Being trans in the bodybuilding world: 'We're just trying to be ourselves'
"We just want to live normal lives just like anybody else," said Mason Caminiti.
Mason Caminiti is almost a foot shorter than his hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his endurance and stamina would certainly make the famous bodybuilder proud.
“Peak competition mode builds up to two hours of cardio a day and then 45 minutes of weight training,” Caminiti, who is 5-foot-4, told “Nightline.” “I have to weigh my food. No butter, no oil, grilling or steaming.”
For Caminiti, a bodybuilder’s physique is that of the ideal man.
“Bodybuilding was something that helped me make my body more masculine,” he said. “It was always a physique that I always wanted.”
Caminiti's hard work often pays off. He placed first in the NPC West Virginia Grand Prix bodybuilding contest in 2018. But he’s also faced pushback from other competitions.
“There was one incident that I had... I was disqualified from a competition because I used testosterone, and that was hard,” he said. “But overall, people have been nothing but kind and supportive and embracing.”
People rarely detect that Mason, who was assigned female at birth, is a transgender competitor.
“We just want to live normal lives just like anybody else, you know?” Caminiti said. “We're just trying to be ourselves and we're just like anybody else. We're your neighbors, your coworkers. We're family members. You know, I'm a dad, I'm a son, I'm a husband, I'm a brother. And we're just like everybody else… There's nothing to fear or be scared of.”
In 2008, Caminiti met Anne Soinski, a cisgender pansexual woman.
“He was in a comedy group that my friend was in,” Soinski told “Nightline.” “I told my friends, ‘Who is this cute guy on stage?’ And they knew...my dating history of being similar to Goldilocks in the sense that I dated men, and it just wasn't quite right. And I dated women. It wasn't just quite right.”
“When I mentioned that Mason was attractive, they're like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ A light bulb went off in their heads, and they were like, ‘This is perfect. A perfect mix,’” Soinski said.
The pair got married in 2015 and then had their daughter, Gianna, in November 2019.
Although she’s only a few months old, Gianna's parents have already discussed how to broach the subject of Caminiti's gender.
“With my nephew…we kind of put it like, ‘Some boys grow up to be girls and some girls grow up to be boys and sometimes people don’t feel like the way they’re born’…and left it there,” Caminiti said. “He was fine. He was like, ‘Oh all right… That’s still my uncle, though, right? … That’s all he cared about.”
Caminiti has already talked about his journey — often in painful detail — in the film “Man Made.”
The documentary, centered around a trans male bodybuilding competition, follows the lives of four competitors in varying stages of their transitions.
Filmmaker T Cooper spent two years chronicling some of the most intimate moments of the competitors' lives, including going through surgeries, navigating complex relationships and fighting for acceptance.
“It was just so amazing to me how the bodies differed. The expressions of masculinity and the versions of masculinity that were represented on stage just ran the gamut,” Cooper told “Nightline.”
Cooper said that the current moment is a particularly challenging time for trans people.
“Specifically, this current administration is actively trying to make it hard for us to live,” Cooper said, referring to the President Donald Trump's administration. “That is in every realm of…our lives and of our existence and society.”
“We're being held back way behind the starting line so we don't get to be in positions of power and empowerment, and getting to make the decisions about green lighting films like this and projects like this,” Cooper said.
In recent years, shows like “Pose,” “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black” have broadened the spotlight on trans stories, but Cooper says the focus on characters who are trans men remains dim.
“When you think of a trans story, you think trans women,” Cooper said. “I would say trans men are pretty invisible. That's why I wanted to make the film is because I didn't see my story anywhere.”
“It's really important that, you know, the life of someone who is trans be shown in an authentic way,” Caminiti said. “[Cooper] knows how tough it can be. He knows the experiences and what you face on a day-to-day…basis.”
Each trans person’s story is unique and personal. Caminiti spoke about a pivotal moment he had while watching TV when he was younger.
“I remember being in grade school — I couldn't be older than 7 or 8 — and I saw a trans man on ['The Phile Donahue Show,']” he said. “I just remember feeling so relieved… Like, I wasn't alone for the first time in my life… It was a positive portrayal of someone that was like me for once in my life.”
Caminiti said he believed he was a boy “as far back as I could remember.”
“Then, as I got a little bit older, I realized that I had a girl's name and they were trying to put me in girl's clothes and make me use the girl's bathroom…and I just thought, adults didn't know what they were talking about,” Caminiti said.
Caminiti spent 18 years keeping who he was a secret from his parents.
“For a long time, it's almost like I didn't exist. There was no verbiage or words to even express that,” Caminiti said. “I just felt so isolated and so alone and I blamed myself for that. I blamed myself for being different. And I just thought I was a bad person. I thought God hated me.”
“There is so much pain involved in that. So much of being alone and isolated and just feeling like you're just not good enough,” he added.
At one point, Caminiti said he tried to take his own life.
“I didn't think that I'd ever actually grow up to be normal, to live out that life that I always wanted, so I ended up drinking some alcohol and taking an entire bottle of Tylenol PM,” he said.
He survived, and after years of struggling, Caminiti finally found support. He underwent top and bottom surgeries, which he says cemented his transition journey.
But Caminiti still continues to witness moments of closure.
“My father saw the documentary and he said, ‘I know...it took us a long time to come around. But we really are very proud of you,’” he said. “To think that he would ever get to that point is something I never thought would happen.”
Cooper says he’s received overwhelming support for “Man Made.”
“The response has been, ‘Oh, my God, I've never seen my life portrayed on film and I just saw it.’ So that's like heaven, right? [Representation] can change lives,” Cooper said. “I mean, a really surprising demo that has been responding to the film has been white straight cis men who are coming up crying, and just say I've never thought about my masculinity in this way, ever.”
Cooper hopes to continue that momentum with all his projects. Recently, while working on his music video directorial debut, he created an alternate world where trans people are "normal" and cis people break from the norm.
“As a trans creator, writer, director, producer, I want to do stories about everybody… When I'm called into the room to direct an episode of…some random TV show and I get to cast and use trans folk and trans crew on non-trans-related projects… Let’s include us in everything,” Cooper said.
Caminiti says being on the “other side” of his transition has given him a beautiful perspective.
“I look at what I've been able to experience and learn from my transition, which is looking at life through so many lenses,” Caminiti said. “How many people can say that they've looked at life through, you know, a female lens and a male lens because of the way I was socialized? And it's really been wonderful.”