On a Sunday afternoon at a Reynoldstown gym, strength trainer Lis Saunders is delivering a brief but impassioned opening monologue to a group of people in leggings, sweatbands, and shorts. Saunders, whose tank top bears an illustration of a singlet-clad unicorn deadlifting a pink barbell, speaks about the importance of safe spaces and inclusivity in the sport of powerlifting. “I’m your ally, I love you, and I see you,” she says. Saunders asks the members to introduce themselves to the group and share their favorite music to listen to while training. Then, after a two-minute cardio warmup on stationary bikes and rowing machines, the workout begins.
It’s squat day. Within a few minutes of Saunders’s pep talk, the gym is filled with the sounds of steel barbells clanking against metal power racks. In and among those racks are people of all shapes and sizes, ranging in age from college students to professionals in their 50s and 60s. The gym-goers gently critique each other’s form and effusively cheer each other through that one last, tough rep. After 90 minutes, the group reracks the rubber plates and reassembles in the center of the gym for a grinning, sweaty, bicep-flexing photo.
These are the Fantastic Beasts, Atlanta’s only LGBTQ powerlifting club—and, according to the organizers, possibly the first of its kind in the world. Friends and fellow powerlifting enthusiasts David Holland and Reed Gilbert envisioned the concept in the summer of 2017 when they were working out together. Gilbert, who started powerlifting as a student at Georgia State shortly after coming out, says he was seeking a community of LGBTQ and like-minded individuals. They soon realized that such a group could also be a more inclusive and welcoming alternative to traditional gym culture for marginalized gym-goers. “When I first started powerlifting, I really wished that I had a group like this,” Gilbert says. “Now, we have a lot of members who say they were really looking for something like this, for a place to find acceptance.”
The two men reached out to Saunders, who had trained Holland privately and also hosts and trains a women’s powerlifting collective, to coach the group. Saunders immediately said yes. In the beginning, she says, a handful of people would show up to train; now, the club frequently hosts around a dozen. The club meets twice a month at Crossfit Downtown Atlanta in Reynoldstown; the gym’s owner, Michael Michaelides, offers the space to the Beasts pro bono.
Holland, who works in public health and serves on the board of directors for Lost-n-Found Youth (a local organization that serves homeless LGBTQ young people), says beginners can feel lost, overwhelmed, and out of place in the gym. “So, what we provide is camaraderie, actual training with an actual coach, and a plan for getting stronger with a focus on performance,” he says. “People are capable of so much more than they think [they are], but they just psych themselves out or get paralyzed by fear. Anything we can do to get that out of their way, that’s always rewarding.”
“Even though I’m transitioning, I can still be strong. I can still be a beast.”
In addition to making strength training more accessible, Beasts workouts also serve as a welcoming and nonintimidating space—which is especially vital for transgender athletes. Christa O’Neill, a 30-year-old transgender woman, has trained with the Beasts since last summer. At conventional gyms, O’Neill says she typically tries to interact with other gym-goers as little as possible. “I’ve been out [as transgender] for almost six years now, and so I’m very mindful of which spaces it’s okay to out myself and which spaces I need to play it cool.” Training with the Beasts gave O’Neill the sense of camaraderie that had been missing from her time in chain gyms. “Being a trans woman who’s a lifter is not the most common thing in the world,” she says. “So, it feels really good being here.”
Now, the Beasts are pursuing 501(c)3 status, which would allow the club to pursue fundraising opportunities to subsidize training sessions (which are now offered on a sliding scale of $5 to $20 per session), offer scholarships to athletes to cover their training costs, and send members to competitions, such as this summer’s LGBT International Powerlifting Championships in England. “It’ll help us expand our vision to be more accessible to more people.” People like O’Neill, who, a few months after joining the Beasts, competed in her first powerlifting competition and walked away with a “Best Overall Lifter” award. For her, training with the club is more than just a hobby. “It helps me to validate what I’m doing,” she says. “To know that, even though I’m transitioning, I can still be strong. I can still be a beast.”
This article appears in our April 2019 issue.