When Josey Lynn Davis returned to bodybuilding this year after a 10-year hiatus, there was one big change.
The now 45-year-old had previously competed as a man in the top five in 15 National Physique Committee competitions. In 2017, she came out as a transgender woman.
“I didn’t know what would be said about me, so I was scared,” Davis, who lives near Knoxville, Tenn., tells The Post.
But after a bit of Google searching, she found an organization where she would feel comfortable showing her stuff: the International Association of Trans Bodybuilders and Powerlifters (IATBP), an organization that puts on a competition every October in Atlanta. Not only was Davis the first trans woman to compete, but she also won first place in the women’s bikini division.
“It was like being born,” she says of her experience in last month’s show. “Working toward this was such a goal: to come out of my shell, to prove to myself that I can be confident.”
People across the transgender spectrum are increasingly finding their foothold in bodybuilding, a sport long stereotyped for a macho and intimidating culture. Whether they choose to compete in trans-specific circuits, like Davis, or non-trans competitions, they aim for the same goal: to be strong.
“I want to push it and encourage other people to give it a shot,” says Davis.
For the athletes who prefer to participate in the trans-specific circuit, competing in a welcoming environment is a priority.
“The atmosphere is great for an individual like myself who doesn’t feel like they fit in,” says 29-year-old Brooklyn resident Wes Phills, a trans man who competed in last year’s IATBP (then known as IATB) show and won first place overall. “Having that kind of platform is awesome.”
IATBP got its start in 2014 under the name FTM Fitness World Bodybuilding Competition. The show has anywhere between six to eight competitors every year, and the organizers aim to grow that number in the future, potentially bringing the competitions abroad.
“We’re trying to support trans people around the world to compete in bodybuilding and powerlifting,” says Bucky Motter, a 58-year-old former bodybuilder who organizes the event — and who identifies as trans and gender nonconforming.
A key to acceptance is visibility, Motter says. Each year, the show takes place in a venue where there’s professional lighting and music pumping through speakers — showing the participants that they’re celebrated.
“The audience participates,” adds Motter. “They’re cheering everyone on. If that doesn’t make you feel safe, I don’t know what does.”
It’s not just the audience, but also the other bodybuilders in competitions that can inspire others to join in.
“I like seeing [bodybuilders] being happy — they’re competing, but they’re not really competitive,” says 53-year-old Manhattan resident Bo Headlam, who plans on competing in the 2022 Gay Games, set to be held in Hong Kong.
That said, not all trans bodybuilders are making their impact in the trans-specific circuit.
“I’m just as much a man as every other guy on the stage — maybe I have to work a little harder, but that’s fine,” says Alex Tilinca, an 18-year-old Long Island resident who began his transition at 12. He won awards in three classes at the Victor Martinez Legends Championships — a non-trans-specific show held in The Bronx in August. He snagged first place in teen classic physique, and second in the junior and novice divisions.
“It felt like the world was telling me ‘You’re on the right track, keep going,’ ” says Tilinca, now a freshman at Hofstra University. “It was a confirmation that what I’m doing isn’t for nothing.”
Tilinca got his start bodybuilding at 16 just to put on some weight, and began working out at Bev Francis Powerhouse Gym, a famed bodybuilding gym in Syosset, LI. There, mentors encouraged him to take his progress further and compete.
“I was under the impression I couldn’t because I’m trans,” he says.
These days, Tilinca is taking a few years off to bulk up more muscle, which takes time, and focus on his studies. But he’s found a community and plans on taking his competitions even further.
“Bodybuilders, they get it,” he says. “You come from a place where you’re trying to better your body and feel better in your body. They don’t judge you for being trans.”