Shawn Devault reached out to GO! Athletes, the largest network of LGBT high school and college athletes, to tell his story. This is what he shared.
From the moment I saw wheelchair basketball, I fell in love with the sport. There are not enough words to accurately express the impact that wheelchair basketball has had on my life. It gave me a physical and active outlet when I wasn't able to participate in local/common athletic programs available in my area. It provided me a social group that I could relate to, of people who were like me, who accepted me for who I was, regardless of disability or physical differences. It gave me motivation, something to work hard for. It helped me gain life goals and aspirations.
I began playing at age 10 and knew from the time I was 14 that I wanted to play at the collegiate level. When I was 18, that opportunity presented itself.
I chose to attend the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a small state school with a big name in athletics. Known for their championship Division III football team and other athletic achievements, there is also something that Whitewater is known for worldwide: their wheelchair basketball program.
The men's wheelchair basketball program at Whitewater began in the 80s and has grown to be a name known around the world. They are the Duke or North Carolina of wheelchair basketball. When I chose to attend Whitewater, the women's program was just at the beginning; My freshman year at Whitewater was the first season for the women's wheelchair basketball program. We started with just six players and spent most of our first season struggling to be honest.
However, by the time I graduated five years later, in 2013, we were two-time national champions. In just five years we built a championship program that is also known worldwide, just as the men's team is. This past season that just concluded in March, the Whitewater men's and women's teams both won the national championship again.
As I enjoyed growing as an athlete and student at Whitewater, I also enjoyed growing as a person, gaining confidence in who I am as a human being. One of the many steps I began taking in college to grow as a person, was to come out as a lesbian. This began pretty quickly once I came to college. I had known and felt it for years, but attending a Catholic high school I just wasn't comfortable coming out.
At Whitewater it was like a whole new life. I could be whoever I wanted, nobody knew me. I had the chance to create whatever life I wanted for myself. Coming out was a wonderful feeling, just being honest and open about who I am. Not hiding it or feeling uncomfortable talking about it. This extended to my teammates as well. I was able to be open from day one with them. It was never a big deal, some huge team meeting or conversation that needed to happen. It was just sort of known and I talked about females the same way they discussed the males they were attracted to, had crushes on or were dating.
This was super awesome for me, to have a team full of girls who were totally open and accepting for me. I was also an active member of the student LGBT* organization on campus, and my coach was totally supportive of my activity there outside of basketball.
However, my coming out process wasn't quite done. I spent the next four years of college enjoying life, dating, competing in basketball. During my fifth and final year of college, things began to change for me again. You see, I had been internally struggling with my gender identity. Outside of knowing that I was attracted to females, there was more to me with which I struggled. But again, I was afraid and unsure of coming out. I had never been very much of a "girly girl", never been into dresses, make-up, fashion, things like that, things that females are "supposed to be in to". It just didn't fit me. I wanted to shop in the men's section for clothes, talk about sports, have short hair, be called handsome rather then pretty or beautiful. But I never was able to put words to this, a label to this.
In my fifth year of college, it finally came to the forefront and I was able to outwardly express the level to which I had always struggled with this. It went beyond just not being a girly girl. It was a matter of being uncomfortable being forced into the social box of "female" and everything that came with that box, the expectations that came with it.
Around Thanksgiving of my fifth year at Whitewater, I began to come out as genderqueer. Not transgender, saying that I felt that I was a male, but rather saying that I felt that I belong somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, not just male or female, but a combination of the two. This was by far the hardest experience of my life. I began with just a few close friends, and slowly came out to friends, family, and eventually my teammates too. I was a bit nervous to come out to my teammates, as this was something a lot less common then just coming out as gay.
After our season came to a close, resulting in a second national championship, I wrote a letter to all of my teammates, explain how I felt about my gender identity and what it meant, that I would be going from Beth to now being called Shawn, pronouns, everything. I sat anxious as I sent the letter via email out to my whole team and waited for responses. About 15 minutes after I sent the email, I got the first text from a teammate:
"Hey Shawn, I just wanted to let you know that I love you and am so proud of you"
That felt so incredible. As the day went on I got more texts and emails, every single one of them was supportive, accepting and full of love. My teammates accepted me totally as I am, nobody struggled or even second guessed any of it. I was a teammate, a member of our Warhawk family, and they were happy for me that I was taking steps in my life to be happy.
That took place about a year ago now, and things have just kept going up. While I have taken this season of basketball off so I can work on some health issues, I still love the sport and plan to return to it. I have kept in touch with my teammates after graduation, and they have continued to support me and be a quiet, loving presence in my journey to find myself and be as happy as possible.
Even though wheelchair basketball, even at the collegiate level, is not a huge, publicized sport, it is a sport that matters. It is a sport that requires just as much dedication, work, time and effort as able-bodied basketball or other collegiate-level athletics. It has mattered a lot to me.
You can reach Shawn DeVault via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.