When I stepped out onto the Gay Games bodybuilding contest stage in August 2014, the emcee announced my name and informed the crowd that I was a transgender man. Thunderous applause rocked the auditorium in Cleveland and my nerves. As the music began and I started my 90-second routine, my dream had become my reality.
I never imagined I would deserve that kind of response. It was the sound made at a rock concert and for meaningful, important people. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I’m alive, let alone able to compete in a bodybuilding competition with men born in a male body.

As a child, I knew adults could be wrong. Like most parents, mine had expectations about how I should be treated, how I should behave, and what I should look like. Unfortunately, mismanaged expectations can be result in abject daily degradation and humiliation for a transgender child. For example, imagine sending your son every day dressed in a skirt to Catholic high school.

That is exactly what happened to me. Since I grew up in the 1980s in a town on Long Island, N.Y., where kids brought box cutters to public school for something other than arts and crafts projects, my parents decided sending my sisters and I to Catholic school was a safer alternative. I had also spent most of my childhood believing God hated me. Why else would God put my soul in the wrong body?

The first time I had ever come out to anyone about being transgender was on the playground of Andrew T. Morrow elementary school. I remember it was a very bright, sunny warm day. Although I didn’t have the vocabulary of “transgender” I was secure and confident enough in who I knew I was at that age. Myself and two other classmates were drawing with chalk during recess. They expressed how they liked certain boys in class and naturally I said “I am a boy.”

Up until that point I had never experienced the kind of reaction they gave me. With kids at that age, you either smile and laugh together or people laugh at you. This was different: their reactions were of shock and horror. Their facial expressions were confusion and fear. They froze, Laurie stopped skipping and Vicki stopped drawing and I stop thinking I was normal. I don’t blame them, they were kids no older than 7 or 8 but regardless of age or circumstances it left an indelible mark. Message received: DO NOT under any circumstances mention this EVER again.

Up until that point I knew that I was a boy. I thought I wasn’t your typical boy, but I knew some day when I grew up I’d be a boy like the others, I just wasn’t right now. I didn’t know exactly how I’d become a boy like the others, I just knew I would.

My life became exponentially more difficult within seconds because that was the end of feeling good about who I was and the start of feeling as though I was a lonely freak, not deserving of any respect, dignity or love. Why would I be? God hated me, my parents were frustrated by my chronic unexplainable sadness, moodiness and my inability to remain focused. I was no longer free because my mind was tethered to a horrific ideology encased by a jail of my own design. This was all reinforced by the continued negative reactions and responses from what seemed to be everyone around me and society at large. I was settled in for a long, lonely depressing life.

Back then, there was no Internet, no books covering this topic. I searched and could never find anything. The only thing that my little mind could logically deduce is that I should keep busy in any way I could. I couldn’t focus on school, because my mind was filled with constant thoughts of feeling trapped, like I was a burden.

The first day of high school brought the crushing weight of all the typical teenage milestones I knew I’d be forced to endure. What could possibly be good about high school? My first kiss? I tried to ignore crushes, but it was nearly impossible. After the brief excitement, the story always ended like a tragedy. There was always another bullet to dodge: homecoming, prom, locker room, Catholic school skirt uniform, and the ultimate betrayal ̶ puberty.

Although I was on girls’ teams, sports equipment doesn’t care what gender you are, nor does the grass you play on, the glove you use, the cleats you wear, the court you run on, or the dumbbells you lift.

I was called a dyke the first week of school, which I saw as promotion from my short-lived junior high school nickname of “it.” The lack of explanation for my condition produced anger and shame. At 17 years old when I did seek help and had finally built up enough trust to tell my psychologist, he replied, “You can’t possibly know at your age. You should go out and experiment.” After being discounted yet again, I turned further inward to the point of not just hating my body, but resenting myself as a whole. Hate became the only unifying factor in my life, which resulted in no longer struggling to convince myself of any positive aspects of me or my life.

Sports became my savior. I made the varsity soccer and basketball teams as a high school freshman. Although I was on girls’ teams, sports equipment doesn’t care what gender you are, nor does the grass you play on, the glove you use, the cleats you wear, the court you run on, or the dumbbells you lift. I was able to find self-worth through my achievements. If I could obtain these goals, I began to think and more importantly – have faith – that I might be able to accomplish more than I expected.

I made it into college, but this began my descent into the underworld. My workarounds in the dorm’s group showers created an overpowering anxiety and depression that repeated like a never-ending broken record. I became nocturnal — staying awake all night after 16 hour days of school and sports – to shower alone in the wee hours of the night and morning. It quickly became difficult to keep a schedule that was conducive to learning, performing sports, and maintaining my mental health.

The experience confirmed that I was physically female-bodied. I was also having trouble fulfilling hygiene needs. Being denied the ability to take care of basic needs, such as cleanliness, made me feel I was not worthy of being treated like a human.

However, I suffered academically with difficulties associated with maintaining concentration. Mental health is at least 50 years behind other medical specializations, and such conditions at the time were often considered a behavioral instead of a clinical problem. My excitement at the prospect of creating a life closer to what suited me was again dampened when hurdles arose that could no longer be ignored. I was failing out, jeopardizing my scholarships, and most importantly, losing hope.

I failed out of college and came out as transgender to my family and friends. The news was not well-received by my family. My suicide attempt was my last ditch effort to release myself from the pain, hopelessness, and apathy that no one should ever be forced to tolerate.

I went to counseling again and this time connected with wonderful people at an LGBT center. Although I did not meet anyone who identified as transgender, I did find people who were open to learning about how to help, support, and advocate for me. I felt at home and had a sense of belonging. For the first time, I knew I was going to be OK. The steps toward my recovery enabled me to attend college again and compete in sports.

If I couldn’t change my body through hormones and surgery, then I was going to change my body as much as I could through bodybuilding.

Although my parents’ lack of support, financial resources, and non-inclusive healthcare coverage resulted in my transitioning much later in life than I wanted to do so, the time allowed me to develop the best coping and life-saving technique: bodybuilding.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Incredible Hulk. As an adult, I realized that I had it in my power to become the Hulk. If I couldn’t change my body through hormones and surgery, then I was going to change my body as much as I could through bodybuilding. It gave me something to shoot for every day, all day. Bodybuilding prevented me from medicating myself with drugs and alcohol, encouraged me to eat well, and fill my time with workouts and reading articles about diet, nutrition and exercise.

Other bodybuilders embraced me, which was essential to keep the momentum going. There’s camaraderie among bodybuilders I know. They are fully aware of the sacrifices you must make to compete. You just can’t cheat your way through a strict diet or not bring everything you’ve got that day to the gym and expect anything good to come from it. Sports keep you honest and demand the best of you, always.

I strove to maintain 10% to 11% body fat during the off season with only 4% body fat by the competition. Hours must be devoted to prepping food, working in the gym, and getting adequate sleep for muscles to grow. My diet regimen followed the bodybuilder staples: vegetables, low-fat grilled or boiled protein sources, protein shakes, complex carbohydrates, branch chain amino acid powder and healthy fats. When I was feeling creative, protein powder pancakes and protein powder egg white soufflés made my day.

My weight training routine exercises varied weekly, but I always hit the same muscle groups together with back/biceps, chest, triceps, legs, shoulders, and arms lasting about 45 minutes performed five times a week. When entering the cutting phase, I added 20 minutes of cardio and increased in five-minute increments, building up to an hour of cardio performed six days a week along with weight training.

The weight training routine exercises still vary weekly and last about 45 minutes. Yet your body becomes weaker due to all the rigorous demands so the emphasis shifts to lighter weights rather than heavy weights during the bulking phase. When initiating the fat-cutting phase, I would weight train for 45 minutes followed by cardio. As I got closer to competition, I would do 40 minutes of fasted cardio first thing in the morning and then return after work and do my weight training routine followed by a 20 minute session of cardio.
Mason Caminiti Gay Games
Mason Caminiti, right, backstage at the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland. He won the gold medal in his division.

All the sacrifices and perseverance lead to me becoming the first transgender male to win a gold medal in bodybuilding at the Gay Games.

Every time I hit a pose that night in Cleveland, the crowd reacted the same but even louder. It had such a profound effect on me and I’m tearing up as I write this. Intellectually I knew it was the Gay Games where I was part of a global LGBT family that included allies. What did I think was going to happen? I had no idea but I never imagined I would or would illicit that kind of response. I guess I never knew this sort of response was out there for me, little Mason, the scared insecure kid just trying to make his way in the world.

Bodybuilding empowered me to take control over my life by transforming my body in ways that I couldn’t fathom. It also made me realize that what I do and who I am has real, measurable, physical, and mental results. Most importantly, my success matters not only to me, but to others. I let nothing stop me, including the opinion of naysayers and the self-doubt that lingered most of my life. I realized that I, Mason Caminiti, counts and belongs to something greater than HIMself. I’ve lifted weights as if my life depended on it because indeed, it has.

Mason Caminiti, 39, lives in Ohio. Last summer he won the gold medal in his division in bodybuilding at the Gay Games. He has also competed in NPC WV State and will compete in Mr. Cleveland and NPC Natural Northern later this year. On July 11, he married his fiancée, Anne. He’s currently working on a book about his transition. He can be reached via email at [email protected]. He trains with Shawn Nutter of Fusion Training Systems. This article was co-authored with childhood friend Jennifer Moyer BSN, RN.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

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