Finding strength

Janae Marie Kroczaleski on bodybuilding, gender transition and Transformer

by Jennie Kermode

Janae Marie Kroczaleski
Janae Marie Kroczaleski

Transitioning to live as a woman after being raised male is never easy, but for Janae Marie Kroczaleski it has been more complicated than it is for most. Janae was world famous when she was publicly out in 2015, and she was famous for being a highly successful bodybuilder. Michael Del Monte’s documentary Transformer follows her through a difficult period in her life as she tries to reconcile the strength training she loves with a desire to fit in better with society’s idea of what a woman should be, her ideas evolving along the way. A couple of days before the première, she took the time to tell me how the film came about.

“It’s an interesting story,” she says. “Actually how it came to be was Michael, the director, was friends with the guy who actually ended up being the cinematographer for the film. Brian Hunt had actually shot me for Muscletech, who were one of my power lifting sponsors six months before that. So he did a video shoot of me lifting and everything like that and then when I got outed publicly three years ago, Brian contacted Michel and said ‘Hey, I met this person who has a really interesting story. You should go check it out.’

“So Michael contacted me and explained that he was interested in doing a documentary and that he was fascinated by my story. He said he wanted to come out to Michigan to meet me, which he did. He just came out for a night, we sat down and talked and I said look, my goal with this would be to educate people and to inspire people like me. I said, if we can do those to things, I’m all for it, but if this is going to be sensationalised or it’s going to be turned into some kind of freak show then I have no interest at all. And he’s like ‘No, no, no.’ He said ‘I just want to tell your story honestly and openly,’ and I said ‘That sounds great to me.’

Working out
Working out

“In the process, the thing with doing things like this is that you basically sign over all rights and they’re free to edit it and do whatever they want, so you really have to trust the people. And the good thing is, I got a really good feeling about Michael right off the bat and I thought he was honest and sincere and I trusted him with my story and I think he did an excellent job and there was no bias, there was no angle, he just told my story as it unfolded.”

Her story doesn’t follow the conventional path we’ve become used to in films about trans people. Did she and Michael discuss how to fit the film around events, or did he simply observe?

“Basically he just followed me and worked with what happened, but that’s something I’ve been struggling with for like the last ten years, trying to balance my passion for strength training with my femininity. Society conditions us to think that that’s not a feminine thing to do and that women shouldn’t be strong, and I had all that conditioned into me and bought into all that and believed it, and it wasn’t until I got close to the women in the strength training community and found that many of them struggled with the exact same thing that I really found peace with it.

“I’m not going to say that I don’t have days when I struggle with it because I still do. I have times when I think about losing more weight of cutting back to be more passable or to appear more feminine in the way that society sees that, but by getting close to women in the strength training community I realised strength doesn’t have a gender. You know, courage doesn’t have a gender. Those kind of things are independent of gender. And the fact that I’m passionate about strength training is just one of those things about me, just like I have a female gender identity.”

Is that something that she feels is important for non-trans women as well?

“For sure. And actually I just spoke at a conference in Colorado, a couple of weeks ago, that’s aimed at teenage girls that are interested in strength training, for that very reason – to encourage them to be confident about their bodies and to feel good about pursuing things that they’re passionate about, and not having that pressure to meet this unrealistic beauty standard that the media pushes on us.”

There’s been a lot of controversy this week around Rachel McKinnon winning a major women’s cycling road race, and other trans athletes like Fallon Fox and Hanna Mouncey have attracted a lot of attention due to concerns about fairness in competition. Is that an issue in bodybuilding too?

“It’s a really difficult topic,” she says. “What’s the best way to handle it? Do we create additional divisions? Should there be different places for trans of gender non-conforming or non-binary people to compete? Or is it fair for trans women to compete in cis woman categories? So this is a hot topic and there’s a lot of research going on, and so far the research shows that trans women do not have a significant advantage provided that they’re on testosterone blockers or they’ve had surgery and they’re on sufficient doses of oestrogen and they’ve been on that for at least one year. But yeah, it’s a really tough thing trying to figure out what’s far and what’s the best way to handle all those things. But I think everyone deserves to be able to compete and, you know, sport’s a great thing and I think it should be for everyone.”

I note that it’s still difficult to get girls to feel that it’s for them.

“The view that sports are a masculine thing and women should be weaker and not pursue those things, I think that’s ridiculous. I think now, fortunately, we’re seeing a lot of that stigma changing and we’re seeing a lot more young women involved in athletics and it’s been hugely important for them and very good for their self esteem and their body image. I think it’s something that definitely should be encouraged and that people need to be educated about.”

Transformer
Transformer

A lot of people, when they transition, spend time working out new ways of presenting themselves, but Janae had done that before- living first as Matt and then as ‘the Kroc’ before she came to transition. Did that affect the way she approached it?

“Yeah. To be honest it’s been very difficult trying to balance all those things and trying to figure out what’s authentic and what I created. I mention this in the film, but initially, when I first started dealing with all this stuff, I really didn’t know who I was. it’s a really strange thing to think, but after three decades I had spent so much time hiding such a large part of myself that I didn’t know what was authentic and what wasn’t... It was a really difficult process trying to dig through al of that to figure out what was really me and what things was I doing to try to fit into society.”

One thing that clearly provides an anchor in her life is her strong relationship with her three sons, which also gives the film a lot of heart.

“That’s one thing, I think, that’s really important about the film, and my favourite parts of it are the scenes with my boys. I think it’s really important that people see what a close relationship we have but honestly, with the film, I totally left that up to them. I told them what was going on and asked them if they wanted to be part of it or if they didn’t and either way it was totally fine with me and their answer was basically ‘Well look, if this is your story and they’re going to talk about your life then we have to be part of it. We’re a big part of that and we need to be in it.’ And they totally wanted to be.

“They haven’t see the final version yet. We’re actually going to the première on Friday. They’ve seen some rough cuts and stuff and they’ve been really happy with it... That’s what I really liked, us goofing around in the pool and goofing around in the creek and lifting weights together. Everything you see in the movie, that’s our normal life. That’s what we do all the time. I think that’s really important because there are these narratives you hear where the kids are always estranged. Especially with teenage boys who have a father that’s transitioning to a trans woman. But like I said, our life is not like that at all. They’ve known since they were very young because that’s just part of who I am, and then as you see in the movie we have a really close bond and a very special relationship.

“I think it’s important to set that example for people and to show them that it’s not always how people perceive it, that you can be trans and still be a very good parent.”

It’s quite a positive film in general. Did she get a lot of support from other people when she transitioned?

“All the people close to me were very supportive,” she says. “I have been out for a long time to a lot of the high level competitors, people I competed with, people I was sponsored with. I tried to be open whenever I could. So a lot f people already knew but I would say the overall general reaction from the fans and everything was about 50/50. There was more support than I was expecting but there was a lot of hate and there still is sometimes, but you know, that’s to be expected.”

Transformer poster
Transformer poster

She says this in a very relaxed way, demonstrating the thick skin that some people acquire as a result of dealing with fame more generally. I ask if she feels that some people have become more understanding over time.

“Oh, for sure. My friends and family and the people close to me already knew and were very supportive but definitely there’s a lot of people who have reached out from the community, and people I had never met before that say ‘Hey, I was a fan of yours before and I’m an even bigger fan now and I really respect what you’re doing. I’ve really learned a lot; I never understood what being transgender meant and the fact that you’re being open and honest about everything has really helped.’ And I get a lot of messages from people like me that are still too afraid to be open about who they are.

“I remember feeling like that when I was growing up and thinking I was alone in the world and thinking there was no-one like me, and feeling isolated and broken, and so it’s nice to know that there are people like me who may find encouragement and inspiration from me just being open and honest... And I also get a lot of messages from people whose children have come out to them, thanking me because it’s helped them understand what their kids are going through a lot more. I’ll have quite lengthy conversations with a lot of these people through social media, you know, just answering their questions and trying to help them navigate whatever they’re going through.”

The film also seems likely to help people in situations like that because it acknowledges that transition can be complicated. Has she seen films that portray it that way before? (I haven’t.)

“No, I have never seen that before. Because typically your transgender story, they’re all about the transition, right? You know, starting at one point, getting to another point, the whole goal is to completely transition and assimilate into society as this other gender. But in my case, obviously, it’s not that simple. It’s a lot more complicated. And while I have a female gender identity, there’s a lot of things about me that don’t fit into that traditional feminine role. That’s part of why transitioning has been so difficult.

“And, you know, I identify as transgender but I also identify as non-binary and gender fluid because my gender does change to some degree. Some days I feel more masculine, some days I’m more feminine, sometimes it depends on the environment I’m in. If you see me with a bunch of my Marine Corps buddies or male friends, there’s going to be a different gender expression from if you see me out with my girlfriends. And that’s just how it works, that’s just how it is for me. And I don’t fit neatly into any category, you know? There’s a lot of thins about me that kind of blur those lines. It wasn’t intentional, going in, to tell that story, it’s that that’s just who I am and that’s what you see in the film.”

The film ends on a bit of a low note with a lot of issues unresolved. Does she feel that she’s made progress since then?

“Yeah, I definitely have. I’m very happy with the things I’ve done and I mean, there’s still a couple of other surgeries that I go back and forth about, but I have a lot more peace with my body than I’ve ever had. The facial surgery was huge for me, I feel a lot better about that. And I’ve found a lot more balance with my passion for strength training and femininity. I’ve realised that I don’t need to be this skinny little person to be authentic with who I am. I won’t say it’s easy, I won’t say every day is perfect. There are times when I still struggle. If you’re different from the majority in any way, it makes like difficult, so being different in a way that’s so obvious to everyone around you obviously can make things challenging. But I’m in a much better place than I’ve ever been in my life.”

Transformer opens in US cinemas and on VoD on Friday 19 October.

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