By Liam Lacey
The film follows a period in the life of Janae Marie Kroczaleski (who goes by Janae Kroc), a transgender woman who, until three years ago, was famous as world record-breaking powerlifter and body builder Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski. The former high school football player and Marine known as ”Kroc” presented an image of hyper-masculinity. But after being outed by a YouTube video in 2015, Kroc lost a sponsorship and her job as a pharmacist, got the first-stage of gender reassignment surgery and participated in a film which opens on Friday (October 19). Kroc spoke to Original-Cin from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Original-Cin: You’ve gone through some tremendous changes in a relatively short time. Can you take me back to the beginning of this ride?
Janae Kroc: I was outed in July 2015 on a Monday, about 11 am. My phone started going crazy when I was at work. At first it was my friends saying, ‘Hey, you’ve been outed.’ I’d been out to my family and friends for about a decade and I was already out to the elite members of the powerlifting community and some sponsors. But my fans didn’t know. I was waiting for my boys to graduate high school because I didn’t want them to have to deal with a possible backlash of who I am.
After my friends called, then it was places like Inside Edition and TMZ and I’m like, ‘You are kidding me?’ For the next couple of months, my life was turned upside down. I decided if my story was going to be told I wanted to be the one who told it so I granted all the interviews and for a couple of months, all I did was talk about everything that was going on. On the bright side, it got me into activism and to open about everything a lot sooner, but it also caused a lot of turmoil.
OC: Were reactions better or worse than you expected?
JK: The reaction of the powerlifting community was about 50/50. I actually got more support than I expected. I knew my friends would stand by me but, of course, there’s also a lot of hate. Most important to me, was my sons got through it OK and fortunately, all that went pretty smoothly. Some of their friends asked questions and we did hear about parents saying nasty things but no one ever said it directly to me or my boys.
OC: Do you think the discipline of training and competing toughened you mentally for what you faced?
JK: I’ve often said that in a sense, my success in powerlifting prepared me for coming out as trans. I was already used to doing interviews. I was used to being talked about on the Internet and being hated on. For the most part I’m the kind of person who, at this point in my life, my self-esteem is pretty decent, though I don’t know if I could have handled this at other points in my life.
I’m naturally a kind of tough person mentally. I was always able to endure a lot but physical strength and emotional strength are a bit different. I’ve also been through some things in life: I grew up very poor, I had an alcoholic father and I learned to be independent at an early age. Marines helped prepare me mentally for things later on and I went through cancer in 2004. I’m a firm believer that adversity strengthens us.
I knew the possibility of being outed could happen anytime. I thought I was prepared but there were things I didn’t foresee like Internet stalkers and people creating false social media pages with my name and people trying to blackmail me.
OC: After you were outed, as we see in the film, you moved fairly quickly toward the first stage of your surgery. Did the experience meet with your expectations or was there some let-down?
JK: The surgery was a great thing, for sure. It definitely helped me feel a lot better about being able to see myself on the outside more as I do on the inside though I underestimated the toll it would take. I’ve had seven or eight surgeries — powerlifting-related injuries and one for cancer and I didn’t use painkillers. I’m the kind of person who does a lot of research and I have a high pain threshold. I spoke to a lot of people who had gone through this surgery and a lot of them kind of warned me that the facial surgery is the toughest part. People would think that the gender confirmation surgery, or bottom surgery as people refer to it, would be a bigger deal. I’m sure it might be for some people but I found the facial surgery the most physically and emotionally taxing. I had the surgery in Beverly Hills. I rented an Airbnb and went there by myself; like I said, I’m a very independent person. But that first week was really tough. I couldn’t open my eyes enough to even drive and I was pretty much stuck in the apartment and really lonely. In hindsight, I wish I’d had someone to talk to but it was definitely the right decision and I’m very happy with the results.
OC: Your transition got you fired from your pharmacist job. Have you worked again at your profession?
JK: Yes, actually I’m working at a hospital now. I was out of pharmacy for about a year and during that period I was focusing on activism and speaking engagements and taking on clients for training in strength-related stuff. I was pretty financially strapped. I started this job in March; it was the first job I ever interviewed for as a woman. Everyone here has been very supportive.
OC: With everything else going on, what convinced you to agree to having a film crew following you around?
JK: When Michael (Del Monte) first approached me, my main concern was not being sensationalized and turned into a freak show because of my alpha-male background. Michael came from Toronto and sat down with me and just said, ‘Look, I think your story is fascinating and people need to hear it.’ My response was that my only goal was to educate people who don’t understand and inspire people who are like me. I felt he was very honest and straightforward and I trusted him. I thought Michael did a great job. The experience of watching the film was like looking at home movies from the last couple of years. Nothing was scripted or planned. It’s a very accurate reflection of my relationship with my boys and what my life’s been like.
OC: We’re learning a lot more these days about the social isolation of transgender people, especially when they’re young. Has your story led to other transgender people reaching out to you?
JK: I couldn’t tell you how many people have contacted me thanking me for being open and honest about my experience. Any time people want to know how many trans or LGBT people there are out there, I say the same thing: We have no idea. So many people are hiding and so many are terrified because of the stigma attached to it, possibly violence or losing your job. It’s a heavy burden.
I knew by the time I was five or six that I was different and it wasn’t OK to tell people about it. This was pre-social media, pre-Internet so I had no idea there was anyone in the world like me. I had no words to describe it. All I knew was that I was constantly fantasizing about being female, that I saw myself as a girl and I couldn’t figure out why I felt that way. It made me feel guilty and ashamed. I felt broken.
OC: There’s a tremendous amount of discussion about transgender identity right now, including some conservatives who question the legitimacy of the idea. What’s your take on this cultural moment?
JK: I think it's a good thing there is more awareness, that social media allows people to share their stories and support each other. But there’s a lot of hate and ignorance out there. People don't understand it so they want to write it off as a mental illness, or claim that it’s trendy or cool somehow. I got one message from a former fan who asked me what it was like to completely sell out by pretending to be transgender to revive my dying career. First, I hadn’t realized my career was dying but if I were trying to revive it, pretending to be trans wouldn’t be the way. It amazes me anyone would imagine someone would go through all this to gain some popularity when it’s exactly the opposite.
It turns your life upside down. My parents are still struggling to deal with it even though they’ve known a long time. My mom’s side of the family is large and close-knit and about half of them haven’t talked to me since this came out. I got disinvited to a wedding last year and I haven’t been to a Thanksgiving or Christmas with my family in three or four years. My mother won’t say it directly but basically, I’m not welcome unless I present as very masculine. To imagine anyone would do this for any reason — except they absolutely have to — is absurd.
That’s why visibility is so important. I guarantee you that almost every person knows someone who’s trans who they don’t know about; either someone who’s still hiding or who has already transitioned. If people could see all the trans people out there, they’d realize we’re like everyone else except for our gender identity. We have the same hopes and dreams and feelings for our families. I hope that people will see the film and that’s one of the things they’ll garner from it: That I’m like everyone else, trying to figure out who I am and to feel comfortable in my skin. My situation may be a little more extreme than many. But I hope people can relate to that.
Transformer. Directed by Michael Del Monte. With Janae Kroc. Opens in select theatres October 19.