By Kyle McKendall — Photos by Ellery Photography
At first glance, CrossFit may seem like a place where LGBTQ community members could feel out of place. It appears to have similar characteristics to that part of a typical gym where only the strongest and most confident guys — those who know how to lift free weights — venture. At many other gyms, those of us unfamiliar with this type of fitness might turn to a machine that has a clear-cut list of instructions.
A CrossFit gym looks as if someone took a conventional gym and stripped out all of the safe, modern and familiar cardiovascular workout options like treadmills and ellipticals. It leaves only the weights. It’s a heteronormative environment boasting barbells and weight plates, kettlebells, muscular men and women, and a certain “rough-around-the-edges-who-can-lift-the-most-weight-the-fastest” attitude. The CrossFit gym appears to challenge many of the insecurities that a gay man would face.
Despite an afternoon lull in classes at Ocean State CrossFit, cars were still parked in the the gym’s parking lot. Though not many people were working out, they were lingering after having taken an earlier afternoon class. In the main gym downstairs was a 25-year-old guy; he worked out in the corner alone with a barbell stacked with weights. Taking advantage of the downtime, he had found the opportunity to perfect a lift. While this was a time when there was no official programming taking place, finding a quiet room or a place to sit and talk was next to impossible.
One of the gym’s owners was upstairs at his desk editing a draft for his newest blog post while also on a phone call. I found coach Ryan Tracy-Carvalho in the lounge socializing with gym members. He took the time to talk with me, and it became clear that those preconceived notions about CrossFit are unfounded.
Despite the worries one might have about CrossFit and fitting in, spending a short time in a class or having a quick conversation with Ryan or one of the other coaches at Ocean State would lay any concerns to rest. Ryan explained that there are a lot of gays and lesbians who work out at Ocean State. He expressed this in a tone that implied it’s not a point many even discuss or consider.
“You’d think there would be an element of awkwardness while working out next to him, ” Ryan said, as he motioned toward a straight, 6’2”, 210 lb gym member who was working out on the other side of the room, “where he may think differently of you…but, we’re treated just like everyone else. No one thinks, ‘Oh, that’s the gay dude over there.’ It’s one community.”
This is the CrossFit that members of Ocean State know and love, a place where working out is more than just a task on a to-do list. It is a community gym that provides a place for conversations to take place and friendships to flourish. It’s an environment that members describe as supportive, fun, encouraging, and often inspirational. It’s a place of belonging.
CrossFit calls itself “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.” All workouts are based on functional movements, and these movements reflect aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, and rowing, among other fitness approaches. Overall, the aim of CrossFit is to forge inclusive fitness supported by measurable, observable, and repeatable results.
The CrossFit brand says that “the program prepares trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown but for the unknowable, too. Our specialty is not specializing.”
While CrossFit challenges the world’s fittest, the program is designed for universal scalability, making it the perfect application for any individual, regardless of experience. Ocean State CrossFit, and the more than 13,000 affiliates across the world, don’t change the programmed workout for different people; instead they scale the load and intensity. If 225 lb deadlifts and pull-ups are in the programmed workout, everyone is doing some variation of those movements based on their individual capabilities. After all, the physical needs of a competitive athlete versus your grandparents differ by degree, not kind.
The hardest part of acclimating to the CrossFit approach may have little to do with the workouts or weight, but instead with understanding the terminology and acronyms tossed around. Here are the basics:
Each CrossFit gym is an independently-owned business that franchises the CrossFit name. The physical gym is called a “box” and boasts a surprisingly simple setup with a metal rig/weight rack around the perimeter and stacks of weights, kettlebells, and wooden boxes along the walls. There is one “workout of the day,” commonly referred to as the WOD. At Ocean State, the WOD is programmed by Ray Fleser, co-owner and director of fitness operations. The WOD is scaled or adjusted to provide a safe, approachable, and challenging workout for all participants. Classes are instructed by a coach– not a trainer– and when you join a CrossFit gym, you are considered to be an athlete.
On a typical day at Ocean State, members participate in a group warm-up, followed by an opportunity to work on a specific movement or lift. The programming dictates what the lift will be and what you should be working towards. Some days a member may be going for a personal record, where they’re trying to lift more weight in that particular movement than they’ve previously done. Other days everyone may be instructed to go lighter with weight, while aiming for more repetitions. While one person may be back-squatting 95 lbs, the person to their right may have 275 lbs on their barbell, and someone to their left is using a only plastic PVC pipe—meaning to improve their mobility and range of motion.
Fitness wasn’t always a priority or focus in Ryan’s life. It wasn’t until his mid-twenties when he discovered he had a passion for it. For years, he suffered from severe depression, while trying different medications to fill the void in his life. “I was 25 years old and didn’t know what I want to do with my life. I was overweight, which added to the stresses of having gone to school to be an actor and things had not taken off as I had planned.”
Life was difficult at that time and Ryan often questioned why, and how, to move forward. His dad often talked about the health benefits gained from releasing endorphins through working out and maintaining a regimen of going to bed for a good night’s rest, plus the importance of eating right. He suggested Ryan shake things up and make some truly major changes in his life. And that’s exactly what Ryan did.
“Working out every day and seeing the difference in my body, and seeing the difference in the way I was feeling, and being proud of myself completely changed who I was. At the time, I was a waiter, trying to be an actor, and I finally thought, no, I want to be a personal trainer.” He talks vividly of this point in his life when he realized that he wanted a career in something that helped people to feel better and improve their lives. The emotional and physical benefits that came with working out began to change his perspective and what he wanted from life.
When Ryan became a member at Ocean State CrossFit in May of 2012, he was already a personal trainer certified through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He had worked and trained clients at several gyms throughout Rhode Island. His sister back home in New Jersey had joined a box and she shared her new interest in CrossFit with him. Meanwhile, friends here in Rhode Island started to regularly talk about their new gym in what he recalls as “an obsessive manner.” Ryan decided he just had to try it out; he quickly fell in love with the community he found. A year later, Ryan took the Level 1 CrossFit Coach certification program and was subsequently hired as a coach at Ocean State.
Of course, there were some reservations when he first joined Ocean State. Many gay men can easily relate to these concerns regarding a competitive environment such as CrossFit. “You have to push the nervousness to the back of your head when you’re trying something new that is challenging your comfort zone. Joining CrossFit was reminiscent of the feeling of being picked last in gym class because you’re the gay kid. Maybe you weren’t out when you were in gym class but you knew you were different. So you walk into somewhere like a CrossFit gym and you are forced to think about the what-ifs of being treated differently. I just wanted to be treated like everyone else, and that’s what happened.”
Exercising every day made Ryan feel like a superhero version of himself. As a coach, he watches transformations happen almost every day. “So many members come in here shy and sad about their bodies. Fast forward just a few months and they’ve made friends, they are walking around carrying themselves differently, some even working out without a shirt on for their first time of their life — and they are comfortable doing it.” He talks about the Ocean State community like a family that supports one another, building each other up to achieve their goals. “I constantly have moments where I think, thank God I do what I do.”
Ryan can’t recall a singular coaching moment that makes him most proud because there are too many to talk about. “The transformations that take place on a daily basis are rewarding and my ‘best coaching moments’ happen so often they keep replacing themselves.” He speaks of the rewarding feeling of watching someone get their first unassisted pull up, or finally being able to use a jump rope, or to be able to step up onto a 18” high box after months of failed attempts.
The energy level at Ocean State is high every day, and it infiltrates members’ minds. “You look at the whiteboard to read the WOD and say, ‘How am I going to do that?’ Then you do, and that confidence is carried with you through the day.”
For decades, mental health professionals and authors have published work that explores gay men’s obsession with fitness and their body image. With a gay culture that highlights, rewards, and emphasizes the perfect male body, the internal struggles that gay men face constantly can be challenging. Popular gay dating/hookup app Grindr allow users to identify their body type by adjectives such as “toned, average, large, muscular, slim, or stocky.” The app prominently displays that information on your public profile.
National gay news websites often offer hyper-sexualized content woven into the more traditional news stories. It’s not uncommon to read an article about the a Supreme Court hearing only to have it followed up by the latest leaked celebrity nude photo. In one article, psychologist Nando Pelusi noted, “Men are more visual, so gay culture basically reveals male sexuality in its purest form. So we’re going to put a high premium on what somebody looks like when we’re male, regardless of our preference.”
While there are plenty of CrossFitters with model-like bodies, CrossFit emphasizes strength, not size or image. It prioritizes achievement of personal goals, without preventing others from hitting theirs. It feels competitive, but you compete against yourself, not necessarily one another. Prior to joining, Ryan was concerned that the environment would only amplify those concerns of having to prove your masculinity or toughness, but he says he couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Everyone is a friend here, rooting for you to do your best. In my own head I still may occasionally think ‘look what I can do too’ but we’re all just looking to get a good workout. Just because he’s in love with her and I’m in love with him, we still like to compete, and we still like to get heavy with weights.”
While the welcome mat for gay men and women seems to be laid down at CrossFit gyms, things are not so clearly defined for the trans community. In 2014, the national CrossFit organization was sued by Chloie Jonsson, a transgender woman, who was denied entry into the women’s division of the CrossFit Games, a contest aimed at determining the fittest man and woman in the world. Chloie was anonymously outed as a transgender woman and the response of CrossFit was to invalidate her registration and state that all athletes must register and compete under their birth gender.
While no official policy can be easily found on the CrossFit website, Ryan says that accepting the trans community at Ocean State wouldn’t be worth a second thought to the coaches and community that workout there. “It could only become a conversation with a regional or national competition. Here, you are who you say you are. I know with complete confidence that if someone came here and said, I’m a woman or I’m a man, they’d be treated as such.”
Ocean State was the place where Ryan truly fell in love with his now husband, Adam Tracy-Carvalho. They two met through friends, but it was their mutual love of CrossFit and competitive attitudes that drove them together. “Never before in my life have I ever had someone that I’ve loved so much share so much in common.” He talked about how in previous relationships, he had to find a workout buddy to fill that companion space, but now he looks no further than his husband.
This past fall, Ocean State CrossFit honored Ryan and Adam with a special workout on the morning of their wedding day. The day’s WOD was programmed to included both men’s favorite movements. Family members, gym members, and coaches all participated in the celebration.
The final component of the workout was a 600-meter run. Ryan and Adam ran it in tandem, enjoying every moment of love their community was sharing with them. But, unexpectedly, during the last stretch, Adam dashed off to beat Ryan. Ryan gave a playful eye roll and laugh when he recalled this moment for me. “I love when he beats me in a workout,” he said, “Adam’s drive and competitiveness, even with me, is something I admire most about him.”
“This is where I work, work out, and spend most of my time with my husband. Whenever I hear a story about a gay couple’s negative experience at a gym or place of work, or go out and feel like we can’t be ourselves, I’m reminded that the whole world doesn’t share the values of CrossFit. Because in here, it’s not like that.”
Why join a CrossFit gym? Well, in Ryan’s view:
- Every day is something different – it keeps your workouts fresh and exciting.
- You are always reaching for a new goal or doing something you haven’t done before.
- The camaraderie. You feel like you’re part of something bigger.
- Shared experiences. Everyone is doing the exact same workout, just scaled to fit their needs.
At the coach’s count of “3, 2, 1, go!” everyone in the room has the same goal in sight. At Ocean State CrossFit, the elite athletes take classes with beginners whereas at some gyms they’d work out at a completely different time. But at Ocean State they’re in this together and everyone is part of the same team. The last person finishing a workout is just as important as the first one.
If you’re considering joining CrossFit, try to erase any negative thoughts that might serve as obstacles. “Don’t think ‘I can’t do this.’ or, ‘This isn’t for me,’ or even, ‘How will I be able to do that?’” said Ryan, adding, “You don’t need to be fit to come here. You get fit when you come here.”