An Interview with Transgender ‘Transformer’ Janae Kroc
Born Matthew Raymond Kroczaleski, Janae – the transgender subject of the award-winning documentary Transformer – is a former Marine who made a name for herself (as Matt) as a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder. In 2009, she set the male world record in the 220-pound weight class with 2,551 pounds. And while she’s not as powerful as she used to be (in the physical sense at least), she can still squash you like a bug: Last year, 18 months into her estrogen therapy, Janae lifted 210 pounds for 10 reps and deadlifted 605 pounds.
Recently, she has accelerated her transition from male to female, an evolution a decade-plus in the making, which has come with its own set of challenges.
In this new interview, Janae opens up about the discrimination she’s faced since coming out; how the bodybuilding community has both shunned and embraced her; raising three well-adjusted, supportive sons (she and their mother divorced as a result of her coming out); the long, costly road to gender-reassignment surgery; and how some burdens weigh more than any barbell she’s ever touched.
Mikey Rox: Janae – as Matt, you were a world champion powerlifter, badass bodybuilder, and a spokesperson for dietary supplement brand MuscleTech. You revealed in your new documentary Transformer, which screened at Miami’s OUTshine Film Festival recently, that you lost the latter gig after coming out as transgender. How did that happen?
Janae Kroc: MuscleTech actually found out that I was transgender several months before I was outted publicly. They had been sent some old pictures from my Facebook page, which was private at the time, and called me to ask if it was true. I immediately confirmed that it was and that, yes, I was in fact transgender and had been very open about it for years. They told me they were having a board meeting concerning this and would let me know their decision in a few days. When they contacted me again they were very clear that the reason they were letting me go was because of me being transgender. They immediately pulled all of my content from their websites and media advertising, cancelled all of my scheduled appearances for the remainder of the year, and informed me they would not be renewing my contract. They stated that while they were very happy with the job I had done for them over the previous eight years and really liked me as a person they felt that it would be very bad PR for them and it would hurt sales, especially overseas in the more conservative cultures.
MR: What’s your take on this, and is there any recourse for what amounts to blatant discrimination?
While this was clearly discrimination and I would have been protected under Canadian law had I chosen to pursue legal action (MuscleTech is based in Toronto), the job I was hired to do for them was very different than most. They had hired me solely to represent their products and to be one of the faces of their company. That was my job for them and what they were paying me to do. Even though I was shocked and I felt they made a very poor decision, the way I saw this was that if they didn’t want their company represented by a transgender person then that was their prerogative. I do feel that they missed a huge opportunity to do the right thing and that this will come back to haunt them in the future, but I chose not to pursue legal action against them.
MR: You’re in a similar position as Caitlyn Jenner being a world champion record and medal holder. When she was transitioning, there was a petition to revoke her Olympic medals because “Bruce” had won them and not Caitlyn. Ultimately the IOC took no action in that regard, but how do you feel about that personally?
JK: I feel that entire premise is absurd and merely a veil for extreme bigotry. Of course Caitlyn should be allowed to keep her medals, and anything I had accomplished in my life prior to transition was still achieved by me and I still deserve whatever accolades go along with those accomplishments.
JK: I see Matt as simply a part of who I am. All of the traits I possessed as Matt that allowed me to achieve the things I did are still within me. Matt was simply a limited version of who I am; he was just a portion of who I am today. I will say that there are certainly differences between Matt and Janae, and my reactions to certain situations are markedly different now than they would have been in the past, but I still don’t view him as a separate person. I still lived through all of those experiences and they helped shape me into the person I am today. I see my current self as the evolution of who I am, and I am still evolving all the time.
MR: You came out to your three boys 13 years ago when they were young, and they’re each very well adjusted to your transition. That, for me, was probably the best part of Transformer – seeing how they interact with and accept you as you are. But have they always been so accepting? Were there any times when they pushed back, and how did you overcome that?
JK: Everyone is always shocked to hear this but it is the absolute truth: They have always been 100% supportive and accepting of who I am. Since I told them at such a young age, they had not yet been conditioned by society to view being transgender as a bad thing, so to them it was just another aspect of who I am. And since I never demonstrated any shame or gave them any reason to view it negatively, they have never had any reason to see it as something bad.
MR: Have they encountered any bullying as a result of the film? How have they dealt with that?
JK: Before I was outted publicly, we had discussed for many years the potential of me being outted and how they might be affected by that and how we should handle it. It was my biggest concern and why I had not come fully out publicly sooner. Fortunately, nothing has really changed for them. Some of their friends have asked questions or joked about it and we have heard rumors about other parents saying nasty things about me, but no one has ever said anything to our faces and they have not faced any discrimination as a result. I am also fortunate that all three of my boys are very secure in who they are, and any teasing from other kids does not have much of an effect on them. I think they have seen how I have handled all of the hate directed toward me and that has helped them to develop a similar attitude toward what other people might say or do. We recognize that when people say horrible things about me, it really says a lot more about them as a person than it does me.
MR: You revealed yourself as Janae to your mom for the first time in the documentary, and naturally she was anxious about it. I read on your Instagram, though, that she actually decided on your female name. I’m guessing you asked her to do that. Did that help her along her path to acceptance?
JK: The truth is my mom didn’t actually pick my name per se, but she did have a hand in helping me to decide on Janae. Janae was the name my mom had picked for me had I been born female. She told me that when I was a child and it always stuck with me. I thought it was a pretty name and unique, so when the time came to decide on a new name, Janae was the obvious choice for me.
JK: Unfortunately not much has changed. She has still only seen me as Janae the one time you see in the film. I have not gone to the family Christmas or other holiday celebrations in years as it’s clear that she’s concerned that my presence will make other people uncomfortable. I know this has been very difficult for my mom, and I try to keep in mind what kind of person she is. She does not handle any type of change well, and her primary coping mechanism is avoidance so this behavior is to be expected of her. I also feel bad because I know that still living in the small town where I grew up, she has had to endure a lot because of me coming out. People will walk up to her and say nasty things about me, and even her own mother – my grandma – has told my mom that it’s her fault for not instilling more religion in me. I try to keep those things in mind, but I also know that deep down she loves me – and that will never change. I think she will eventually come around, but it’s going to take me pushing her a bit to get her there.
MR: In the documentary, your dad, who you admitted was rather absent during your upbringing, said some pretty offensive but fairly typical things about your situation, specifically that he would “freak” if he saw you as Janae. Has that happened?
JK: My dad still hasn’t seen me as Janae yet, although that may change soon. Like my relationship with my mom, not much has really changed since the footage in the film was shot. He still hopes I’ll change my mind and thinks this is a mistake. However, he has said that no matter what happens he still wants me to be a part of his life, so that feels really good to know. I think, like my mom, he’ll eventually come around, but it will take some pushing from my end. We’ll see if he actually does “freak” when he meets Janae for the first time. [Laughs]
MR: You touched briefly on your sexual orientation in the film, expressing that you’re still attracted to women but open to dating a man. Can you explain that?
JK: Like my gender identity, my sexual orientation is somewhat blurry. I have always been very attracted to women and still am. I have never really found men attractive, but as a woman it does feel very natural to be in the feminine role with a man. I am open to dating whomever I feel a strong connection to, and it really has more to do with who they are as a person than their gender or genitals.
MR: Are you dating?
JK: Currently I am not dating, but I have recently met someone that I am very interested in. We actually met at the film festival in Toronto. We are still getting to know each other so who knows what will happen, but I will say that I could see this having long-term potential. I guess time will tell.
JK: They did not have any effect on who I am attracted to, although my body and self-perception have changed; the idea of dating men has become a more realistic possibility. As a male I had no interest in men whatsoever but as a woman I am at least open to the idea.
MR: You attended a local powerlifting competition in the film where a young straight male fan that idolized you praised you for your courage in coming out as transgender. I was blown away, frankly. That seems rather atypical given the often-toxic masculinity associated with this sport, so how did that encounter feel? Does that sort of thing happen often?
JK: Actually, there has been a lot more support from the powerlifting world than most people would expect given the sport’s reputation for an overabundance of testosterone, and I deeply appreciate every single person that has stood by me. Overall I would say the reaction to my coming out has been 50-50. About half of the community has been extremely supportive just like the guy you see in the film, and the other half has been more or less like most people would expect. I have had people message me privately to tell me they have burned the posters that I signed for them previously and other crazy things like that. The responses on public forums when I came out were even worse, but it was also mixed with a lot of people supporting me against the transphobic bigots. The women of the strength-training community have actually been my biggest allies, and I can’t thank them enough for welcoming me into their sisterhood and supporting me the way they do.
MR: You have really amazing bodybuilding friends – big, macho dudes – who have not only accepted you but seem to be incredibly compassionate and open with you. Did you expect that?
JK: When I first started coming out to my friends a little over 10 years ago, the process was extremely difficult and I was very unsure of what to expect. I was afraid they wouldn’t understand and that I would lose a lot of friends, but as I told them one by one, every single one of them has stuck by me and supported me 100%. I am very fortunate to have such good friends and so many close relationships. I think it helped that I was very open and honest and allowed myself to be vulnerable with them. They could see I was being sincere and how difficult it was for me. I think it speaks volumes about the quality of friends I have, and for that I will be forever thankful.
MR: In the film, you talked about how cost-prohibitive gender reassignment surgery is. Where are you at in the transition process?
JK: For the average adult trans woman to fully transition, it can often cost up to $100,000, and for trans men, even more. Personally, I have already spent $70,000 to $80,000, and I am still not finished. I am in the process of scheduling my bottom surgery right now and hope to get that done as soon as possible, but realistically it will probably be at least late this year or early next year before I am able to make that happen. Fortunately, more and more insurances in the United States are covering transgender surgeries and I really hope that trend continues.
As far as other procedures go, I am definitely going to look more into hair transplant surgery as not having to wear a wig would be huge for me. With my active lifestyle and love for the water, wigs just aren’t practical, and without one on it becomes very difficult for me to present as female with my very short and very thin hair. I am still very interested in breast augmentation surgery, but as long as I remain very muscular it is difficult to achieve a natural look so for now I am holding off on that. I also may revisit vocal feminization surgery at some point as the results from my first surgery aren’t as good as I was hoping. While my voice has definitely improved, I still view it as being more masculine than feminine and typically get read as male over the phone. The only other thing I would like to add in regard to my transition is that I also still identify as gender fluid and non-binary and my gender presentation varies from day to day. Some days I present completely feminine, but at other times more masculine. I continue to move in a more feminine direction, but it’s difficult to say where exactly I will end up and whether or not I will complete what most people would view as a full transition.
MR: Post-bodybuilding career, what are you goals now?
JK: As far as my training is concerned I still want to remain muscular and strong but lean and not quite as big as I was previously. I still waffle somewhat about whether or not to drop a significant amount of weight and transition into a more “athletic look” but for now that is on hold.
In regard to my overall life, I hope to continue speaking publicly about transgender and gender non-conforming people and the issues we face. I also hope to continue empowering women, especially those that are interested in pursuing strength sports, and do my best to promote equality as an intersectional feminist. Professionally, I hope to achieve enough financial independence to allow me to pursue those goals full time.