What It's Like to Come Out As a Transgender Bodybuilder

As a former Marine and pro powerlifter, Janae Marie Kroczaleski (previously known as Matt Kroc) explains what life is like as a transgender "jock girl."

Former Marine. World champion powerlifter. Father to three sons. And transgender. Janae Marie Kroczaleski, formerly known as Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski, gives a raw and honest look into her life today.

On July 27, 2015, the life of record-setting powerlifter and former Marine Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski turned upside down. A strength-sports gossip vlogger had publicly outed Matt as a transgender woman.

Rather than hiding from controversy, Kroczaleski confirmed the news on social media and granted interviews to media outlets like TMZ and Inside Edition.

His secret a secret no longer, Matt legally changed his name to Janae Marie Kroczaleski. The weeks and months following her untimely outing were difficult, but today she is thriving — a supportive parent of three teenage sons, a pharmacist working in southern Michigan and a strong figure in the female weightlifting community.

Janae gives LIVESTRONG.COM a raw and honest look at her life today — and the long path that led her here.

Stephanie Molnar for LIVESTRONG.COM: Janae, you were outed recently — last year in fact. But when did you know you were transgender?

Janae: At 5 or 6 years old. Of course, I didn’t know what transgender meant, but I knew I had these feelings of wanting or needing to be female.

Early on, I also knew I was very passionate about strength training. To want to be big and strong and also female — those two feelings were very challenging when I was an adolescent in the early ’80s. There was no Internet and very little literature about transgender people. Even when I started college, the literature that was available was written by people who were outside of the community.

I grew up feeling alone, like something was wrong with me — like a square peg in a world of round holes.

You were publicly outed by a video blogger in the powerlifting world. At this point, without certain legal protections in place, outing a trans person can have a very detrimental impact on how they make a living. How has it changed your life professionally?

I was out for three years [at the pharmacy], but I wasn’t out publicly or to the fan base. I was out to one of my main sponsors but not the biggest one, Muscle Tech, and that was something I had discussed with my former athlete’s rep. I didn’t feel like I was hiding anything, but at the same time I figured it was probably best to play it safe unless it was brought up.

Muscle Tech actually found out that I was transgender in April, several months before the YouTube video was posted. The athlete's rep contacted me and said they were given some pictures of me and I knew right away where he was going with it. I said that, yes, it’s true: I’m transgender. He said they’d have to have a meeting, and would call me Wednesday to let me know what they decided.

They made a decision to drop me. It was a surprise, especially since I’d been with them almost eight years, and they had always said how happy they were with me. I had been told at times that I was the best athlete they’d ever worked with. For them to just drop me like that when nothing had changed.... I wasn’t planning on coming out, and wasn’t out to the fan base.

But I realized it was a business decision, and even though I think it was discriminatory and a poor one, I don't have any hard feelings toward them. They did honor the time left on my contract, but they immediately pulled all my ads from the website and magazines and canceled all my appearances.

It hurt to be dropped just for being transgender, and financially it was difficult to lose the income, but to be honest it was also somewhat of a relief: one less thing to force me to keep this a secret.

How did you cope?

I always loved sports, and I was naturally competitive. I also found girls attractive. So I just started doing the things society says are normal for boys. I was a jock. I did pretty well in football. I wrestled and played baseball.

I was serious about weightlifting by the time I was 12. I had a lot of insecurities, so lifting was a way to lose myself. People have a hard time believing it now, but I was actually small and skinny with a baby face; I was bullied in junior high.

To be honest, [being transgender] has never been out of my consciousness for even five minutes my whole life. And I grew up Catholic, so there was a lot of guilt and shame that came along with it. It’s hard to be angry at the core of your being about who you think you are.

When was the first time you told someone you felt different?

I never said a word about it to anyone until I was 23.

In the Marines, a few of my buddies sensed there was something different about me. Even though I found women attractive, dating relationships were always very difficult. I was always an alpha male and a leader — someone who had to be top dog. But when it came to relationships I was very uncomfortable in the male role. It took a long time until I could put two and two together, and it was confusing and frustrating.

I grew up feeling alone, like something was wrong with me — like a square peg in a world of round holes.

Today, you describe yourself as gender-fluid or nonbinary. How do you describe that?

It means I don’t fit neatly into our male-female system. A lot of trans girls say they feel like a woman trapped in a male body. I can’t say I’ve ever felt that way. I liked being big and strong. There are things about being a guy that I enjoy. As I said, if you put me in a room full of powerlifters or Marines, I am the alpha. But how can the alpha male also be the girly girl in our society?

I enjoy dressing how I want, and the days I’m feeling really girly, I dress that way. Most days now I might look a little more androgynous. Even when I’m in “guy mode,” though, you’ll rarely see me without my nails painted.

Has your fitness routine changed?

Well, after I was outed and it was finally time to transition, I tried giving up lifting and started training for a triathlon. I dropped from 270 to 200 pounds, and then I kind of had this realization that I didn’t want to be that small. I missed being big and strong, and I was burned out on the dieting.

I really enjoy strength training and it's a big part of who I am as well. I’ve probably gained back about 35 pounds of muscle and some of my strength has returned. I’m taking it one day at a time, and I can’t tell you where I’ll end up.

What was it like when you were first accepted as a woman?

When I was down around 200 pounds, people just assumed I was a female weightlifter. Even just a few weeks back, I took my son shopping. One girl said, “I love your arms! I want to look like you.” I was wearing training clothes and a hoodie that worked with my physique. I remember thinking, “I’m not sure you really want to look like me!”

How do people treat you differently when you present female versus when you present male?

When I’m accepted as female, no one really thinks anything of it. It’s very comfortable. But it does make it easier in some cases to still be able to switch back and forth — because it’s very real that men and women are treated differently.

When you’re big and muscular, men respect it and women like it. Let’s face it: You get treated with favor in a lot of ways. You get a certain degree of leeway that makes life easier. Women are not always treated respectfully — especially trans girls.

Living my life gives me a great perspective on being female, being masculine and misogyny. One example: I have a ’67 Camaro that I love. I’ve always been into muscle cars. But if you’re a woman who enjoys doing car stuff, you’re always asked if it’s your boyfriend’s or dad’s car. It's just one of the many ways in which women are treated as inferior in our patriarchal society.

It’s very real that men and women are treated differently.

At first, it was hard when I couldn’t pass [be read or perceived by others as one’s presented gender]. I didn’t look good as a woman. I was elated to be able to go out in public dressed the way I wanted, but I learned very quickly how it felt to be treated as a third-class citizen. It was sobering.

I was even followed to my car one night leaving a club. Nothing happened. I was so muscular at the time that they guys that followed me didn’t try anything. But it opened my eyes to the fact that I’m more of a target now. Being muscular most of my life, being a target was the last thing I worried about! I had to learn what most girls learn very young — to be more conscious of my surroundings and not to go anywhere at night alone.

How has being outed affected your relationships?

Well, I had been out for about 10 years to most of my friends, some of the powerlifting world elite and my family. The first three months of that I thought for sure I’d lose friends. I mean, when your friends are ex-Marines and powerlifters, you figure they are the worst people to come out to.

It turned out to be the opposite. I haven’t lost any friends. Everyone has been really supportive. Although one of the guys I came out to by phone thought I was pulling a prank. He called half a dozen of our friends and figured we were all in on it. So most of my friends took it well.

Everyone expected me to be perfect. It made me feel like I was hiding some huge flaw.

With my family it was harder. My mom and dad took it hard, and to some extent they still do. I am very close to my two younger brothers. We’re all close. But having the success I did competing athletically and doing presidential security — it’s not exactly rags-to-riches, but since I grew up in a trailer on and off welfare, people kind of put you on a pedestal. It’s like, “Oh, he can do anything.”

Everyone expected me to be perfect. It made me feel like I was hiding some huge flaw. I didn’t want to disappoint everyone. I didn’t want to shatter the image they relied on.

Has it changed how you relate to your sons?

I am really close with all three of my boys, and they’ve known that I was trans since they were 2, 4 and 6. They’re 14, 16 and 18 this summer. So knowing this about their father is no big deal to them. Whether I transition full-time or not, it’s not going to change our relationship.

We still do the things we’ve always done when they stay with me. We lift weights, we play Frisbee. They call me Dad. Sometimes they call me Mom. It doesn’t matter.

They call me Dad. Sometimes they call me Mom. It doesn’t matter.

Actually, they’ll say I’m the best parent ever because I’m a mom and a dad. I think they recognize I’m a lot closer to them than a lot of their friends’ fathers are. I’m a lot more affectionate and open about feelings and emotions. I think it’s allowed me to build a closer bond with them than most fathers can because of this premise of “guys don’t do that.” I really think that’s had a positive effect.

A lot of waiting to transition has had to do with my sons. I didn’t want them to face discrimination at school. So, currently, I don’t go to any of their events as Janae. When I’m at their stuff, I want them focusing on their game or meet, not having to worry about how I’m being treated. “Where’s your dad?” “Oh, he’s the one up there in the pink dress!”

Everyone at their school knows, and nothing has changed. Though it might be different to show up as 240 pounds of muscle dressed very feminine in an environment where people might be more apt to treat you poorly.

So you still navigate the world in both genders?

Yes. Maybe in four years, when my youngest graduates, I will feel a lot stronger and completely ready to let go of the guy side. Maybe going back and forth will be something I always do. Neither would surprise me.

A little more than 10 years ago, when I first started exploring this part of me — it was like I realized I really didn’t know myself. I spent so many years constructing the person everyone wanted me to be. I really didn’t know if who I was [at the time] was real or some fake person I had created.

I came to realize that the lifting and competitiveness was part of me, but that there was so much I was repressing. In some ways, I was playing a role and overdid the macho thing in the Marines. My natural disposition was probably more like the total jock girl who has a very girly side.

Also, while I’m nowhere near as big or strong as I was before, I’m always going to be far more muscular than the average person. Even though at 43 my best days athletically are behind me, people still assume I’m 30-ish. I’ll take that and run with it!

How exactly were you finally outed?

There was a guy I don’t even know — a YouTube gossip kind of thing for strength sports — and somehow he found out. With me being so open at work and on Instagram and Facebook, I guess it could have happened any day. But he made a short video of Matt’s Instagram and Janae’s Instagram and said, “This the same person!”

I didn't feel it was done in a real malicious manner but he certainly didn't have my or my family's best interests in mind when he outed me. The news went viral quickly and in a matter of hours my life turned upside down.

I think he posted at 11 a.m. and by 1 p.m. I had interview requests from TMZ and Inside Edition. My email and phone were flooded with requests for radio shows and podcasts.

I figured if it’s going to be out there, then I’m going to tell my story and not let other people tell it for me. I got on my social-media accounts and said the rumors are true: I’m transgender, and I’m going to be completely open and honest about this. (Ed. note: Below, Janae's first Facebook post after being outed.)

There has obviously been a great deal of gossip, rumors and questions about me the past few days. To put them to rest:...

Posted by Matt "Kroc" Kroczaleski on Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How did the strength community react?

I did get mixed reactions. The good thing about having had some success in powerlifting was that I was being used to being in the public discussion: People would talk on forums and tear me down. It helped me prepare for some of the really ignorant comments that came through. One guy’s private message was simply, “Go to hell.”

I had a large following as the toughest, most intense lifter, known for overcoming injuries and cutting more weight than anyone. I had torn numerous muscles in my body and been through testicular cancer — an ex-Marine Rambo-type that could overcome anything. A lot of people felt that I had destroyed their hero, the image of who they thought I was.

A lot of people felt that I had destroyed their hero, the image of who they thought I was.

One of my sponsors, Dave Tate [CEO of Elitefts.com], who I told years before had said, “You know, a lot of guys who have your poster on their walls are homophobic. I wonder what they’d think if they knew you were trans?” We used to laugh about the irony in that.

So there was definitely backlash. But there was also more support than I could have ever expected.

What was the biggest surprise as far as that support?

The real surprise that made me feel really good was the female lifting community. I didn’t know how they would respond. I was afraid they were going to look at me like I was an intruder in their territory or protest against the possibility of me competing as woman.

When I went down to the Arnold Schwarzenegger Sports Festival in Columbus in March of this year [2016] it was a great experience and I met so many supportive women. I knew my friends in the lifting community would be supportive, but the support of the women who I didn't know really surprised me.

It was the first year I wasn’t a competing or sponsored athlete working in the booths and signing autographs. I went as Janae and was simply accepted as a female lifter. There were so many of us in town, and I was just another lifter girl.

The female lifting community has been so supportive. They have welcomed me with open arms. Some of them are my really close girlfriends now — girlfriends of guys I used to compete with. One, Gracie, is my total BFF. We totally go on Skype and do our makeup.

Female powerlifters and bodybuilders can relate to me in a lot of ways. They want to be strong and muscular too, and they sometimes face the same type of discrimination that they don’t look “enough” like a woman. They have their femininity questioned the same way I do, and share the same passion for strength training I do. Trying to balance strength training and femininity — we have so much in common.

They’ve helped me learn that fearlessness and strength are not male or female traits. Lots of women are fearless. I see that and can better reconcile myself with who I am, breaking down stereotypes and barriers.

Fearlessness and strength are not male or female traits. Lots of women are fearless.

You’ve mentioned that there have been dark times.

I did go through some really dark times. I contemplated suicide. My boys are reason enough that I would never go through with that. But there definitely were dark days.

Everything felt hopeless, especially after my first marriage ended, when I started really dealing with this for the first time. I was 270 pounds of muscle with a masculine face. I didn’t look feminine at all. I didn’t see a successful transition in my future. I thought, “I am going to struggle, and I am going to be alone.” Eventually, though, I worked my way through it a day at a time.

There are still days here and there. I have days where I still worry about how this will all turn out for me. But it’s usually just a day or even a few hours. And it’s less about who I am and more about relationships: How am I going to find someone who is going to be attracted to and really connected with me, as complex as I am?

Well I, for one, think that you’ll find that person. I’ll keep sending positive energy your direction for relationship happiness!

Thank you. You know, I spent so many years fighting who I am. I think we all try to be “normal” in the self we present to the world. But often that’s not our true selves. And I think that applies to a lot of people everywhere, not just trans people. I think so many people hide a large part of who they are for fear of rejection or ridicule, and if we all felt truly free to be ourselves we would find that being different is actually what's normal.

I think we all try to be “normal” in the self we present to the world. But often that’s not our true selves.

So right now I don’t really fit into any of the boxes society tries to put us in regarding gender or sexuality. I think it’s going to take a unique partner to find me attractive — whether that’s a woman, a man or someone like me.

I've always been powerfully attracted to women and so far, I haven’t felt a connection with a man like that; but if that were to happen I would be open to it. These days I am much less concerned about "what" someone is and am more interested in who they are.

If I think something is going to make me happy, I have no problem following the adventure. It’s never boring, that for sure! It’s a continuous adventure on a daily basis, and that’s the part — as hard as the last year has been sometimes — that makes it interesting.

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