Sahara Gentry shares how fitness allowed him to come out as transgender. (Photo courtesy of Sahara Gentry; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

It Figures is Yahoo Life’s body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

Sahara Gentry has turned his passion for fitness into a lifestyle, making a career for himself as a transgender trainer using social media to empower members of the LGBTQ community seeking comfortability in their bodies. But the 27-year-old from Southern Kentucky, who has grown an Instagram audience of over 19,000, says that it wasn’t until he started going to the gym as a lesbian woman looking to create a more masculine appearance that he even learned about transgender people.

“At 18, I didn’t know about the trans community at all. And I had always been a very masculine lesbian, always wore guy’s clothing. I never knew that the reality of hormone treatment was even something that could happen for me. So growing up, I kind of always had to internalize, ‘Well, these are the cards I was dealt. I have to deal with this gender, even though I feel super uncomfortable in it,'” he recalls while speaking with Yahoo Life. “Once I got social media, after I became a personal trainer, I started having some young trans men come to me for help with their body issues. I started getting educated on the trans community and the fact that you could actually go to a doctor and get hormone therapy just blew my mind. It was like, ‘Wow, this is actually a reality for me.'”

When Gentry first stepped into the gym nearly eight years ago, he recalls having fitness goals that were motivated by the unhappiness he felt with his body. “I was someone who always was very, very small and feeling so masculine on the inside and having this small physical form just really didn’t ever sit well with me. It always gave me really bad body dysphoria,” he says. “So the gym was somewhere that I went to try and just build myself, kind of just paint my canvas.”

Gentry fell in love with bodybuilding as a way to alleviate the discomfort that he felt with his body, as he worked to create the muscular arms, abs and legs that he had always dreamed of for himself. Still, it would take him time to recognize how connected his physical form was to his gender identity as he worked to become more in-tune with who he was both on the outside and the inside. Working with clients who were trans men helped in that process.

“I hadn’t came out [as transgender] yet and they just saw me as a masculine lesbian, but they saw the changes I was making in my body, how I started out so small and feminine and how I was slowly changing myself to look more masculine. They kind of said, ‘I respect your identity, mine is not the same as yours, but your physical transformation is something that I really admire and I want changes like yours. So can you help me make the changes that you’ve made?'” Gentry explains. “So I started having young trans men who just were out there looking for a safe queer space to come to for help on how to gain muscle.”

As a fitness trainer, Gentry acknowledges that the gym is a vulnerable space for any person looking to better themselves physically. As a member of the LGBTQ community, he also recognizes that stepping into that space can be even more intimidating.

“Whenever you’re working with someone in the queer community, you also are a therapist a little bit. I was also helping them with their body issues more than talking about just health and fitness, but reminding them to love themselves through all stages,” he says. “I think that’s another reason why people were gravitating towards me because I’m just very genuine and authentic.”

He quickly realized that he needed to put his own advice into practice.

“I had to take a step back and learn to love myself at every stage, which was difficult. But for me, as I was going to the gym it was amazing to watch myself change and get masculine features that I’d always wanted as I grew up with a feminine figure my whole life,” he explains of transforming his physical appearance while still figuring out his identity. “It was like every couple months, as long as I stayed consistent, I got to watch those changes in the mirror that helped my body start to align with that masculine mindset I’ve always had. And I started to really look in the mirror and feel like me for the first time. I’ve always felt a mental disconnect with my physical form and fitness is kind of what tied the knot between those two realms for me.”

Beyond physical changes, however, was the realization that Gentry had more power when it came to his gender identity and how he presented that. He even began to post content addressing how he identified, despite the assumptions that people made based about his physical appearance.

“Be a caring man, a strong woman, be the embodiment of both!” he captioned an 2019 Instagram post in which he was photographed wearing a shirt that reads, “Gender roles are dead.” 

Still, as his journey continued, Gentry faced other obstacles when it came to embracing his authentic self. With hormone treatments in particular, he set out to learn how the treatment would impact his training and the programs of his transgender clients. He also struggled to show up to the gym knowing that his features were changing in more noticeable ways.

“That was scary,” he says. “Letting my facial hair grow out and going to the gym that first couple of weeks with my little beard and mustache because that was even before I had top surgery. I was like, ‘Oh, these Kentucky people are really going to be like, what the hell?’ But, you know, it was just one of those things where I had to live my authentic self and really just kind of block out the outside world a little bit. It kind of sucks that it has to be that way, but it is how it is.”

Although Gentry acknowledges a lack of acceptance in his home state, he shows pride in the fact that his parents have supported him since he first came out as a lesbian. “My mom prepared me,” he says. “You have to be a little tough when you come out in this world.”

To this date, however, his biggest show of courage in the process of confirming his gender identity happened at the gym where he stepped into the men’s locker room for the first time on Nov. 1 — over seven years after beginning to work out there and nearly four months after getting top surgery.

“It was kind of like putting on an invisible badge of courage to me because there are people in the car with Trump stickers on the back of their trucks, and we have lots of men that are in the line of duty that are police officers and just men that I would expect to be very close minded. And surprisingly, the past few weeks I’ve been greeted by strangers in the locker room with, ‘Hey man, good work, you’re looking good,'” he shares. “They’ve been surprisingly welcoming to me. I’ve had maybe one negative interaction and 25 good ones.”

As he continues to navigate his personal journey and transformation, he proudly does so in front of his growing Instagram audience, in an effort to create more representation of the LGBTQ community and to normalize its existence in the fitness arena.

“Educating is important because with people who are out here being so hateful and judgmental and the people who are committing hate crimes, killing trans women every year, those are the people who need to have that soft spot in their heart touched to say, put your foot in this person’s shoes. And they can’t do that unless they have something to relate to. So that’s why these conversations need to be more open and more out in people’s faces,” he says. “Every time that I look in the mirror, I just feel so proud of what I’ve built. And I just think back to the younger version of myself and how I wish I could go back 10 years and show them what I look like now, because there are some days that wouldn’t have been so hard.”