Transgender Bodybuilder to Compete Oct. 29 at Scottish Rite
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS: Chris Tina Bruce
Christopher Gary Bruce (Chris Tina before her transition; courtesy Chris Tina Bruce)
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When I got word that Chris Tina Bruce, Transgender bodybuilder, was available for interviews in connection with her scheduled appearance at a Border States bodybuilding contest at the Scottish Rite Event Center, 1895 Camino del Rio South in Mission Valley, Saturday, October 29, her first competition in 20 years and her first as a woman, I called her — and a deep, decidedly masculine voice answered. We set up the interview appointment and she told me to meet her at the gym she owns, Hillcrest Fitness, at 4002 Park Boulevard. I live in North Park and have walked by that corner innumerable times, but I couldn’t recall a gym being there — and when I showed up at the address I could see why. From the outside it looks like just another office bungalow, and even though the inside space is crammed with exercise equipment it’s so much smaller and more intimate than what we usually think of as a gym that Bruce prefers to call it a “fitness boutique.”
Bruce has been interviewed by local media, both mainstream and Queer, before. Shortly after she arrived in San Diego the LGBT Weekly did a profile by Jonathan Young that revealed, among other things, that she still has male genitalia and considers herself a “hybrid” who doesn’t “want to lose my male identity” even as she transitions. Indeed, after spending several hours listening to the decidedly male-sounding voice on my recording of our interview — Bruce hasn’t attempted to pitch her voice higher or talk in falsetto the way most male-to-female Transsexuals do — it was hard to remember to think of her as female. Towards the end of the transcription I put up her Web site just to have her picture in front of me and remind myself that she identifies and presents as female.
The October 29 event Bruce is entered in is a judged competition, not a weightlifting competition. It begins with pre-judging at 11 a.m. and goes all day, with the finals at 6:30 p.m. sharp. For tickets, online registration and information, visit www.musclecontest.com on the Web or call Jon Lindsay at (310) 796-9181. For more information on Hillcrest Fitness and the many services it offers, including a twice-daily “Fitness Fun Camp” at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., nutrition counseling and personal training, visit Chris Tina Bruce’s Web site, www.discoverhealthandfitness.com, or call (972) 989-6076.
Zenger’s: Why don’t you start by telling a little about yourself and how you got into fitness, and also how you came to realize you were Transgender?
Chris Tina Bruce: I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and being from the South, football is king. My mother and my father divorced when I was young, and my mother wanted to make sure I still had a male influence, or did manly “guy” things. So she started me into Pee Wee football when I was six or seven years old. I loved it, every minute of it, and so I started playing football for 13 years straight, through Pee Wee League, high school, college and one year of semi-pro. I honestly thought, until very late in high school, I’d be a pro one day. I was always top of the team, first string, and that was my passion. I loved the competition. I loved the drive. It taught me dedication.
My mom, who is my role model, taught me that you fight for what you believe in, you never give up. When I went to try out for one of the traveling teams, you had to weigh under 85 pounds, and I came in weighing at 95. I needed either to move up to the next category or to lose weight, and she said, “Well, this is what you want, you’ve got to make it happen.” I remember for three or four weeks at school, as an eight- or nine-year-old kid, running after school, watching my diet, doing everything I could. That was probably my initiation into fitness, into how you can change the body. If your mind’s willing to do it, you can do it. That’s what kind of started me, not only into fitness, but into the dedication and commitment that if you start in to do something, and if you keep going, keep going, keep going, you just don’t quit until you make it happen. And that’s what led me through football.
Right before I graduated from college, I quit playing full-time football because of injuries, and that’s when I started bodybuilding. I kind of just transitioned from football to bodybuilding, and it was very similar. In football you’re always working out. You’re always trying to get bigger, stronger. So bodybuilding came naturally to me. I enjoyed it, I liked the aspect of how to make myself bigger. Bodybuilding requires even more dedication than football. It’s even more mental. You’re in the gym one hour, twice a day, four or five days a week, but it’s the other 24 hours, seven days a week that makes or breaks you. That’s when you have to get your rest, you have to sleep, you have to make sure you’re eating properly — eating the right amounts of food at the right times, not eating junk food — so it really takes dedication and discipline. I like that structure, so that’s what I did up until I graduated from college. It’s like anything you learn early on. It becomes a norm for you. It’s just the way I’ve led my life.
Once I graduated from Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, I was transferred for my first job in Dallas, Texas, where I ended up living for the next 18 years. I ended up getting married and having two children, and kind of the normal suburban 2 ½ kids kind of life. I was very good. I was very successful. I ended up starting a couple of my own businesses, did very well with them and sold them. We had the American dream. But still there was always something missing. I had been hiding from everybody that I was a cross-dresser. I would get wigs and clothes and try them on when I was out doing sales. I would travel a lot as part of my job, and so I would take the clothes with me some times and dress up.
But then I would be ashamed and embarrassed at myself afterwards. So I would purge it, throw it all away, swear I would never do this again. Then six, seven, eight months later something would happen and I’d be back into it. I guess you can liken it to an addiction. It just creeps back in. It wasn’t the sexual side — which I do understand for some people that is — and the part I couldn’t understand was why it wouldn’t go away, why it was always there. I had everything anybody could want, and this thing just kept nagging at me. I battled that for probably 20 years, never told anyone.
Once the Internet came around, it was much easier to research some of these things and find out exactly what “Transgender,” “Transsexual” and “cross-dressing” mean, and start chatting with other people and realizing it’s not as weird as you’re perceived to think it is. Right before my son was born, I went to see a therapist in Dallas, set an appointment. And she laughs to this day, because she says now, “When you first came here, you were so terrified you wouldn’t even tell me your name. You wouldn’t give me any information, and the phone number wasn’t even right.” But it was my first step, just to talk to somebody.
I told her my feelings, and I remember her just telling me that — I would always try to think of the negative side of it, that I would never “pass.” And she said, “Well, who says you have to pass?” “Why? I’m this big bodybuilder.” “Who says girls aren’t bodybuilders?” I remember her always saying that to me, because I was trying to find a reason not to do it. I let that go off and on for a couple more years, and then it rose up again and I finally went out dressed for the first time in 2005, I think, in Houston — because I lived in Dallas — with a girl I’d been chatting with on line a little bit. She said, “Hey, if you’re ever in Houston, stop by. You can go out with us. You can be really safe. You can dress at my house, and we’ll all go out and have dinner and drinks, and you can just go home, change at my house, no one will ever know.”
As I said, it wasn’t sexual. It just felt more normal. I didn’t feel ashamed. About that time my job changed, and it was a disruption in my life, so I just put it all back in the closet again. Another year or two went by, and it finally got to the breaking point. I started seeing my therapist more often, and I decided that the only way I was going to figure this out was to start trying to go through with it. So I started hormones Thanksgiving 2008, and I’ve been on them ever since.
In the beginning I didn’t really know where this was going to go. I honestly couldn’t have told you that three years later I would be sitting right here, and I would look like this. I just had no clue. But I need at least to try and see where this thing’s going, because it’s not going away. I realize it’s something in me. I guess it’s like an alcoholic thing that just never goes away. It’s something they’re always going to battle, so they have to choose how they’re going to manage it.
Zenger’s: So exactly what is the event on October 29?
Bruce: It’s a local bodybuilding show. They have one in California almost every week. It’s twice here in San Diego, in the spring and in the fall. It’s called “Border States,” And this is the bigger one, right at the end of the year. It’s in two weeks from this Saturday, and it’s at the Scottish Rite events center, right down at the bottom of the hill. It’s an amateur bodybuilding contest.
Zenger’s: Have you had any of the Renée Richards problem, of complaints from woman-born women contestants who say, “Oh, she was born a man, therefore she’s got a bigger body and she’s got an unfair advantage”?
Bruce: I’m sure I’m going to. It’s just now getting out that I’m doing this. Troy Hirsch of Fox 5 San Diego was in here interviewing me this morning, and he asked me that very question. I told him that bodybuilding is subjective. It’s not like a power lifting, where you and I go up there, and whoever lifts the most weight wins, because there’s a number set on there. At this, there could be anywhere from five to eight or nine judges who are out there judging. Each one of us will come out there, and they’ll give us a score, and the top score of the average of the judges wins. So if one particular judge thinks you look a little prettier than I do, they might score you a little more. If one judge doesn’t like the fact that I’m Transgender, he could give me a lower score because of it. It is subjective in the sense that I’m walking into something I could be at a disadvantage, because the judges might not like the fact that I’m doing it.
I’m also walking into a disadvantage because, for almost three years, I’ve been on two testosterone blockers, one estrogen and one progesterone, where, because there is no drug testing, these women I’m competing against could very well have been on all types of steroids and testosterone for the last four, five, six years, as long as they’ve been competing or wanted to. There are many female bodybuilders who compete at a professional level who are much bigger than I am, and of course it’s due to the fact that their hormone levels are so high. If we were to do a blood test, their testosterone levels will be higher than mine and their estrogen level will be lower than mine.
I’m going to tell you from competing five, 10, even 20 years ago to competing today, it is 10 times harder for me. My diet has to be stricter because I’m having to deal with the fact that my estrogen is much, much higher and my testosterone is much, much lower. I’m having to deal with the fat, because females in general have a higher body fat count. The cardio, the exercise, the rest that I would not have to do if I were competing as a male even at my age now.
Zenger’s: You mentioned to the LGBT Weekly that you’ve always been sexually attracted to women, which in itself makes you somewhat unusual since most Transgender people — certainly the ones that I’ve interviewed — have been heterosexual in their gender of preference. Is it difficult for you to meet women who are interested in going out with a Transgender woman who still has some of the male parts?
Bruce: I get hit on a lot. The first year, when I started, I decided not to date at all, period. That was my choice, because the way I had sublimated it all in the past was through work, money and womanizing. I realized if I wanted to make things different and do this the right way, I needed to try to change everything. Until I could fix myself and know who I am, it didn’t make sense to be dating someone else. So for the first year, I personally just did not date at all. Since then, between business and work, I just really haven’t had the time that I’d want to get wrapped up in anything. So I have not actively tried to find anyone.
If I go to the Lesbian bars, I do get hit on a lot and asked out, and I’m pretty sure they know I’m Transgender. I don’t know if they know my exact situation, but I’m sure that if they don’t, they figure out pretty soon when they talk to me, and they’re interested enough they want to be around me. I’ve just chosen not to do anything about it at this point.
Zenger’s: You told the LGBT Weekly interviewer that you don’t feel a need to totally reject everything about the gender you were born with as part of your transition.
Bruce: No! I still embrace most of it. I don’t want to reject any of it. In the very, very beginning I just tried to separate it, I guess to try to move forward. But even since that article came out, I have come more and more to I embrace who I am. I tell people, “Labels are for clothes. I am Chris.”
They will ask me if I want to go by male or female. I’ll go check in at the airport somewhere and they’re not really paying attention, and they hear my voice or they’ll see me and they’ll say, “Yes, sir? Can we help you, sir?” They’re being really, really polite, and then as soon as I give them my driver’s license they go, “Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am.” And I go, “That’s O.K.”
I know I’m a little bit different. Actually, sometimes it’s a great time to turn around and say, “That’s O.K.” Sometimes they start talking, they ask questions, and I’ve just helped to educate someone about being Transgender. I liken myself to what Chaz Bono is doing. Because of Cher, Chaz has the opportunity to present the Transgender voice a little bit more than it’s ever been presented before, in Dancing with the Stars and the other things he’s done. Well, this gives me an opportunity in the fitness world, in bodybuilding, and it is completely different. If someone wants to say it’s freaky, it’s weird, that’s O.K. I’m fine with it. I don’t care if you make fun of it. Just talk about it.
When I told my mom, we had the conversation at the airport. When she landed, she knew something was wrong. I planned on talking to her the next day. And she said, “Right now, right now, what’s going on?” I said, “Mom, we’ll talk about it tomorrow. We’ll go have dinner, then we’ll go to the movies,” because there was this movie she wanted to go see. She said, “No, right now. I’ve waited two weeks to fly into here to come see you.” And I said, “Well, let’s wait until dinner.” “I want to know now.” I said, “Mom, I like to dress in women’s clothes. I’m not sure where it’s going to go.” And she said, “That’s it?” “That’s it.” “I thought you were into drugs, or some weird cult, or whatever.”
She goes, “O.K., all right. So tell me, what’s going on with this?” She realized it was O.K., I’m not going to die. “What do you mean, you like to dress up in women’s clothes?” I said, “I’m not really sure. Can I talk to you about it” We talked for about 20 to 30 minutes, similar to but more in depth to what you and I have talked about the items, and we’re sitting there at dinner and she goes, “I am so sorry.” I say, “For what?” And she said, “You’ve been dealing with this for 30 years, and what kind of mother am I that I wasn’t here to help you deal with this?” I said, “Mom, don’t! Please! I needed all these 30 years.” I said, “I could not be where I am today had I not been through all these 30 years.” I said, “I learned how to carry myself. I learned how to speak.”
In my old career I was a regional sales manager for a building products manufacturer. I used to go to Vegas every four or five months and have to speak in front of four or five thousand people in building products, and present products, and walk into Boise Cascade and humongous corporations and make sales calls. So I told my mom, “I learned how to get the door shut in my face, and take rejection. You taught me how to fight, you taught me how to never give up, you taught me how to stay with something and commit and go through it. And besides, had it not been for my life, I would not have the resources now — financial security, knowledge — to do the things I’m doing. I’m going to make a difference in our community, to help change people, and it’s because of you. If anything, you’re the one who’s going to help all this.”
The next couple of days we were talking throughout it, and she says, “Well, I didn’t know anything about it. To be honest with you, I thought the same thing. I didn’t know the difference between a drag queen, Transsexual, cross-dresser, transvestite. I didn’t know what they were. I didn’t have any reason to. But now I do, so I’m going to learn about it.” Here’s my loving mother, who cared so much that she felt bad for me, and she goes, “I just didn’t know anything about this.”
And most people don’t. Even in our own community, even in the LGBT community, I have met so many people here — and back in Dallas — who are Gay or Lesbian, but they really don’t understand the Transgender. They really do think it’s all the typical drag-show stuff that you see at Mo’s or wherever. They kind of associate all of that as the same. Most of them do not even understand the differences. I’ve had many, many conversations with them, and they’ll sit there and come over and start asking me, “Well, really, so what’s the difference?” I’ll tell them the difference between a transvestite and a cross-dresser and a Transsexual and a drag queen, and about how some Transgender people are literally transitioning their gender from one to the other, and some of them just go through it a little bit. Some of them go fully through the whole operation and completely live their life as the other, that’s a Transsexual. And some people just stay in that cross-dressing phase.
A transvestite and a drag queen are two completely different categories. They really shouldn’t be in the same thing. Two completely different animals. But they all think they’re all the same, because they really haven’t had a voice of someone actually to try to help them understand the differences. And so they really haven’t had any reason to. It’s like my mom said: they haven’t had any reason to.
Zenger’s: That’s one reason I’ve interviewed a lot of Transgender people: to do that education, to give them a voice. It’s helped me to understand, sitting across from someone who’s gone through this experience, which is not at all like mine, but I’ll say, “Explain it to me, and through me, explain it to my readers, and hopefully we’ll build some understanding out of this.”
Bruce: Most Transgender people are not like Tony and Ashley Weeks (a Transgender couple — Ashley is male-to-female and Tony is female-to-male — interviewed in the July 2008 Zenger’s) or myself or Chaz, where we’re willing to talk about it. Many of them want to try to be completely stealthy. They want to transition and be left alone. They want to get rid of a lot. They want to hide, because it’s not easy. It’s hard enough to deal with it, outside of the ridicule and things that you would get, or potentially get, fired.
Because there are many Transgender people who have been able to relocate, they’re smaller in stature, their voice sounds right, they can literally pass as a female, or vice versa, pass as a male, and they just want to go live their new career. They don’t want to be hassled, and I respect it. I guess it’s like being “outed” as a Gay person was 20 years ago. I can understand a lot of these Transgender people, there’s a lot of us out there, who think they’ve got their lives out there. Why do I want to make it bad for them?
But I’m not going to hide. If I can put a little light on it, it can help, so maybe the next 10 to 20 years, when someone’s coming up, they’re not going to get fired just because they’re Transgender. Or they won’t have to worry about trying to experiment, or about going to a therapist to try to figure it out, or feel completely ashamed and embarrassed if there’s something they feel they need to talk to their parents about.
Zenger’s: I know a lot of Transgender people actually commit suicide, in some cases even after the transition. I remember the sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times who published about his transition, his family was supportive, his employer was supportive enough to let her out herself in the paper, and still, she took her own life within a few months after the transition. Why do you think that is, and what can we do about it?
Bruce: That was sad, because in a lot of ways she was very fortunate, I believe. She had a supportive family, she had a supportive employer. Maybe the working situation with the employees could have been to the point where she just couldn’t take it anymore. But most Transgender people, a very large percentage, do live in poverty, because you have to lose everything. I can have an outstanding career résumé, but the moment I did this, it’s basically useless. Yes, I still have that education. Yes, I still have that career, that knowledge, that’s helped me into another business. But my 20 years in the building products industry is not going to get me a job making one-tenth of what I used to make back in that career, because I’m considered abnormal, “freak,” whatever adjective they want to put on it.
So all of a sudden you’re basically starting all over, and most of the time at that point you’re in your late 30’s, 40 years old. You’re trying to start your whole career over. You’ve potentially been divorced, wiped out, so financially you’re broke. Then, you’re not blessed, as I am, with a supportive family — if your family leaves you, your mother, your father, your children, your ex-spouse, whichever one it is, and you’re all alone — just think about it. You’ve done this, and then you sit there and look at it and think, “I have nothing. I’ve lost my career, I’ve lost all my income, I’ve lost my security, I’ve lost my family, my support, because I did something.” So then you start doing a little regret on yourself.
I would believe this is my choosing. I did this, because I do believe everything in life is a choice. I’m not saying it isn’t still there, a nagging thing that is not going to go away, but outside of your heartbeat — you can even stop breathing, but you’ll pass out and your heart will kick your lungs back in — you choose every single thing you do, from the moment you wake up. You choose to get out of bed, you choose to go to work, you choose to smoke a cigarette or not, to drink a beer, to eat healthy or not eat healthy, to exercise.
For me, even the transition was a choice. I made a choice to do it. We all do. I hear people say, “I didn’t have a choice.” Yes, you do. You have a choice in everything you do. The issue is not going to go away, so you choose how you’re going to manage it. And I would think that they are in despair that they’ve lost every single thing by a choice that they made, and what else can they do? Where else can they turn?
That’s why I’m so blessed and happy that I have my mom and my sister, because my mom did teach me to drive and go make it happen. You go do it. That’s what I’m doing. I’m basically starting all over from ground zero and making it happen again. But I do know that in the worst-case situation, I could always get on an airplane and fly back to Atlanta, and I have a home where my mom lives. I know that I’m not in that position that I have nothing left in this world. I have a place I could go to sleep and someone that loves me. But just imagine what would happen if you didn’t have that, if you were sitting right here and you had lost every single thing. I can’t imagine how horrible that would be.
And the way we stop it? We don’t need more bills and more laws. What we need to do is enforce the existing rights and laws that we already have. I was born an American citizen. I have these rights anyway. I should not have to have another law to enforce something I already have. I shouldn’t be beaten up, harassed, simply because I’m different from someone else. I’m no different from a Gay person, a Black person, a person that doesn’t “look” American but is American.
Yes, you can make it. Yes, there are Chaz Bonos out there. There’s Chris Bruce’s out there. There’s Tony Weeks, there’s Ashley Weeks, there are people out there. We have gone through these things. And it’s not easy. I’m not going to tell you it’s easy, but there are people like that, and we’ll try to help you. I get e-mails once or twice a week, from a mother, from a father, from somebody I went to school with, that one of their kids or someone they know in their school is Gay or they believe has gender issues, and would I talk to them or would I set them up.I get e-mail after e-mail after e-mail, sometimes to the point where I can’t keep up, and I’ll write them, I’ll Facebook them, I’ll text them. I even went to visit one or two of them. There’s a girl here in San Diego High School whose teacher wrote me just last week asking if I could come down there and speak with her, and I said, “Absolutely.” Anything I can do to help them realize that they are not alone, that there’s many of us out there. And you’ve just got to do what my mom told me to do. If you believe in it, you keep fighting. You don’t quit, you don’t give up.