ATLANTA — It’s been 20 years since Charles Bennett took the stage to compete in bodybuilding. But at the age of 63, he’s now done something he’s never done before — compete as a man for the first time in what’s billed as the world’s only transgender bodybuilding competition.
The competition has attracted bodybuilders from across the country and even Russia since it began in 2014, according to executive director and head judge Bucky Motter.
Competitors were judged in the categories of lightweight, middleweight, heavyweight and masters, for age 60 and over, according to five disciplines: mass, definition, proportion, symmetry and stage presence.
Bennett had the most experience of those on stage, and saw his role as more coach than competitor, helping others practice their poses backstage. He also offered diet tips, shared his preshow rituals and helped Peter Moore of Oakland, California, apply fake tan, his hand running over the scars where Moore had his breasts removed when he transitioned to male two years ago.
For most, this was their first time competing. Sandy Baird, of Oakland, California, saw the event promoted on Facebook and decided to try.
"I've always been interested in bodybuilding but then there was never a nongender opportunity to do it," Baird said.
Bennett, who traveled from San Francisco and competed in the competition's Masters class, said he was "very proud to compete without a top on."
"I competed as a woman. This wasn't available to me. We didn't even have the dream of a transgender bodybuilding competition. It's unheard of," Bennett said as he applied fake tan on himself, along with a hint of glimmer.
The evening was also special because Bennett’s wife of 31 years, Erica Grace, watched him compete for the first time since he transitioned and had surgery at 56.
"She's seeing me compete for the first time as a man. That's pretty powerful. I had to do it. It means the world to me."
Years before he became a yeoman 3rd class, Joshua Kelley was entertaining raucous crowds under his drag name.
As music pumped through the small theater, each contestant struck a series of poses required by the judges. Grace sat in the front row and cheered her husband on, alongside other wives who snapped photos and shouted out words of support. The competition took place before a capacity crowd of dozens.
"I'm so proud of him. He's awesome. He's an inspiration to me," Grace said.
U.S Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Wes Phills, of Brooklyn, New York, who performed his routine to Beyonce’s “Mine” featuring Drake, won the award for overall winner as well as the middleweight class.