. It was to bring attention to this issue.”
Jönsson recognizes how far she’s come from the days in high school where she was bullied so mercilessly that she had rocks thrown at her and refused to go to school for a week. She is lucky, she knows, to have had supportive parents and to only lose a few people in her circle over this journey.
She still does CrossFit and competes in other larger competitions. She’s optimistic that the IOC, which recently softened their regulations, can continue to set the standard in starting to accept transgender athletes.
But there is much work to be done, many more battles ahead.
And it will be up to people like the newest Black Iron Gym member to keep fighting.
“All the negative shit that went on for me during that time, it’s going to be up to his generation to continue to try to get people rights across the board,” Jönsson said. “So whatever I did, no matter how it ended up, is definitely a stepping stone for others so they can keep going in that direction.”
First two photos courtesy of Erica Livoti Photography.