The last time I went to the gym, a guy asked me to spot him while he maxed out on the bench press. I was sure he was talking to someone else, but when I looked over my shoulder, it was clear he was talking to me. "Hey, man," he said. "Can you spot me real quick?"
When you don't look like a typical girl - or feel like an average boy - there are few more confusing places than the gym.
Yet, even in an ostensibly liberal, open-minded city such as Washington, gender policing abounds. The gym is the place where people work out to become more like the skinny, toned women or perfectly muscular men in advertisements. Women do cardio to shed unwanted pounds, and men pick up free weights to groan and stare in the mirror at their reflections - frantically working to become ideal models of their respective genders.
I identify as "genderqueer" - blurring the line between man and woman. For example, I love my masculinity, and trying to get big at the gym is just one of my avenues for expressing it. I appreciate my femininity, too, particularly my ability to access vulnerability and express emotions freely. Calling myself genderqueer is about gender fluidity, not necessarily about sexual orientation. It's about expressing a more authentic self. Existing in the gray area, I feel less confined by false notions of how I "ought" to be.
So, for the people like me who don't quite belong in either category, trying to blend in at the gym can be as difficult as doing dead lifts with a torn hamstring. But even while the gym tries to keep me prisoner, it can also set me free.
I feel empowered when I claim my space in the whey-protein-drinking, bicep-curling, testosterone-fueled boys' club. My dad had me doing baby pull-ups around the time I started walking, and ever since I thumped all the boys in my elementary school in our annual pull-up competition, I knew upper-body strength was my edge.
Growing up, I thirsted for anything that could get me out of the girl box. That box left me feeling empty and without the same opportunities as boys for self-discipline, adventure and challenge. Of course, this was partly a result of growing up in a particularly old-fashioned town in Montana. For me, becoming more like a boy was an escape route.
I was the kid who longed to be in the Boy Scouts just as much as any other boy in my class. I had already come up with lots of ideas about how to build the fastest, coolest pinewood derby car, and I desperately wanted to earn a Wilderness Survival badge. But instead I had to practice cooking and learn dance routines in the Girl Scouts. In all of the pictures from those days, I am wearing a serious frown.
I saw freedom in the boy box - but a freedom that would forever be unattainable. Since I couldn't be a boy, I sought solace in creating a body that felt empowering, and the gym became my temple. When people talk about their religious devotion and the sacredness of their church, their words reflect my experience at the gym. This is the place where I seek truth. I feel affirmed and loved, not by others, but by myself.
When I was young, sports and weightlifting were the only opportunities to express my masculinity and to exercise some control over the way my body looked. My lifting intensified as I became addicted to the results - hardened abs and broader arms and shoulders. I was born into this world wrapped in a pink blanket, and that color seemed like my destiny, whether I liked it or not. The rush of adrenaline I got from the weight room felt like bursting out of the pink veil and finding myself in control of my body and my gender.
When I lived in Philadelphia last year, I tried using a gay gym, thinking it was bound to be more sensitive to gender expression. I was disappointed by an environment that catered to men and lacked accommodations for women or transgender individuals.
These days, I put in most of my hours at the gym on my law school's campus. I relish the sense of camaraderie when I see others testing their limits, going all out - it eggs me on to push harder and go further. There are moments, though rare, when I spot another outsider like myself, turning heads by defying gender mandates. We usually exchange a nod or make fleeting eye contact, acknowledging our shared status. It's kind of like a secret handshake that reminds me that my community has my back.
It also helps to swap stories with other androgynous-presenting people who have similar tales of awkward locker room episodes. Everyone seems to use different coping mechanisms. Some have told me they get dressed in single stalls. Others keep their heads down at all times and just get on with it. When we share our stories, we not only collect more tools to make the experience easier, we can also laugh together.
My weekly routine starts with a two-hour intensive bicep and tricep regimen interspersed with core-strengthening exercises. Day two consists of a five- or six-mile run to get my cardio fix, followed by shadowboxing or working the bag. My day three kicks off with the essential bench press, push-ups, and other back and chest exercises. I have tailored some of my old boxing and swimming programs to my routine, giving me a chance to work on agility and endurance. The rest of the week I focus on a mix of boxing and repeat arm and leg exercises, all the while chugging protein drinks to fuel my body's growth.
I'm not messing around.
Sitting on my bench, I see myself reflected in the crotch-scratching jocks around me. I've learned to adapt to this masculine culture that encourages me to take up as much space as I can in order to assert my existence. The degree to which I unabashedly take my time as I perform my fourth set of skull crushers warns others to back off my territory.
It is a strange experience for someone socialized as a girl - taught to always ask for permission, to say "please," "thank you" and "excuse me." Here, in this sacred zone, I shed 25 years of indoctrination. My "pleases" and "thank yous" turn into "this is mine" and "move over." The gym invites me to expose my unfettered masculinity without apology. I've discovered an unparalleled sense of affirmation when I catch a burly fellow watching me perform my 10th pull-up, awed by the unfamiliar sight of a masculine girl training her body to maximum performance.
But the gym can hurt, too. Most people don't have to think too hard about which locker room to use or weigh its potential for hostility. For me, the women's locker room is a difficult place. I'm stared at by confused youngsters or gawked at by a feminine mob of elliptical addicts. There is trauma every time I change in front of women because of a supposedly shared identity.
The way I express my gender places me in the borderland between the men's and women's locker rooms. I don't feel I belong comfortably in either, so I choose the one I'm most acquainted with through years of obedience to the gender I was assigned at birth. I am always conscious that, even though I may feel like it, I am not just one of the guys. Off campus, at the smaller gym in my apartment building, I frequently work out alone, and I can breathe a little easier knowing that I don't need to be on the defensive.
Maybe someday I'll round up the courage to walk confidently into the men's locker room, but for now I opt for the slightly easier route. Being different requires a lot of mental energy, especially after I've just pushed myself physically. Each time I expose myself to a new situation, I'm vulnerable. I have to muster the emotional armor to shield myself from the usual whispers, or worse.
On the gym floor, gender-benders inevitably feel the stares of other gymgoers who invade our space with their skeptical glances at armpit hair or lack of visible breasts. Their gaping and murmuring feel like blows to the stomach, knocking the pride right out of me. Some people openly express their bewilderment, laughing or exchanging hypotheses about me in subdued voices.
Behind their stares hides a deep and unanswered fear of the unknown. But there is tremendous power in the unknown. If we choose to roam that terrain, we create our own realities while threatening those of "normal" people.
We all transgress gender norms. For some of us it is in big ways - boys wearing fabulous pink dresses or someone transitioning to a gender different from the one a doctor assigned at birth. For others, transgression can be modest: the man who takes pride in being a great cook or the woman who changes the oil in her husband's car.
If we embrace the innumerable identities and expressions of who we are, locker rooms won't be the only places that feel safer for us all.
Marion Cory is a law student at Georgetown University.