Guest Blog: Un-closeted through CrossFit
“I’ve been reflecting on the past decade for several weeks. “Entropy” would be the best word to describe my decade. However, in my constant pursuit of chasing excellence and finding elegance within the entropy, one facet of my life has always been consistent: competing in CrossFit. Since 2010, I have been fortunate enough to train with the best and daily get humbled by the best in the sport from the Central East, South East, and Mid-Atlantic, allowing me to compete twice in CrossFit Regionals as an individual and on a CrossFit Games team. It is also through CrossFit that I truly embraced and accepted who I was – the left side of the bisexual spectrum – and so this is my “coming out” story of the decade.
I grew up in a city in the Rust Belt where athletics is your ticket out of town. The ESPN 30for30 documentary “Youngstown Boys” accurately captures the athletic potential of the community otherwise overshadowed by social and economic poverty. My family, like many others, immigrated to America to work in the steel mills and factories at the turn of the 20th century that would start closing their steel doors in the 1970s. My family is your typically traditional Eastern European family who prides themselves on hard work through the art of suffering. Suffering accurately captures Eastern European culture. Even at church, which we attend to maintain cultural more often than religious norms, you stand in your finest heels while inadvertently practicing intermittent fasting (a “rule” in order to receive communion). Hollywood often portrays Eastern Europeans as sexual beings, especially women. While this may be true, in reality, the culture is built upon the premise that the female is subservient to the male in all areas of life, especially the church where females have to gain verbal permission from the priest to step onto the altar. Thus, it is through learning to practice the art of suffering that I fell in love with the sport of CrossFit (and gymnastics and dance for the first 18 years of my life) and likely why I am remained closeted for the first two decades of my life.
My very first real crush was a high school teammate. It started freshman year and continued until she graduated. She was a sophomore. She also lived in the neighborhood across from me so I looked forward to a ride home after track and field meets just to have a few more minutes of conversation with her. I would write poems about her in an inconspicuous purple FiveStar notebook. My mom would later find this notebook while I was in college and kept the contents to herself. Twelve years later, she would calmly ask if this is why I was divorcing my husband. To have a sense of how seriously invested the community was in athletics and more importantly how athletics shaped your own personal identity, there were three future NFL players, a future Olympic swimmer, and a few dozen future Division I collegiate athletes, including myself for track and field, in my graduating class of 511 students. The classes below and above me had similar numbers as did the other many high schools around Youngstown, Ohio.
Although I was fortunate to attend the most famously progressive institution of higher education in the world — Brown University — I still held onto the identity and cultural norms of being a Division I varsity athlete which has an extensive culture of embracing heterosexual relationships much like professional sports; another reason why it took until 2014 for Michael Sam to come out as the first openly gay NFL player to his University of Missouri teammates. At Brown, the gymnasts spent their free time at Theta Delta and Sigma Chi where the football and lacrosse players lived and my female teammates and I split our free time between Theta Delta, Sigma Chi, and the track house.
To this day, a majority of my female teammates are married and have children with our male teammates. While I did develop an attraction to one of my male teammates, I had even much stronger feelings for my college roommate’s (she was also a varsity swimmer and would identify as bisexual post-college) friend.
College finished and I started working towards my PhD in neuroscience at another famously progressive institution of higher education especially during the Vietnam Era, Kent State University. My first week there, I met a broad-shouldered, former collegiate swimmer at the annual biology department cook out. Whether or not it was a culturally rooted thought, I thought of him as being an awesome dad someday and the type of guy I would “breed Division I athletes and NFL football players” with as I would (half-jokingly) tell friends; I have a few blood and distant relatives who were/are NFL football players and professional boxers much like many kids who grew up in Northeastern Ohio. The two of us would earn our PhDs, move to Atlanta for fellowship, take professorships, and get married but not without a climax (and subsequent denouement) to the story.
My career has taken me around the world for the past ten years. I have also been competing in CrossFit for ten years. No matter where I go in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, and Europe, I almost always see two flags hanging in a CrossFit box: the country’s colors and a Pride flag. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how open and accepting the CrossFit community is to the LGBT + community. Soon after starting CrossFit ten years ago, the cultural identities I held onto as an Eastern European, former Division I athlete, and even as one of very few females in a department of a male-dominated medical school began to unravel. In 2014, my husband who grew up with similar cultural identities as a blue collar Italian American with a strong family name tied to his hometown and former collegiate athlete asked for an open relationship. After taking an evidence-based and professional approach to his request, I agreed. I’ll save my opinions on open relationships for another day, but it was through the unraveling of culturally rooted identities being replaced by the openness and acceptance of CrossFit communities, particularly CrossFit Terminus in Atlanta, GA, to the LGBT + community that I finally and fully felt that I was genuinely able to embrace “love is love.”
I will never forget June 26, 2015. Less than two months later, my husband and I got peacefully and amicably divorced. The lawyer in Savannah, GA told us that this was and would probably be the easiest divorce he would ever handle. A year later, I was presented with the opportunity to be a neuroscientist for the Army. I would move to DC, direct commission as an officer, and found another awesomely open and accepting CrossFit community, CrossFit InnerLoop in Silver Spring, MD. In fact, one of the coach’s wives was involved with the first viewing of “TransMilitary” in June 2018 where I had the honor of sitting two seats from Eric Fanning, the first openly gay man to serve as Secretary of the Army, and his husband.
When I first came back from the Army medical department’s basic officer leader’s course in June 2017, it was Pride Week in DC. As I walked into one of the Army’s biomedical research laboratories that happens to be one of the largest in the world (square footage wise), I was greeted by visual displays outlining the history of the LGBT + community serving in the military and a tray of cupcakes forming the Pride flag with the support of an openly gay female Commander. Where was I? I had only known of “don’t ask, don’t tell” from the stories of my battle buddies, colleagues, and a partner. I also quickly learned that the current Army was at the forefront of cultural revolutions. For example, we were the largest US employer to adopt and implement a transgender policy (politics aside).
For me, everything came together four months ago. I had the awesome opportunity to do an OUTWOD at the 2019 CrossFit Games as a member of the Army Warrior’s Fitness Team. During that 18 minutes, I couldn’t stop smiling through the pain and to fully feel for my first time ever on a personal and especially professional level that “love wins,” always.”
– Allison Brager, PhD
Neuroscientist. American Soldier. Author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain
Follow Allison on Instagram @docjockzzz