Twenty-two years imprisoned in a body that was not mine.
This was not about feeling too fat or too skinny, this was about going through puberty and feeling the world come crashing down on me while attempting to lie to myself that everything was going to be OK.
It was 2010 and I was an eager freshman starting my first year of college in downtown Atlanta. Georgia State University had recruited me onto their women’s cross country and track teams and I was excited to continue my running career at a higher level.
Unfortunately, my freshman year was also the beginning of a five-year struggle of coming to terms with my gender identity.
The depression, suicide letters, self-harm and anxiety were all trying to tell me something, but instead of facing it head on I dove head first into running and let it completely consume my life. If the only thing I focused on was running then I never had to face anything else in my life.
Even so, I would still go on video chat websites under the alias of Jake, throw my long brown hair under a hat and chat with strangers who were seeing me as male and only that.
The combination of wanting to compete in college, as my college has no men’s cross country or track teams, and living in such extreme denial coupled with lack of education kept me from stepping out of my comfort zone to explore myself.
Fast forward four years later and I was starting my last year of college. The previous years were spent trying to combat the extreme dysphoria surrounding my gender.
I would dress as feminine as I could while looking to other girls on the team as examples because everything pertaining to being a female came extremely unnatural to me.
In fact, it had felt unnatural for as long I could remember. As female puberty began around eighth grade, I was bullied into wearing a bra, shaving my legs and wearing makeup. It felt like my brain simply was not wired in the same way as all of the other girls in my class. This left me feeling isolated and, for most of my life, broken.
In February 2015, after having watched every YouTube video in existence pertaining to any transgender topic, I told my college roommate I was a boy. The pain I had experienced leading up until that moment suddenly felt insignificant. For the first time in my entire life I was not alone.
But this was just the beginning. It was my last season as a college athlete and other than my sister and very close friends, I chose to keep my secret from the team. Coming out was already scary, but coming out to people I was constantly around was terrifying.
Looking back on this decision, having transitioned and lived a little more life, I have learned that if people do not accept you for wanting to find happiness in this lifetime then they have no business being in your life.
With that being said I did lose a few close teammates after coming out at the end of the season. Did it hurt? Yes. But did it affect the way I saw myself or how I proceed forth with my transition? Absolutely not. Being different is often seen as a negative quality in our society when in reality our differences are what make us unique and the only way you can make a difference in this world is to be different.
It has been four years since this incredible journey began and I could not be happier in this body I only ever dreamed of having before.
Six months after starting testosterone, Nov. 5, 2015, I underwent major surgery and had a double mastectomy to remove the two lumps of fat off of my chest and was left with the chest I was always meant to have. That surgery forever changed the way I lived my life.
I stood up straighter because there was no longer anything to hide. My confidence skyrocketed. After 22 years of life, my body was finally beginning to feel like home. This newfound confidence took me places I never would have gone prior to transitioning.
I lived in South Florida for a few months filming and following the experiences of transgender individuals going through top surgery. While there I become close with another transman who worked there, and one night we planned a road trip to move to Los Angeles and the next week we were on the road.
For a year I lived 2,500 miles from home and gained more life experience during that time than I had in the previous 23 years. I started with a car and a bag full of clothes and created a life in a part of the country I had never been before. I found jobs, lived in multiple places and created some of the most valuable friendships I have to this day.
On Feb. 14, 2017, in downtown Los Angeles I underwent another surgery and had a complete hysterectomy to remove all of my reproductive organs. Although it was not visible like top surgery had been, I felt so much more comfortable knowing those organs were no longer taking up space in my body.
California was an incredible experience of self-growth filled with highs and lows and learning how to successfully navigate this world in my new body. But unfortunately, I had to make the financial decision to move back home to Florida. I felt like I was going home a lost puppy with my tail between my legs. That plane ride home was filled with many emotions.
I was leaving behind the first group of friends I ever truly felt connected to. For six months I lived at home in Jacksonville, before heading back to Atlanta to attend the Georgia Film Academy. Technically I had not been accepted yet, but most of the decisions I made were giant leaps of faith and this one was no different.
I spent a year in Atlanta graduating from the Film Academy and finally achieving my dream of working on Hollywood sets. I was working anywhere from 13 to 17 hour days five days a week and absolutely hating it. The work was grueling and I felt no true passion towards what I was doing.
After a year in Atlanta I left a job where I was earning more than $2,000 a week to continue the search for something that could leave me feeling fulfilled. It might sound crazy but my mental health was drastically declining and for me happiness should always be valued over a full bank account.
My passion lies in doing whatever I can to help advocate for our community and help those who may be suffering to not feel so alone in this world that sometimes refuses to acknowledge we are humans just like them.
It had been a few years since I had lived at home and yet I found myself right back where I had started in Jacksonville. No job, no plans and no hope. After a few months I moved in with my sister and her boyfriend in Tallahassee and that is where I am now.
I am working a minimum wage job with a college degree chasing the opportunity to do public speaking on a large stage. I want to use my life experiences as a transgender athlete, brother, son and friend to help positively spread a message of hope and education to the transgender community as well as the cisgender population.
It is true that the road for transgender individuals is often a very difficult one filled with obstacles, disappointment, rejection, pain and much more. But it is vital to remember that this journey of self-discovery is an important one.
Having gone through what I have and experienced what I did created me into a person I would have never become without this journey. We are who we are and we cannot fight that. Too many people refuse to accept us for us to also turn around not accept ourselves.
Our trans bodies are beautiful, they tell stories of survival, self-discovery and so much more and no one should ever be able to take that away from us. There is an entire community out there filled with people just like you. Your family, your town, your school, your work or your friends might not accept you, but you should never be made to fear or be afraid of who you are.
Being a college athlete saved my life. I fully believe having the ability to put every ounce of myself into running kept me alive to experience what it felt like to just be able to live life authentically and with a future in mind.
An important thing to remember is that it does get better, maybe not tomorrow or the next day or the next year but with patience and trust in the process you will see the other side. Let this experience drive you forward to become the most authentic version of yourself you can become. And most importantly no matter where you are, how you feel, who you know, you are never alone.
Jeffrey Rubel, 26, was on the cross country and track teams (2010-15) at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. He is now a public speaker in Tallahassee, Florida. He can be reached via email (email@example.com) or Instagram (@jeffreyrubel1) for information regarding bookings or any other questions.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (firstname.lastname@example.org).