On Thursday, May 22nd I woke up to a few dozen unread messages in the TCU group chat concerning a video of a female rider named Chelsea Fietsgodin. I watched it and I agreed with the consensus which had already formed in our chat; Chelsea was something special. I’ve seen plenty of talented girl riders over the years but Chelsea was blasting airs and bunnyhopping over rails, things that women have traditionally had a hard time with. I was impressed. But I watch videos of good bike riding all the time, so I quickly moved on with my day and tapped over to my inbox where I read a text that served to complicate matters:
“Yo, just so you know that chick is a dude”
I checked Chelsea’s video again, but this time I took the time to read the comments and I saw that the question of Chelsea’s gender had been brought up in a rather crude fashion there as well. The BMX community is not renowned for it’s open mindedness. While the outside world has spent the last few years grappling with gay football players and gay-friendly presidents, the conversation has yet to trickle down into BMX. And that’s too bad. We all like to think of ourselves as part of an open minded, progressive community but I doubt it seems that way to a confused kid on the outside looking in.
I’ve talked to Chelsea every day since I saw that video and I can confirm that not only is she a talented bike rider, she’s also remarkably intelligent and passionate. Despite all that, she’s fucking scared. She has no idea what the reaction to this interview will be. But she also realizes that this is a conversation that needs to happen in BMX sooner or later and she seems happy to be the first one through the wall. Ladies, gentlemen (and everyone in between), I present you with Chelsea Fietsgodin.
What’s your name and where are you from?
I’m Chelsea Fietsgodin. For the clever commenter who noticed that my last name is Dutch for “bikegoddess”, you’re very right. I’ve been using a made up last name for a bit because I wasn’t comfortable with a lot of people knowing who I was. Since it had to be made up anyways I figured I’d make it good haha. Currently I’m living in Orlando, Florida for college.
How old are you and what do you study?
I just turned 21 on Cinco de Mayo and I’m a Political Science major.
How did you get into BMX?
I followed the Aitken/Foster/Marino model of being a racer turned freestyler. My family and I were driving to the hardware store to prepare for a hurricane and we saw that the Okeeheelee BMX track was open that night. We stopped and asked questions about how to start and my brother and I were out on bikes the following week. Fast forward a few years when all of my friends got “play bikes” and I wanted to join the fun, so I found an old Mongoose in the trash and drilled holes in it to take the weight down. A few weeks after seeing that I was pretty into the whole freestyle thing my parents got me a heavy race bike for my 15th birthday. I got hooked on freestyle right away because I love the non-competitive side of it and how free you are to ride how you want, but I do still race quite a bit as well.
What are your thoughts on the women’s BMX scene? It seems like it’s been growing quite a bit the past few years.
I’m so excited with how much we’ve grown, progressed, and gained acceptance recently. I think the acceptance has come mostly within the last year or so; sure there were a handful of people that were supportive before, but as far as mass acceptance and BMX media goes that kind of just happened. The January 2014 issue of BMX Plus! had a blurb in the editorial section that mocked Nina Buitrago by saying that the new guy that DK added to their team was because they needed another girl on the team as if calling him a girl was an insult, but then the February issue came out with Caroline Buchanan on the cover and Nina with a full page photo inside. It was quite the about face and since then I’ve been seeing more positive coverage for women in other magazines. This is huge because prior to this almost all of our coverage came from media that was made by women and published in small outlets and the larger BMX community was able to ignore us. Now that we’re getting into the biggest BMX media outlets that everyone consumes they’re going to be seeing more of us and with that comes more acceptance and support. The positive representation also encourages more women and girls to start riding in the first place because they see that BMX is for them too. For the first 4 years of riding freestyle I never got to ride with another girl rider except for my mom and sister and a chance encounter with Angie Marino at a park, but now I know of 4 other girls just in the central Florida area that ride. I hear the Austin, Texas scene is blowing up for us and since I started filming for this edit I’ve been reached out to by a bunch of girls from Central and South America. Then with more girls riding comes more progression as we push each other to ride better. Just like there are random dudes popping up with banger edits that you’ve never heard of, I was on Facebook yesterday and came across a video of a girl that I’ve never heard of perfectly flipping a box jump in a contest run. This has all been a long time coming so I’m really happy that it’s finally coming about.
That’s rad. So I’ve gotta ask, there were a few comments left on your video about your gender. I know this is a complicated issue for you to explain and not something that a lot of people fully understand. How do you describe your gender?
I wanna start off by saying that it’s amazing how quickly a few people started shouting stuff about me being a man because I can ride a bike well and I’ve got strong legs (which shockingly, happens when you ride bikes every day). That says a lot about what they think of women riders. They can’t let us have success so they try to take our accomplishments as their own, in this case by misgendering me. I see this happening for cisgender (when one’s gender is the same as the gender that was assigned at birth) women athletes as well. However, I am a transgender woman. This doesn’t mean that I was “BORN A MAN!!!!1!” as was so eloquently stated by a few commenters; I was born a baby, just like everyone else. Without getting too complicated because you could get a degree on this topic, as soon as we’re born we begin the process of gendering. Some things are for boys, some things are for girls, and non-binary genders don’t exist apparently. Through socialization based on a binary biological sex system (which is also inaccurate because sex is a combination of many spectrums, not a binary “this or that”, but that’s a whole other degree haha) we’re conditioned to like certain things, act in a certain way, and based on this we’re all confined to narrow gender boxes that aren’t that fun when you stop to think about it. They’re especially not fun for women because while men are socialized to be strong, powerful, and dominating, women are socialized to be weak, dainty, and submissive. This is where the notion that a woman can’t have strong legs comes from because obviously if a woman is strong, that means she’s a man, right? Hopefully my sarcasm translates well haha. Being transgender means that your gender does not match the one that you were assigned at birth based on your biological sex. It’s an extremely complicated topic and there are many different feelings in the transgender community as to what being transgender means and how we know that we are our genders, which is also affected by everyone’s personal perspectives, but to me being transgender means that I was born to be a baby girl but socialized as a baby boy until I was about 12. At this point is when I realized that I wasn’t a boy but due to trans erasure I didn’t know that it was entirely possible that I was a girl until I became educated on the topic by a friend when I was 17. Up until that point however I was extremely uncomfortable and distraught with my gender, so once I started transitioning I began to feel a lot more comfortable with myself. Obviously being misgendered by people commenting on my video is pretty painful as it tells me that to them, I am not a woman. It brings back all those old feelings of gender dysphoria (which is the opposite of euphoria, to give you an idea of how toxic these feelings are) that I was able to dispel from my own mind by making my gender presentation match my gender identity, which is something that cisgender people get to take for granted as no one denies them the validity of their gender identity. The other thing that misgendering someone does is dehumanizes them, making it possible for the larger group to excuse actions taken against them. So to describe my gender, it is nothing special; I am a woman.
I’m assuming you’ve been dealing with questions about your gender and trying to find ways to explain to people for years. Do you find that it’s just incredibly difficult to explain your gender to people or have you figured out ways to talk about it to people who aren’t educated about that kind of thing?
I’ve definitely figured out ways to answer these questions because after years of doing it you learn the strings. On the same token though getting asked the same questions over and over again gets tedious so I’ve also learned to identify when someone is asking because they’re genuinely curious or when they’re asking because they’re trying to trip me up. The latter ones I just ignore now haha.
There’s a pervasive idea in BMX that men are good at riding and women just aren’t as strong or as physically capable and as a result it seems like some of the commenters feel you’re “cheating”. How do you feel about that? Is that a feeling you’ve seen expressed by other female riders?
That’s definitely my greatest concern with releasing this edit and letting my riding become known. For a long time I had internalized the belief that I would be cheating so I just kept to myself and never released any kind of media of myself riding. Moving past this sexist and cissexist (anti transgender discrimination) notion took a combination of support from other girl riders and analyzing where those thoughts came from. Outside of BMX transmisogyny is very prevalent in feminism and it’s incredible how quickly cis feminists can go from “we can do anything that men can!” to “you have an unfair advantage!” when a trans woman does it. So far I’ve only seen one female rider have a problem with me out of the many that know that I am a trans woman and she is a bit older so it could just be that these concepts are of a younger generation and she needs time to process the new ideas. Hopefully that’s the case because there are even older women riders that have gone out of their way to support me and she was someone that I looked up to.
Aside from the one lady though so far the only people Against Me (shout out to puns) riding are dudes who are only affected by this in that women’s riding is getting pushed that much closer to the level that men’s riding is at. So that makes you have to wonder, are they up in arms because they’re white knighting and want to protect the fragile little ladies or are they trying to cover themselves because they’re worried that women are getting ever closer to being just as good as them? Either way men being against my riding is problematic because the first scenario paints cisgender women as incapable of riding at a high level and in need of protecting while the second scenario is pretty obviously oppressive haha.
For other women and girls however I can definitely understand where feeling cheated could come from. As I mentioned earlier we’re socialized to behave differently and that socialization runs so deep into our subconsciousness that it has resulted in physical differences. This goes back to women being called men because they’re muscular, that strength is considered a masculine trait and that a strong woman is really just a man (and that a weak male is feminine, which has a negative connotation). As a result most women either subconsciously or intentionally prevent themselves from building up muscle mass and this is said to be genetically inherent. However the fact of the matter is that women can be strong, men can be weak, and gender or sex doesn’t have to play a role in this.
As an example of sex being a spectrum and not a binary system, compare my body to someone like Stevie Churchills; we were both assigned male at birth, but look at how much muscle mass he has compared to me. Then look at Amanda Carr for example, I’m pretty sure she is stronger than I am despite the fact that she was assigned female at birth. She and I are both strong because we spend countless hours building our strength so we can be better at our sports. I don’t have strong legs because I was “BORN A MAN!!!!!” but because I ride my bike to work and school 7 days a week on top of riding for fun for several hours a day every day. Proof of this forced subordination of female strength is seen in the female runners that were required to have their hormone levels altered because they run “too fast”. And those were cisgender women that this was done to. Still, keeping in mind that strength is not determined by gender or sex the differing socialization of the genders results in physical differences with current societal beliefs and I was socialized as a boy for a part of my life. Due to this I’ve spent many years making sure that I did not receive credit for being a girl rider because I didn’t want to make other women feel cheated, but after meeting, riding with, and talking to other woman and girl riders who so far with the exception of one, have been nothing but supportive of me riding I have come to accept that I too am what a woman rides like. The way gendering works means that people are socialized on the basis of their gender, not their sex so as a trans woman I’ve had to fight through much of the social barriers that cis women face with the added “bonus” of the always present threat of transmisogynistic violence which becomes more likely to happen the more I break out of traditional gender roles (e.g. being good at sports). A common thing for people to bring up against me is that I’m doing this just to get more attention or credit by riding as a woman but does anyone really think that I would subject myself to a life of being targeted by misogyny and transmisogyny just for a few seconds in the lime light? I ride as a woman because I am a woman.
The Florida BMX Park Series had its first girls’ class at the Merritt Island stop and every girl who competed asked me to ride. Originally I was going to hold back in the girls’ competition and do my best to beat up on the boys’ class but due to time constraints I could only enter one class. So we made the decision that I would enter the girls’ class because we needed as many of us entered as possible and I was still going to sandbag, but we [the competitors in the contest] got to thinking that if I’m watering down my riding to look more like a girl, what is that saying about girls’ riding? In the end I rode as best as I could, everyone had the time of our lives and we didn’t ride to compete, but to have a blast riding with our friends, and Ashley Haskett damn near beat me haha. I honestly didn’t know who won until they announced it and I think if Ashley had stuck pedals on her tailwhip she would have had it.
The big thing to realize here is that I’m not here to compete with other women and girls riding, I’m here to have fun on my bike and push the progression of women’s riding and our acceptance within the sport. BMX, especially freestyle, cannot be won and I think a big problem stems from female riders being pitted against one another as if there can only be one of us that’s the best in the world. Do people watch Dennis Enarson’s videos and Drew Bezanson’s videos and pit them against each other as if they’re competing for a prize? No, they watch both videos and get stoked because they both kick ass. That’s how it should be for women’s riding as well. So am I the best girl BMX rider ever? No, but that’s not because I’m not really a girl but because BMX is not a competition to win and beat people at.
Yeah I suppose that when we titled your video that way we kind of egged on the comparison between you and other female riders without realizing there was more to the situation. How has “coming out” in BMX compared to doing the same in the other areas of your life like with your friends and family?
It works out that you titled it that way though because the question mark left it open for me to answer haha. But yeah it peeves me when I see comments pitting us against each other. Divide and conquer I guess?
To be honest with you though I haven’t had the conversation with my family yet. I would be more surprised if nobody has told them already than if someone has at this point and there are a few people that have been doing their best to tell people about this that I’m not comfortable with knowing yet, but I might use this interview as my grand entrance, so to speak. I don’t have a clue how they’ll react but I can’t imagine that already being out to basically the entire BMX world will hurt any haha. It’s completely terrifying though. Coming out to people that I don’t know isn’t as bad because what they think of me doesn’t have much bearing on my life, but they can still create dangerous situations so it’s definitely not fun.
Then you add in the complete strangers that are coming to my defense (and some of them with really educated responses which means that they actually care) and it’s super easy to keep random people talking shit from getting to me. With people that I care about though, that’s another story. If they don’t respond well it really hurts. So close friends, family, people that I look up to, I’m petrified of telling them the first go. For the most part people have been supportive but every now and then I’ll get someone that meant a lot to me that I now have to cut out of my life and that feels like a sledgehammer to the gut.
Is there anyone who inspired you to come out and speak publicly about who you are?
There are a few people that inspired me to come out and a few people that encouraged and supported me to do it, and without them I wouldn’t have been strong enough to handle it. Way too many names to run through all of them and how much they did for me, but the three people that supported me the most are my best friends Katie Atkinson, Theresa Kruegar, and Betty White. It’s funny because with each and every one of them I was nauseatingly terrified to tell them but once I did they were perfect about handling it and have been there to support me so much.
The progression of women’s freestyle BMX being pushed by cisgender women is what made me comfortable with coming out in the BMX world. If I wasn’t 100% confident that there are other women who do more difficult tricks than I can I wouldn’t have done this. Looking at individual tricks in my edit, they’re nothing particularly special; it mostly gets its zazzle because of how I linked them together and being style conscious. Everything in my edit I have seen done by cis women except for maybe my speed in bowls (and I’m sure there’s at least one woman who can go that fast, I’m just not aware of them), but what do you expect to see from someone who’s raced for 15 years? If you compare the skills of riders who’ve been riding for a similar amount of time you’ll notice parallels regardless of their gender. Most of the top female athletes in freestyle BMX have not been riding as long as the top male athletes because we’re so barred from participating by unsupportive parents, not knowing that we can ride too due to a lack of representation, and backlash from other riders once we have picked up a bike, but we’re still compared to the best male athletes in the sport. I would be lying if I said that physical strength doesn’t play a huge role in making BMX easier, but it’s not the end all be all. Experience and mental outlook have a huge effect on what a rider can do. This is why telling someone that they can’t do something stunts their progression so much. I’ve been starstruck by riders like Angie Marino, Nina Buitrago, Camila Harambour, Joey Gough, and Peta Shepherd, just to name a few, for years and watching them bridge the gap between women’s and men’s riding has been truly inspirational because they’ve fought through being told that they can’t do what they do by a larger community to obtain their riding skills.
I’m a part of what I think is the middle generation of women riders, where we were told that we can’t but have had ladies that have done it before us to point to and say “Oh yeah?”. What I love about this is that we’re now seeing the first hints of a third generation of girl riders, seen in the likes of Hannah Roberts and Nikita Ducarroz (there are so many more but to keep this brief) who are absolutely killing it as a result of still being strong-minded individuals, but also getting positive reinforcement from other riders that they can shred. In any case being a female athlete means that you have to shove naysayers doubts back into their faces and shred anyways which is why I’m a huge fan of every woman and girl who picks up a BMX bike regardless of what they can do on it.
As far as inspiration goes, first and foremost is Laura Jane Grace from Against Me. I’d say the punk rock community is more similar to the BMX community than anything else with a prominent openly trans woman and seeing the positive reactions to her, how strong and brave she was, and how happy it made her really convinced me to be that inspiration for someone else. I always wished that I had a path to follow for coming out in the BMX community, someone that had done it before and someone who could show me what it would be like before I went through with it, but I got tired of waiting. I knew that there were more trans women that ride BMX and are just hiding like I was, but now I know for a fact that there are others and I figured one of us has to do it. This is a completely unblazed trail that no one has gone down before, so going public could either blow up in my face and I get harassed off the internet or it all works out and the BMX world is ready to accept us. Either way that it turns out I’m providing other trans BMX riders a gauge on how safe they are in BMX. I would much rather have this turn out to show them that they’re safe here though. At the end of the day we all love riding BMX and I’m not going to erase my identity to pursue my passions because it makes people uncomfortable. In the first riding clip of my edit I ask Betty, “Are you ready?” which is the big question that I hope this edit and interview answers, is BMX ready for a transgender woman rider? If not I’m here anyways and I’m not alone so deal with it haha.
Yeah I was planning on bringing up the Against Me! comparison. They were huge in BMX during the early 2000s but I’m assuming a lot of riders don’t even know that the singer Laura has been living as a woman for the past year or so. It’s kind of shocking that it took this long for a high profile person in the punk scene to come out in this way since punk has always been associated with androgyny and politics. BMX on the other hand has never really had any sort of public discourse about sexuality. Are you scared of the reaction to this interview?
I mean, even with a progressive community you’ll always have shitbags so coming out is scary because historically it hasn’t been a safe thing to do. BMX has people from every walk of life participating so it’s tricky to gauge how this will go over, but I really hope that by starting this discussion we can change that culture of oppression and people who aren’t cisgender heterosexuals are safe to come out of hiding. I am pretty nervous about it because in a large group shitbags can do a lot of damage, but I have high hopes because for the most part people are supporting me and other trans women. After my edit was posted you’d get the occasional person talking shit only to have several others jump on them and call them out for it. When someone says something completely ignorant I just let em talk (seeing how many BMX movie titles I can name drop in here haha) because I don’t need to defend myself to them. They’re not interested in learning so when others call them out they look like a fool.
Who made the video for you? Were you trying to accomplish anything in particular with it?
The video was my welcome edit for Awarewolf Apparel which is a small clothing brand that has the same goals that I do. We want to make people aware of these topics and create a discussion on how to handle the issues that arise from how people react to them. I edited the video myself and it was filmed by my friends, random people that I convinced to point a camera at me, and a bit of self filming. That, combined with the Nikon CoolPix camera that I used to film it kept the production quality pretty low but that’s okay because I used punk rock as the sound track; it’s supposed to look shitty hahaha. At first it started out as a fun project to do with my friends. Betty White and I were both filming for our first edits at the same time and we became such good friends in the process. (go watch hers here by the way! Sorry had to throw that in there hahaha she’s my bestie.) I really wanted to push how much fun I was having filming for it because that’s what it was and is all about. After I started putting clips together though I realized that this could be an edit that inspires other women to shred and show everyone that we can ride just as hard as dudes. It was for all those dudes that compare edits from a girl who’s just started to guys who have been riding for years and put them down because they can’t get as steezetastic as they can. I want it to make those dudes cry when they have to compare a girl who’s been riding for years to themselves hahaha. Once I got the finished product though I knew it was going to get a fair amount of attention so it became the perfect opportunity for me to have a platform to speak to the BMX world that we all love riding BMX and if we could just respect each other while doing it that would be rad. I think I accomplished all these goals. In any case I had a wonderful time making it, a few women have told me that it inspired and motivated them, some dudebros have shed their tears, and I’ve got a chance to teach people about this stuff that normally wouldn’t have access to it, so thanks for that haha.
Coming away from this interview I really hope that people capitalize on this opportunity to learn about a subject that they might not have been exposed to before, and I’m always down to answer genuine questions that are asked in a respectful manner, but for the edit and my riding I don’t want there to be an asterisk attached to my name. I want my riding to be counted as female BMX accomplishments rather than being put into my own category where my riding doesn’t get to help push the progression of what women can do on a bike.
I guess I’d like to finish this just by thanking you for being willing to talk about this with me and TCU’s audience. It’s always hard being the first person through the wall and hopefully this can make BMX more accepting of people who don’t fit into traditional ideas about gender and sexuality. Is there anyone you’d like to thank or anything else you’d like to mention?
I told my friends that I’d ask if we could title this interview “The Come Out” hahaha. I probably just ruined everybody’s plans who wanted to make that joke. I really want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about this stuff to such a broad audience. I think a lot of negativity is stemming from people that just don’t understand what’s going on so being able to clear things up for them should be really helpful. Thanks to everyone who’s watched shared and enjoyed my edit, super thanks to those who defend myself and other women from people talking shit about us in the comments, those who have provided support for me when I needed it, thanks to everyone who helped me film this, preemptive thanks to my parents for accepting that they actually have two daughters haha, and thanks to every woman and girl who’s picked up a bike and shredded the thing because we get a lot of flak for doing so but it’s certainly worth it. Keep your eyes peeled for more stuff from me in the future because there are loose plans in the works for a fun split edit with Betty and I once we’re not burnt out from the last ones as well as a few other projects and trips.
I would like to thank Chelsea for doing this interview. You can keep up with her on Facebook.