Landon Patterson is a typical high school senior in the Kansas City, Mo. area. She participates in the school’s choral program, student government and leadership program. She has a part-time job in a beauty supply store. She is a volleyball player and a cheerleader. She is a nominee for homecoming queen at Oak Park High School.
What’s also true about Patterson, and seemingly the only thing that makes her different from the other homecoming queen candidates, is that she is transgender.
Patterson, 17, has been cheerleading since her freshman year of high school, using skills she learned as a child in gymnastics. She has also played volleyball since the seventh grade, including being on the court in action for the K.A.M.O. volleyball club out of Roeland Park, Kansas.
Patterson says that she started presenting herself as a girl in middle school, but didn’t come out as transgender until the end of her junior year of high school. She says that for the most part, she has been received warmly by her cheer and volleyball teammates.
"My cheer friends didn’t care. I was so close with them; most of those people were the ones who I told first. I was really scared to tell my coach. I ended up telling her any way because we are really close." Patterson said. "She didn’t care and she told me that she would do her best to make sure that I could be in the girls’ uniform and be in the girls’ dorm at camp."
As for her volleyball team, the reaction was much the same.
"The coach just told me that I would have to work on getting better so I could play on the girls’ team," Patterson explained.
"I wasn’t surprised. I already thought of Landon as a girl. I was just happy for her that everyone else could see her as a girl too," Patterson’s cheerleading teammate Josie Ballard said.
Another of Patterson’s cheerleading teammates, Bailey McQuillen, echoed Ballard’s comments and mentioned some things that she has noticed.
"I was happy that it was finally happening," McQuillen said. "It’s hard when we go out because you notice people staring at Landon. Mostly everyone at school is OK with her but there are just those couple of boys who don’t understand."
Patterson says that there was some trepidation about being able to participate in cheer in her chosen gender, in regards to rules laid down by the Missouri State High School Athletic Association.
"I was worried about whether or not I could cheer in the girls’ uniform. My school was talking to MSHSAA a lot. There really wasn’t any issue with me wearing the girls’ uniform; it was more about me using the bathroom and locker room. It took a lot longer to figure out," Patterson said.
Patterson says that in those proceedings, the support of her school and the community was invaluable.
"My school was on my side. All the administrators vouched for me. KCAVP (Kansas City Anti-Violence Project) advocated for me as well. People in the stands before (Patterson started cheering as a girl) were like, 'Why aren’t you in the girls’ uniform?' " Patterson said.
After those hurdles were cleared, Patterson fully competed with her team in competitions over the summer of 2015 and has been enjoying her final season of cheering at Oak Park.
"It’s just the same as before, now I’m just a lot happier when I’m out there," she said.
Despite the support that she has found in her community for her athletic endeavors as a transgender girl, Patterson is still aware of the difficulties that exist for trans people in athletics.
"I think it’s difficult for us to be able to play. There are so many barriers. There are rules about how long you have to be on hormones and procedures that you have to have undergone. There are so many different opinions about what you need to be able to play," Patterson said.
Patterson went on to say that one of the reasons why she plays club volleyball instead of representing Oak Park on the volleyball court is a MSHSAA rule about transgender student-athletes.
"I was getting ready to try out for the volleyball team and the rule said you had to be on hormones for a year. At that point, it would have only been five months for me. So we would have had to fight that and it was just stupid. It (the hormone therapy) takes a toll on your body instantly. They said I would be stronger. There are (natal female) girls on the team who are a lot stronger than me. In the end, I chose not to do it because it would have conflicted too much with cheerleading," Patterson said.
That MSHSAA rule that Patterson chose not to fight is the norm for transgender people who aspire to be athletes. The NAIA and NCAA have the same conditions for transgender women at the college level.
So far, that standard is how sport-governing bodies have dealt with a potentially controversial situation. How do they accommodate transgender athletes and maintain as much of a level playing field as possible? Certainly there would be individuals who would take advantage of a situation in which there were no requirements to participate on teams of either gender. At the same time, individuals like Patterson should not be denied the opportunity to receive the benefits of being an athlete like all other girls her age simply because of biological factors.
In the midst of her job, her studies, her extra-curricular activities and the all-important social life of a 17-year-old, Patterson sees how her athletic pursuits, like cheering on the Oak Park varsity football team this past Friday night, are helping her become the woman she wants to be.
"My life is cheer," she said. "Being an athlete has put me in a group of other athletes. It gave me a second family. Being an athlete has pushed me to be a leader. It’s helped me push myself, kept me in shape, made me stronger and given me an outlet."
Update: LLandon was selected homecoming queen Sept. 12.
Landon Patterson can be followed on Twitter (@LandonHavok).
Derek Helling is the sports editor of the Leavenworth Times newspaper and a freelance journalist covering social issues in the context of sport. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, double-majoring in Journalism and Sport Studies. He resides in Kansas City, Mo., with his wife and their Corgi. You can contact Helling on Twitter @dhellingsports or visit his Facebook page.