“I have nothing to lose by being my authentic self,” said Braeden Abrahamasen, who came out as nonbinary last fall, just before Thanksgiving.
“I had been talking to my parents about wanting to do a name and pronoun change [from she/her/hers to they/them/theirs],” Abrahamsen told Vanderbilt Athletics writer Andrew Maraniss. “Everyone from our extended family comes to our house. I didn’t want to be home for Thanksgiving and my parents not call me by my true name, Braeden.”
The sophomore on the women’s bowling team at Vanderbilt University was left with a split: immediate family and friends accepted, but extended family told them, “We still love you, but…”
Braeden Abrahamasen’s story is one that’s (pardon the pun) right up our alley. They identify as bisexual, as genderqueer, and as transgender, but they say they do not intend to undergo a medical transition. What follows are excerpts from their story, published by Vanderbilt Athletics on Sunday, March 31, the Transgender Day of Visibility.
“One of the most positive things about sports is how it brings people together. As a member of the Vanderbilt women’s bowling team, I have teammates from Australia, Russia, Singapore, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico, just to name a few. But when we step onto the lanes, we are all one, we are all Commodores.
“It is as a member of Commodore Nation, understanding that we share a love for the Black and Gold but may view other aspects of life differently, that I am choosing to tell my story today, National Transgender Visibility Day, as a Commodore, a human being, and a member of the transgender community. Every person’s story is different. I’m not speaking for all trans people, just telling my own story in hopes that it will help lead to a better understanding of a topic that most people have very little knowledge about.
“Let’s start with some basics. My birth name was Kelsey, I grew up in Seattle, my dad is an information technology manager and my mom makes hand-blown glass jewelry. My brother works in the tire shop at Costco. Some might read us as a pretty ‘typical’ white, middle-class family.
“Now let’s get a little deeper into my sexual orientation and gender identity, because it’s not as typical. First, I identify my sexual orientation as bisexual. Sexual orientation is who you are attracted to, whether that’s physically, sexually, or romantically. How I define bisexual is that I’m attracted to people who match my gender identity and those who do not.
“There’s a difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. Gender identity is how you view yourself internally, and how that compares to the world around you. In American culture, traditionally, there have been just two accepted alternatives, the binary of male or female. Throughout history, and in several other cultures, there has been an acceptance and acknowledgment of a much wider spectrum of gender. Where I differ from the norm is that I do not fit within the traditional expectations of being a man or being a woman. That’s why I consider myself nonbinary, or ‘genderqueer.’ Genderqueer people may express a combination of masculinity and femininity, or neither, in their gender expression.
“Not all transgender people identify as nonbinary. Transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity does not align with sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender people may fully identify as either a man or woman, or somewhere else on the spectrum. I’m trans in the sense of not identifying solely with the sex I was assigned at birth (female). I don’t identify as either fully a man or a woman. I have not had any form of gender affirming surgery, and I do not take any hormones.
“I know this may be confusing, that you probably have many questions. Let me tell you more of my story, and hopefully it will start to make more sense. And we’ll start with something easy: my love for bowling.
“At the age of five, I was invited to a birthday party at a bowling alley. I loved it, and I was hooked. The next summer, instead of going to the park or the aquarium, I begged my mother to take me to the bowling alley. We went so often the coach of the youth league came up and suggested I join – I spent as much time at Imperial Lanes as any of the league bowlers anyway. By the time I was seven, I began competing in tournaments.
“I loved everything about competing: earning patches, earning ribbons, getting new bowling balls. My very first ball was a six-pound, plastic, hot pink AMF Extreme. Then I moved up to an eight-pound Power Puff Girl ball. I had green alien shoes that glowed in the dark. That was my set-up when I finished second in state in the girls’ under-11 division. I was seven years old.
“Even back then, my coach talked to me about the possibility of bowling in college, explaining the pathway I could take to reach that goal. I competed in a national tournament for the first time at age 13.
“My junior year of high school, I attended a bowling combine for high schoolers in Dallas, Texas, where college coaches scout you. A lot of schools reached out to me after that, but Vandy never did. I was disappointed, because it was my dream school. If you’re someone who takes your education seriously and wants to be on an elite bowling team, Vanderbilt is the place to be, no question about it. My parents encouraged me to get in touch with Coach (John) Williamson – ‘make him say ‘no’, they kept saying. Well, one thing led to another, and suddenly I was offered to come on an official visit and I fell in love with Vanderbilt. I was so happy when Coach Williamson called to offer me a scholarship.
“Looking back at my childhood, I can see signs of what I would now call my non-binary self. I wanted to wear my princess Pull-Up diapers with my brother’s Power Rangers underwear over them. I’d wear my princess nightgown with my brother’s bomber jacket over it. I never wanted to play with dolls, but I’d join my brother in the backyard digging holes to bury Barbies in. I never wanted to wear anything in my hair. Even when I was a baby, my mom would put a bow in my hair, and I’d yank it out.
“I grew up in a very unintentional gender-neutral environment. There was never any pressure that you have to play with this toy, or you must dress a certain way. My parents let me be who I wanted to be, and I’m lucky for that. A lot of my friends who have similar stories to mine did not grow up in environments where their parents accepted how they wanted to express themselves.
“As I got older, I was written off as a tomboy. I hung out with boys or girls on the playground depending on what was the activity of the day. In high school, I was someone who was more masculine at times, but I would still wear dresses to formal events because that was the social norm. I still had long hair. I still wore makeup every day.
“But I had friends who were gender non-conforming. Throughout elementary school one of my closest friends would say, ‘I’m not a girl. I’m not a girl’ and started dressing in more masculine clothing. But then it became the reverse. Her parents were not hearing that, and everything became super-feminine. Long hair, long dresses, make-up. But in our sophomore or junior year of high school, he came out as transgender in a poetry slam competition with his parents sitting right behind me. They didn’t know it was coming. It was breathtaking. I was crying. The whole poem was about how to open a closet door. The second I heard the opening line, I said, ‘Oh my God, this is it.’ It was incredible to see someone you’ve grown up with finally be able to come into their own skin. At the end of the poem, he introduced himself with his true name.
“It was a powerful moment in my life, but I still didn’t really have a full understanding of what it meant to be trans. I wasn’t out yet. I didn’t really know how to verbalize what I was thinking about. I hadn’t really explored the resources. There was so much I didn’t know. That began to change when I got to Vanderbilt.
“I was doing a lot of thinking, started looking into things, became exposed to more resources. I spent a lot of time on internal reflection, comparing how I felt to how other people viewed themselves. It wasn’t, ‘I don’t like this, so I’m going to choose to be the opposite.’ It was more, ‘I’m not sure I really fit into this category, but I’m not really sure why.’
“There was nobody planting seeds in my mind, no force of hand. No one said, ‘We think you look like this, so therefore you are this.’ It was more of an introduction to resources from staff at the K.C. Potter Center, as well as my former teammate and now girlfriend, Ariana Perez, that I explored on my own time. I learned what various terms meant, how they compared to my identity, and whether I resonated with part or all of a certain definition.
“It was right before this past Thanksgiving that I decided to come out publicly. I had been talking to my parents about wanting to do a name and pronoun change [from she/her/hers to they/them/theirs]. Thanksgiving is a big family holiday for us. Everyone from our extended family comes to our house. I didn’t want to be home for Thanksgiving and my parents not call me by my true name, Braeden. (There’s a joke that the two types of people who spend the most time on baby-name websites are expecting mothers and trans people.) But at the same time, I didn’t want things to be confusing for my extended family. ‘Who the heck is Braeden and why are you calling Kelsey that?’
“So, I made a post on Facebook before I went back home for Thanksgiving and emailed a slightly edited version to my extended family members. In both cases, I tried to just explain the situation and let people know if they had questions, they could ask me privately. On Facebook, I got a lot of ‘likes’ and a lot of positive comments. I didn’t get too many questions. The most common ones were ‘Are you being supported by your friends and family?’ and ‘How are you still able to compete on the women’s bowling team in the NCAA?’
“The reaction from some of my extended family was very different. Some said things like ‘This is not the way God intended you to be, so we’re just not going to go along with the pronoun change.’ They said people have been changing their names for thousands of years so that’s fine, but there is only man and woman, there is no in-between. I can only assume that they think I’m going to hell. They’ll say, ‘We still love you, but…’ There’s always the conditional, this list of qualifications you must meet. The hardest part is that this is also the side of the family that preaches unconditional love, love thy neighbor.
“On one hand it is hurtful, but on the other hand it’s not surprising. I think there’s always a hesitation about the unknown. And for hundreds and hundreds of years, people with marginalized identities have been dealing with whatever group is in power saying, ‘You can’t be this because we don’t think it’s okay.’
“But my being bisexual doesn’t take away from your straightness. I’ve come to realize that it’s not about what other people want me to be. Live and let live. It’s not for other people to agree or disagree with. I am who I am.
“Some of you may find it surprising that there is discrimination within the LGBTQIA+ community, too. White trans folks don’t experience the same discrimination and violence as trans folks of color do. Trans people who ‘pass’ — by looking more like the gender they have transitioned to be —are accepted better by society and almost looked up to within the trans community. People who are more gender fluid aren’t treated as well, even within the trans community. You can find that within any marginalized community; there’s always stipulations of what classifies you as being worthy of holding that identity.
“For me, that means dealing with imposter syndrome. I don’t have the traditional trans narrative of having figured this out when I was very young. I had friends with the more traditional story. When they were young, they knew they were not pink, they were blue. Or the opposite. But for me, it was more like where do I fit? Purple? Green? So, I question myself: Do I match up to the standards the LGBTQIA+ community has built around this term? By definition, the prefix of ‘trans’ means ‘on or to the other side of: across: beyond.’ In this sense I like to think of my gender identity as going beyond the spectrum, not being confined to the rigid binary that our society has constructed. For me, it’s been a process of recognizing that no matter where you are in that journey, it’s a valid experience. The lesson I’ve learned is that you can compare yourself to others to help you figure out your identity, but in doing so, don’t invalidate your own identity.
“Let’s get back to one of the common questions I was asked after I made my Facebook post: How can I still compete on the women’s bowling team?
“This was something I researched a lot before I came out. I didn’t want to do anything that would change the status of my team. The NCAA goes off your gender assigned at birth and your biological sex. So, unless I decide to go on hormone replacement therapy, which I haven’t, simply changing my name and pronouns doesn’t change the status of our team. If you’re taking testosterone, that changes you to a ‘mixed’ team, and therefore you are not allowed to compete in the NCAA because bowling is only a women’s sport.
“From the Vanderbilt Athletics administration and coaches, there has been nothing but overwhelming support. Right off the bat, my coaches messaged me to say they would do everything they could to support me, but that they had never done this before so to be proactive about letting them know what kind of support I needed.
“It has been a more challenging experience with some of my teammates. I’ve struggled with that. There have been times when I didn’t always receive the support or encouragement I would have wanted. It’s been a transition for them as much as it has been for me. At this last tournament, it was refreshing to be there and feel like I had my team behind me. My teammates’ parents have been wonderful and loving and kind, just as they always have been. My girlfriend, who identifies as a bisexual female, has been my rock.
“I’ve always dealt with social anxiety. I don’t enjoy feeling like people are looking at me. That’s one of the reasons I like bowling. When I’m staring at the pins, my back is turned to everyone else, and I can pretend they’re not there. So, why I am I choosing to be so public about my identity in this story? My intention is to help people. To help some people gain a better understanding of what it means to be trans. And for young trans people, I want to offer another piece of the puzzle, another sign of hope.
“The important thing about this article is not to make this identity that I hold idealized or special, but just to call attention to it so it becomes more accepted and normalized in our society. There are so many people who hold different identities who have not come out or are not comfortable expressing that side of themselves because of the potential pushback. In some parts of our society, people are being encouraged to vocalize their rejection of people who don’t fit the norm, or to use violence.
“The other important thing for me is that there are very few stories out there about athletes who are facing this dilemma. As a collegiate athlete at a D1 school, you are already part of a very select population, and then to hold some type of queer identity makes you even more marginalized. I just want to be on record saying the journey is important and that no matter where you are, it’s valid. Having a place to let that out, reading the stories of other people, discussing these topics is critical in keeping folks who hold marginalized identities alive, and I mean that literally. You see some people walking around this campus with certain messages on their shirts or hats and it’s a not-so-subtle reminder that there are people who don’t want you to exist.
One way I’ve dealt with that is by remembering certain things Coach Williamson has said that have radically changed my life. He talks in a bowling sense about being ‘default aggressive,’ not being timid when you’re throwing your shot. I translate that to my life by having the attitude that I have nothing to lose by being my authentic self. If people don’t like that, they don’t need to be in my life.
“Whatever others do is out of your control.
“You just have to do your thing.
“I think there’s a metaphor in that.”