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Putting the "T" into athletics

One athlete advocates the end of gender-based sports

By Dan Woog

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If Jesse Ream has her way, terms like "men's sports" and "women's hoops" will one day seem as archaic as leather football helmets and basketball bloomers do now. Everyone who plays sports is an athlete, Ream says; separating them arbitrarily by gender is unfair and close-minded.

Instead, Ream says, athletes in all sports should compete against those with similar physical dispositions. Small-framed, less muscular people should play others who look like them; so should bigger, brawnier folks. For millennia, "male" and "female" have been the defining criteria. Ream believes that in the 21st century, those distinctions no longer apply.

Ream should know. Because she moved often - from Florida to Chicago, Colorado, and Connecticut - sports anchored Ream's life through her early and teenage years. Though biologically a girl, Ream played in a boys' basketball league from age 5 through 11. When she joined a girls' league, she continued to play as rough as a boy. Suddenly, the referees called fouls. For the first time, she realized there were vast differences between boys and girls.

Ream now identifies as transgender or genderqueer. Though female-bodied, she usually passes as a man. Since age 3, Ream has been called Jesse, not Jessica. She wore her brother's clothes and played with his friends, and no one cared. Ream has no pronoun preference, advising people to use whichever words feel most comfortable to them.

"Sports was the one place I could act publicly the way I wanted to act," she says. "It was where I could have masculine traits, work out, be physical and successful." She poured her life into sports.

Though basketball, cross country, field hockey, BMX racing, and track took most of Ream's time through high school, at Mount Holyoke College she discovered ice hockey. She had never skated, and had scarcely seen a game, but when a friend brought her to one, Ream was thrilled to see players "clad in armor, bashing each other. It was oxymoronic: beautiful to watch, but everyone was encouraged to use their bodies physically. There were very few fouls called. It was the way I wanted to play."

So she did. She joined the club hockey team, and found a home. She was delighted to discover another out trans person on the team; soon, a transsexual joined. Following their example, she explored an area of sexuality she had always felt subconsciously, but knew little about.

"I'm not really butch," she explains. "I like fashion; I like to cook; I don't own a truck. I don't fit any of those awful stereotypes."

By the end of sophomore year, she was reading voraciously. "I finally had a word for who I was," she says. "It was an overpowering feeling, much stronger than when I had come out earlier as bi. Bisexuality is about relating to others. This was about who I am.

"Gender differences are a lot harder to deal with than orientation," she continues. "There's still a lot of transphobia around. But I realized it's not a sickness. That was really empowering."

Despite her empowerment, she realized that sports - the most important area of her life - was no place to deal with transsexuality. Even Mount Holyoke - an all-women's school suffused with gender awareness - refers to its "women athletes."

"Sports is so segregated that way," Ream notes. "Alumnae are so proud of their 'women's teams.' But they're not all women!"

Which raises the question: What to do with "women athletes" who don't identify as female? Writing for the school newspaper, Ream argued that gender should be removed from all sports. "Most people would rather be called an 'athlete,' not a 'woman ice hockey player' or 'male runner,'" she says. "I think, with the onset of transgender and transsexual players, we have the opportunity to re-examine how we define sports."

Ream asks: If wrestling can allow males and females to compete against each other - categorized by weight, rather than gender - why can't all sports?

"Maybe we're separating athletes the wrong way," she says. "We could do it not by genitalia, but by hormonal disposition. There could be three groups: those with more estrogen, those with more testosterone, and those who are transgender, intersex, or even going through puberty. It should be about how you put on and keep muscle, not a strict binary."

What are the odds that will happen? "Absolutely zero!" she admits. The next best solution is changing the language of sports. "Forget 'women’s team,'" she says. "Let's just call everyone 'athletes.' After all, that's what we are. I think that's feasible."

What advice does Ream - who found a home in sports - have for transgender people still figuring out where home is? "Find people who have the closest body type to yours," she advises. "Then speak up. Say: 'Coach me. Teach me. Treat me like an athlete. Treat me like a human being.'"


Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author of the "Jocks" series of books on gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.