“It’s totally a cult. Full stop.”
That’s Jason Cobb, a 43-year-old lawyer from Denver, Colorado on the particular virtues of CrossFit. Cobb is part of a growing community of avid CrossFitters—a sports-like work-out regime that’s increasingly appealing to gay men. Or at least, a certain type of gay man, from Manhattan to the Middle East.
“CrossFit definitely attracts the type-A personality—someone who likes structure and rules and measuring metrics,” says Will Lanier, a 32-year-old New Yorker who founded OUTWOD, a queer CrossFit collective, in 2011. “But it is so much more than just working out, which is where some of the cult vibes come in. When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, my CrossFit family showed up in such a big way. I felt so supported and loved through the entire journey.”
Created by Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz, California in 2000, CrossFit combines elements of Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, plyometrics, powerlifting, and high intensity interval training. Nearly 20 years since its debut, CrossFit now has some 4 million adherents worldwide, including a large number who are gay, such as Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski and Tan France.
The CrossFit ethos, one predicated on inclusivity, may have something to do with it. Not only does CrossFit welcome LGBT-focused work-out groups, the company severed ties with a gym this week that refused to host a Pride event—and fired its Chief Knowledge Officer for supporting the homophobic move.
“CrossFit gyms are generally welcoming of the queer community,” Lanier says. “I have noticed a shift since starting OUTWOD with more and more CrossFit gyms reaching out to host events with us as they get more and more LGBTQ members. It has been really incredible to witness a typically ‘bro-ey’ atmosphere be a haven where LGBTQ people can flourish.”
Glassman agrees: “I don’t have anything but love in my heart for anyone who wants to find health and fitness—we were friendlier than other fitness communities in that regard. I built the gym and the concept that I would participate in. There’s no place for anything but hard work and love. Nothing else really matters.”
Then there’s the exclusivity factor—more than half of all CrossFitters have a household income exceeding $150,000, which allows droves of gay men to shell out hundreds of dollars a month for an Equinox membership. This, combined with its type-A siren call, a public image unafraid to tout sweaty masculine flesh, and, I would argue, its very bro-ness, and CrossFit’s gay appeal is easier to decipher.
“I have zero natural athletic ability, and felt left out of most sports growing up,” says Cobb. “I feel like with CrossFit I’ve finally come into my own athletically, after years of feeling too gay to play.”
“I can show up in workout tights and leg warmers (a-la Olivia Newton John), and all that the ‘bros’ I would normally be intimidated by care about is that my form is good and that I push myself as hard as I can,” adds Omar Sharif, Jr., grandson of the legendary film actor and a leading LGBT rights activist. “In other regular gyms, I felt a lot of body shame; I was constantly comparing myself to other more in-shape men. In CrossFit I don’t look in the mirror (there often aren’t any); I don’t care what I look like. None of us are there to look good, we’re there to encourage each other to get fit.”
Yet unlike other exercise trends, CrossFit exists as an entity unto itself. CrossFit is a lifestyle, a state of mind, and a reason for being. In an age of soul-sucking hookup apps and the waning popularity of gay bars, CrossFit provides a sense of community and kinship for gay men who feel deprived of it. Whether in small towns, big cities or traveling on the road, CrossFit is almost universally an LGBT “safe space.”
“I came out of a 12-year relationship last year and Crossfit and the community was the only thing that kept me sane,” says Amir Ghomshei, a 44-year-old UK resident who founded OUTWOD’s British cousin, WODProud. “It was my down time and therapy rolled into one. Honestly, as cheesy as it sounds, CrossFit and my friends within it helped me so much.”
“After recently moving to a new city, CrossFit has been by far the easiest place to meet people and make connections,” adds Jeff Lecky, a 39-year-old in finance and analytics from New Brunswick, Canada. “You’re surrounded by like-minded individuals with a passion for fitness and self-improvement, who typically have a similar lifestyle focused around health and fitness.”
This sort of shorthand relationship-building also makes CrossFit ideal for the peripatetic. One of Lecky’s favorite parts of traveling is checking out the CrossFit gyms in other cities, adding: “Crossfit has embraced this idea of welcoming traveling members and has made it so much easier to feel at home in a new location.”
Just as Lanier cites CrossFit in aiding his recovery from colon cancer, others have found the sport restorative and even life-changing.
“I was drawn to CrossFit during my recovery from drug and alcohol abuse,” says Daniel Megson , a 32-year-old from Sydney, who founded WOD OUT to unite Australia’s gay CrossFitters.“I had lost so many friends from leaving the party scene behind; the hardest part was feeling isolated and lonely. CrossFit appeared to offer a new community of individuals living a healthier more active lifestyle. CrossFit saved my life!”
Many folks outside the CrossFit scene are dubious of its bona fides—both social and physical. Some associate the “gayness” of CrossFit to the obsession over male physical beauty and perfection often prevalent among gay men. But the aesthetic impetus behind CrossFit actually goes much deeper.
“I don’t believe in one beauty ideal, but I think that everybody needs to live peacefully with the person they see in the mirror,” says Ori Even, a 35-year-old journalist from Tel Aviv. “When I was chubby I didn’t like that guy and I made a decision to change it. The best thing that I gained from CrossFit is being able to better accept myself, and that is much more fun than getting messages on Grindr.”
The intensity, it seems, is what builds camaraderie.
“A CrossFit class can be the most extreme, strenuous, and mentally/physically exhausting workout you’ve ever done,” says Rick Palmisano a 30-year-old project manager from Orlando, Fla. “You build a lot of strong connections with the other athletes because you have to get through this grueling workout, together; the other CrossFitters not only become your opponents, but your family.” When Palmisano recently ruptured his Achilles tendon, for instance, he received gifts and get-well cards from his teammates.
“At my gym we have a wide range of ages and body types,” says David Rodriguez, a 34-year-old HIV advocate and health educator from Orlando. “It is not a pack of wolves looking to gang up on the weakest link, but rather a group of individuals working to better themselves and expand their boundaries. We are not a fight club.”
Decidedly not. The first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. But most CrossFitters can’t seem to shut up about it.
“Any non-CrossFitter who’s suffered through a conversation with someone enthusiastic about CrossFit knows that it has its own language,” says Cobb. For instance, WOD stands for “workout of the day.” But this shared lexicon provides the foundation for CrossFit’s community. Cobb continues, “It’s a warm, welcoming feeling to walk into a CrossFit you’ve never been to before and immediately find people who speak your language.”
Aside from the cult-like devotion CrossFit inspires, I was also wary of the politics of its parent organization, which drew some heat for awarding a Glock handgun to the winner of the 2016 CrossFit Games. That, and the sports overwhelming lack of ethnic diversity—about 86% of CrossFitters identify as white—left me with an unfavorable view of the sport. Still, I gave it a shot.
One recent Saturday morning, I dragged myself to a CrossFit class at BRICK in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. It wasn’t a proper CrossFit class, but rather a variation called B | FIT, that incorporated CrossFit movements but focused more on high intensity interval training. I was disappointed to find I was the only one to show up in spandex tights, but I did notice a significant gay presence and the instructor was an adorable gay named Matthew.
It was a small class, about a dozen or so brave souls. We paired up, first for a warm-up that included burpees and jumping over our seated partner’s outstretched arms, followed by a circuit routine involving three motions: barbell squats for 10 reps, a power snatch with a barbell plate for 15 reps, and sprints on a stationary bike with a goal of burning 25 calories.
My partner and I alternated workouts for a total of 10 rounds between the two of us. It was all very confusing, but after some newbie mistakes, we got our rhythm and finished at a respectable 18 minutes and 34 seconds. Then we had to do a combined 100 sit-ups. It was definitely hard, but I have had worse. However, over the next few days, my thighs were more sore than they had been in months.
Was I converted? Not really. I’ve always prefered to work out alone since I consider the gym “me” time. But having tried CrossFit once, I would try it again. Although I’ve never established any relationships at the gym, I’ve exhausted my patience with apps and bar culture. CrossFit, admittedly, seems like a good way to find someone who at least shares my interest in masochistic regimentation. I’m still pretty sure it’s a cult, though—just maybe one of the less harmful cults.
“The common experience of suffering though something you may have initially thought impossible, and prevailing together, creates a bond that is hard to explain,” says Drew Porterfield, a 36-year-old gallery director and restaurateur from Washington, D.C. “You end up caring about each other’s success and working to help everyone reach their individual goals. The group-think works for me by providing a sense of motivation in the gym that I never had when working out alone. But I recognize that it may not be for everyone.”
This story is part of our series on Global Pride.