FTM FITNESS WORLD – THE STORY
My name is Neo and I’m the founder of FTM Fitness World. I came in the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004 to begin my college career and secretly hoping to find out what was really “wrong” with me and how I could find a cure for it. Growing up in Central Africa, anything related to the LGBT community was completely unheard of, and somehow I had convinced myself that I was sick while the church was convinced that I was possessed.
Even though I’d always known that I wasn’t in the “right” body, I had somehow managed to go through the motions. I went to college and had good grades, I won awards, I joined many clubs, I entered taekwondo tournaments, I made friends and hosted parties; through it all, no matter how much I filled my life with “busy-ness” I felt alone in the world because there was a void that couldn’t be filled.
In 2011, after an attempt at suicide, I began my self-rediscovery journey as a Transman; for the first time in my life things seemed to make sense; I was filled with a new-found hope for life and I was finally seeing it in full colors. It was then that I decided that I would be in charge of my destiny and that I would redefine what happiness meant to me. Through it, I had lost many things that made my life comfortable: my father disowned me, I went through a break up, I lost my job and health insurance, I lost my immigration status, I lost my car, and I became temporary homeless. Looking back, I could see how all those things can easily be triggers for suicidal thoughts and hopelessness; but at the time, all I could see was that I would finally be the man that I’ve always dreamt of being. I knew that I would rather be a poor man living under a bridge than have all the comfort in the world while deep down being unhappy, unfulfilled and alone.
And so began my self-rediscovering journey; I decided to rebuild myself into a man that could make a difference in other people’s lives. I first began with a spiritual and mental fast; then I became more aware of my body, my movement, my energy by learning about fitness and nutrition; then I started investing my time into learning as many skills as possible related to finances, communication and self-development.
In 2012, I started an FTM Fitness Facebook group and gathered 5 friends so that we could help each other stay accountable with our fitness goals. I then decided to start a blog where we could share articles and resources that we found on other sites, from fitness and nutrition experts. Within a few weeks, the group had grown to hundreds of members, the website was getting hundreds of visits, and a friend had proposed to me a business opportunity, where I could start an online store on the website to keep up with the costs of running the site; so I was officially in business. I started receiving e-mails from around the world, of people telling me their stories; I realized that I had inspired many people by choosing to be visible, and for the first time, I realized that not only this business was very healing for me, but also it was an opportunity for me to teach others through my own healing. With that realization, I decided to include the topics of wellness (physical and mental health), spirituality, sexuality and finances, because they all seem to be related to our personal growth towards being fulfilled.
Some of the e-mails I was receiving were related to having dysphoria in the gym, or wanting to compete professionally but afraid to be rejected after people discovered their Trans status. I created a poll in the FTM Fitness group and asked people how they liked the idea of creating our own bodybuilding competition; the results were overwhelmingly positive. After pondering it for months, I decided that there would never be the “right” time if I don’t choose to do it now. After many unsuccessful attempts at putting together a planning committee, my great friend Angel and I set everything in motion and launched the first annual FTM Fitness World conference focusing on those 6 core areas featuring the first historical bodybuilding competition for men of Trans experience.
The most challenging aspect for me during my journey, which happens to be my favorite subject today, was the understanding, learning and mastering of emotional intelligence (EQ). It has become a favorite topic today because the more I understood it, the more I realized that emotional intelligence is directly related to our relationship with ourselves and with others, and in turn it’s directly related to how successful we are in accomplishing our goals in the other 6 areas that we focus on. I realized that emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management) was a crucial topic to discuss in the Trans community because it’s easy to overlook the baggage that we bring on with us into our new life; and so I began to write a book with that as a core topic. My book “Right Mind ‘Wrong’ Body” was written and edited within a year and currently awaiting publication.
FTM Fitness World is not just a business for me; it’s therapy. It has been very healing for me because through it, I learned to become a well-rounded man; it is what kept me striving during the darkest moments of my life; it gave me hope in very unexpected ways; and today and for years to come, I want the FTM Fitness World Annual Conference to become the platform for healing for thousands of Trans people around the world. When I lost everything is when I found what I was truly capable of; because I didn’t have anything else to lose, I took it as an opportunity to dream big and I jumped. Today I dance, I smile, and I enjoy every aspect of my life because dreaming kept me alive. My dream now is not only to create the most healing conference for people of Trans experience but also bring the conference on all continents around the world.
This is what others have said about FTMFitCon:
“Leading up to the conference, I was anticipating a lot of fun, a lot of socializing, a lot of learning, and a lot of muscles. While there was an abundance of all of those things, there was also another element that I wasn’t entirely anticipating; a lot of emotion.
Meeting the people I met and hearing the stories I heard touched me in a way that I haven’t yet figured out how to describe. From beginning to end, I was so incredibly touched by it all.”
“…I remember, now. I remember that I have been offered a rare and exciting opportunity in this life. I am occupying a space that many people don’t get to. I am a part of a radical social movement. I am building myself from the ground up, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And I am walking a path that only a few others walk. I remember, now, the importance of having a relationship with that small group of people.”
“You said something in your opening keynote about the three elements of a community. I recall them as being unity, a common vision, and service… You have given me an intangible but profound gift; the ability to remember who I am. And for that, I thank you.”
I have overcome my darkest fears, and my goal is to help everyone that I meet, whether or not they’re Trans, do the same. Thank you for taking the time to share this journey with me. Stay inspired, choose to become an overcomer and be a light for those who need it the most.
From my heart,
Neo L. Sandja