A transgender high school athlete in Connecticut is inspiring athletes, and conversation, with her sudden explosion onto the track and field scene in the state.
Andraya Yearwood is a 15-year-old freshman who isn’t shying away from who she is. With the support of her parents, her coach and her teammates, she is taking to the track and taking it by storm.
"I do hope I inspire people, but not only with track," Yearwood told the Hartford Courant last week. "I hope it inspires people to not hold yourself back just because you're scared of it or it is your first time doing it, or because of other people's negativity.”
Yearwood seems to be a test case in courage to many around her. Articles quoting her parents, coaches and teammates all heap praise on her for her incredible bravery to be true to herself.
The impact on her personal self is as clear as her beaming smile.
"I'm glad that now in ninth grade I'm able to do this,” she told the Courant. “I'm able to hear my name on the attendance, Andraya, and have people call me ‘her’ and ‘she’ pronouns. It's an amazing feeling as opposed to last year when people didn't."
Yet there’s an underlying issue that will slowly — or, quite possibly, quickly — bubble to the surface with Yearwood’s participation in sports.
She’s really good. She’s really fast. And she’s only a freshman.
What will raise some eyebrows is her performance in her very first meet this season, taking two first-place finishes in the 100- and 200-meter sprints. Her time in the 100 — 11.99 seconds — was just one one-hundredth of a second off the time that won the state championship last year.
That was her first race. In the cold. With no starting blocks.
It doesn’t take an Olympic analyst to forecast where Yearwood could be headed in her high school track and field career. Putting up state-champion times in her first race as a freshman projects her to potentially dominate the sport across the state for her entire high school career.
Her 100-meter time in her first race was less than a half-second off of the Connecticut state record for girls in the event.
To be sure, no one is handing her a state title or a state record just yet. For any athlete there are potential bumps along the road, and Yearwood faces more than most. As a transgender girl she faces higher rates of potential depression than anyone else in her competitions. If she chooses to undergo hormone therapy, studies have shown that her times could be slowed.
Even with the support she is receiving at home, it is not easy being trans in America in 2017.
As is always the case for youth, the most important thing for Yearwood right now is that she is competing. Sports can bring self-confidence to people — and in particular transgender people — like few other areas of our society.
Self-confidence is something far too many transgender people struggle to find. They worry about “passing” as their gender, often wanting to be known as a woman, not just a transgender person (or, as some nasty media outlets continue to remind us, much worse). They struggle to conform to what society has told them is womanlike. Their dress. Their face. Their musculature. Their Adam’s apple. Their voice. Their complexion.
In sports, add to all of that accusations of unfairness or even worse and, if not handled well by adults in the room, the positive effects of sports participation can be eroded by cruelty.
To be sure, if Yearwood improves as so many other high school athletes do, she could be the fastest sprinter in the history of Connecticut girls track & field. Emphasis on could.
If that happens, Connecticut’s trans-athlete-inclusion policy, which does not mandate any hormone therapy before a transgender girl can compete in a girls division, will come into question by some.
Yet until there is some stream of trans athletes suddenly dominating girls’ high school sports, longtime trans-athlete advocate Helen Carroll, who oversees the sports project for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, urges caution.
"We've been watching so many trans high school girls participate, and the fact that there is now one who is very talented and doing well is just part of the equation,” Carroll said. “We're going to have trans high school girls who are terrible, middle of the pack, and some, like this young woman in Connecticut, at the top of the pack.
“That's how sports work."
The example I always point to is Shaquille O’Neal. If Shaq’s advantages over me (at 6-foot-2, 170 pounds) are deemed “fair” in a game of one-on-one, then any advantage Yearwood could possibly have over her fellow competitors would have to be deemed equally “fair.”
Yet because of the all-mighty TESTOSTERONE, certain advantages are looked at as fair and others unfair in our culture.
Instead of Yearwood changing whom she competes against, maybe it’s that mentality about “the all-mighty testosterone” that has to change.
While so many of us focus on wins and losses, state championships and success, educators place an emphasis on participation in scholastic sports. As well they should.
No doubt, elements of fairness and competition have been part of our evolution into a binary sports system, where girls compete against girls and boys compete against boys.
Yet the most important element of Yearwood’s participation — successful or not — on her high school track and field team is her participation. It is literally a life-saving endeavor.
Her ability to be on the girls team, to be called Andraya, to win and lose as a girl, help keep her alive. Literally.
Her participation and her success should challenge us. Just as some transphobic bloggers will hold her up as an example of trans-inclusion run amok, trans-rights activists will hold up other trans athletes who have not been so successful.
Yearwood’s potential impending success should challenge our ideas. We should let it. These are evolving issues for an evolving time.
We should have these conversations. We should talk with Yearwood and aim to understand her journey. I guarantee you, if you talk with her and her parents, you will understand how difficult of a journey it can be.
"Have the discussion,” Carroll said, “but for god’s sake don’t be cruel to the student-athlete who is just participating like the state says she can participate."
Participation is the cornerstone of scholastic sports. Cruelty has no place there.