“In that case, what do you have to lose?”
The operator’s reply reverberated through that cold, dry night earlier this year as I sat in my car overlooking the sparkling glimmer of Los Angeles, tears blending the lights below into one blurry glow. Moments earlier, I had managed to blurt it out: “I have two options: Transition or die.”
Two months later, I recorded and released a single of “1-800-273-8255,” an organ cover of Logic’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline tribute, a number nestled into my phone’s contacts between friends whom I remained reticent to burden.
After all, that’s what sports organists do best — communicate through song selections.
Since my first professional hockey game in Anaheim during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, I wanted to improve goal flourishes by giving each player their own mini-theme song.
I devised cues for game situations — “Clocks” for delay, “Blame Canada” for anything Vancouver did, “Hold the Line” for offside, etc.
These are the creative outlets I need in my life.
It would be nice to pinpoint a definitive sign, but things were always so confusing.
Did I really cry inconsolably when preschool staff split the class into girls and boys? Did I really secretly whisper, before blowing out birthday candles, “I wish I was a girl”?
When the other kids — all girls — ran off to change into pajamas after holiday dinners, was I really envious? Did I really feel excluded, rejected, irreparably irredeemable?
Diary entries from middle school sufficiently established an intangible difference. By eighth grade, puberty started to set in and I did what any adolescent boy does at that age: I began to shave my legs, and tuck and tweeze my eyebrows while dreading what bodily havoc the next day might bring.
That didn’t last long. Although I absorbed messages that my gender-bending behavior was shameful, that’s not what made me stop.
Our ninth-grade class visited the Colorado River — a week-long camping and canoeing retreat. The school rented tour buses for the trip, fancy ones with overhead TVs and onboard bathrooms. As fate would have it, I was assigned the same bus with a girl for whom I had developed a deep infatuation.
I was never great at keeping emotional secrets, and surely she knew of my feelings. At some point during the drive, she suggested we go to the lavatory in the back of the bus. Naive and oblivious, my biggest concern was that our driver might get upset if we stood up while the bus was moving and for that reason I did not want to go.
I couldn’t even conceive of why she wanted to go.
At some point something happened — my therapist uses words like “trauma.” There was humiliation, inward revulsion, reliving the helpless feeling as I simply froze, and what I suppose would be the all-too-common fallout of fearful secrecy. Still, I found myself inexplicably jealous of her.
When I got home, I threw out the body razor and scented moisturizers. Enough with the girl stuff. Enough with this perilous principle of love. Nothing is safe, no one is trustworthy. Boys scare me, girls scare me, nothing works, life isn’t worth it, I’m ruined.
It was the pinnacle of enduring a childhood that never quite fit.
It’s rather easy to suppress oneself through dedication to school or work and for the next two decades, that’s what I did.
I formed an empathic affinity for the stories of those who try to do the right thing, but get vilified for it anyway. That turned into the Umpire Ejection Fantasy League, which gave rise to Close Call Sports, dedicated to objectivity and fairness.
In college, I took up officiating to stay involved in sports. At one point I grew a beard, which I secretly hated. I tried getting back into manly things, yet I continued to feel disconnected to them. The more I tried, the worse it got.
Being a workaholic while employed at Dodger Stadium brought this lifelong piano player to the press box organ.
Having long idolized Dodgers organist Nancy Bea Hefley and with the help of operations staff, I began to play while waiting out rush hour traffic after work. Upon opening the fallboard, I was immersed in the charming aroma of Nancy Bea’s perfume — even in February, four months after Game 162. It felt like home and during those offseason evenings, I felt at peace. The more I played, the better I coped. When the Dodgers asked me to fill in, it was a dream come true.
In January 2014 I met Los Angeles Kings organist Dieter Ruehle during load-in for the upcoming NHL Stadium Series game between the Kings and Anaheim Ducks. We played a little organ and one year later, I received a call from Anaheim thanks in large part to Dieter’s endorsement. I played “Get Lucky” during my audition, hoping some luck would rub off. I got the job that day.
Dysphoric feelings still existed, but I was busy with my dream job and could sufficiently distract myself, until COVID-19 changed everything.
I was with our public address announcer in March 2020 when it happened. The NBA announced a suspension of its regular season and we all knew the NHL would not be far behind.
As the pandemic raged on, my industries began to shut down.
The first work I lost was hockey, though the team graciously agreed to pay staff for the remainder of the season. I lost gigs with Loyola Marymount University baseball, sports officiating completely dried up and Close Call Sports’ production suffered.
I fared well those first few months of the pandemic. It was a much-needed vacation and I enjoyed my time off. But by July the novelty of dormancy began to wear off.
Years earlier, a family friend and I discussed a social issue of some sort. I don’t remember the subject of that conversation, but I do remember what she said to end it: “You’re just a cis-het male.”
I walked away, but couldn’t stop ruminating about how my initial reactive thought had been, “but I’m really not.” Instead of feeling defensive or angry, I felt broken and dysphoric.
I had hurt myself before —punishment for a body that constantly betrayed me — but somehow this time was different.
Although I had always been drawn to Pride symbols like rainbow stripes and colorful flags, I knew I wasn’t gay. My most memorable crush growing up featured a bizarre limerence with two different classmates, a boy and a girl, who fittingly ended up dating each other — twice the heartbreak for the price of one. So what was I?
In August 2020, I — a 32-year-old — pretended to be 25 so I could access the Trevor Project’s LGBTQ+ youth crisis chatline. That chat led to a laser hair removal appointment. I felt like I finally was doing something for myself.
Gender identity was completely off my radar, but at that point I finally accepted my bisexuality and figured my LGBTQ+ card bought me the ability to unobtrusively express myself. As long as I can remember, my orientation never cared about gender. Growing up, I thought everyone was similar — after all, a good chunk of the population says it’s all about choice and choosing wrong leads to condemnation. For a while, I believed them.
By December, I still felt an acute sense that something was missing. Although for the first time since that day on the bus my body didn’t outright disgust me, something was still off.
What if I was shaping myself up to be a more acceptable man, but still didn’t resonate with man? Was I nonbinary? Did my early teenage trauma cause dissociation with gender or was it always there? This was, of course, a rhetorically illogical question, given the trauma clearly postdated my first “I wish I was a girl” feelings as a young child.
I joined an online LGBTQ+ group on Christmas Day and found myself in the most novel of circumstances: finally surrounded by virtual companions who made me feel welcome, safe, and free to be myself. But something was still missing.
In early 2021, a referee colleague posted a hateful comment to social media indicative of a desire to target transgender student-athletes. I felt severely hurt and scared, but didn’t know why.
Over the next few months, my childhood memories gradually flooded back. I remembered an obscure eighth-grade diary entry entitled, “In the case of the estrogenic brain,” and a note sent to a friend: “I have a female brain.”
For the first time I began to wish not that I was a girl — which still seemed impossible — but instead, “I wish I was transgender.” It felt more palatable. I looked enviously at those who had been courageous enough to transition, feeling I was far too cowardly.
In February 2021, I read Kyle Kennery’s story on Outsports (“Harley-riding, nail-painting pansexual lacrosse referee finally finds his niche”), which really spoke to me. Referees had come out as gay before and CloseCallSports had even done a podcast with out MLB umpire Dale Scott, but this — an out pan official — truly resonated with me. I corresponded with Kyle and continued my self-discovery.
In May, months after my “transition or die” impasse, I called my doctor and asked to start hormones. In June, after tweeting the usual Pride month message, the Ducks posted a new tweet in support of International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia. I came across an album by a trans artist: Laura Jane Grace’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.” I felt every word.
Although I wasn’t out, I finally felt not entirely hopeless. Still scared, worried about hate that is all too real, but somehow, on paper, cautiously optimistic.
When we had our mandatory harassment/discrimination training in Anaheim in September. It featured a new video and new company policy about gender identity and transgender rights in the workplace. It moved me to tears to think I could actually belong, like a message telling me it was OK. All I really want is to be loved and accepted as myself. I talked to HR that day.
As my brain gets used to running on estrogen, it grows calmer, more lucid, and like it is finally in agreement with the hormones it is fed. Every change that occurs these days feels so right. I am literally more comfortable in my skin, which has become wonderfully softer and smoother.
A neighborhood 5-year-old quizzically asked as I stood outside one summer’s day, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I was euphoric. I also worried it was a fluke.
Transition is tough. I constantly doubt my ability to do it. I worry about never fitting in, that hormone replacement therapy won’t work, that I’ll never look right, my voice won’t improve, and that I will lose most of my friends and family along with work. There are times when I get frustrated for being this way and internalize those societal messages that say how wrong I am for taking two letters from the LGBTQ soup. To say it’s a challenging process would be a tremendous understatement. Thank goodness for community.
But as tough as it gets — the financial burden, intense facial hair dysphoria, relentless teasing when horrid voice training residue bleeds into another CloseCallSports video, constant rejection, feeling that it’s too little too late, or that I’ll never make it — I never want to see my previous self again. I’ll never go back. The last thing I want to leave this world with as my prior self is my album, “For Lindsay with Love.” Her life is his sacrifice, but also his supreme victory.
My goal in writing this is to tell people, whether trans, bi, pan, questioning, or otherwise, that it’s OK to be who you are and to find your truth on your own terms, in your own time. It’s never too late.
I hope to pay it forward. If I can save just one trans kid from 30 years of turmoil, it’ll all have been worth it.
Lindsay Imber is a professional sports organist for the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks hockey club, having previously worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers. She is a longtime basketball referee and former baseball umpire. Her website, www.closecallsports.com, discusses matters of MLB rules, ejections and umpiring. Her coming out album, “For Lindsay with Love: Baseball and Hockey Organ Pride,” provides a musical soundtrack for her journey. She resides on Twitter @lindsayimber and may be reached via Lindsay.email@example.com.
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)
Check out our archive of coming out stories.
If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.
If you are considering suicide, LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. Adults can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities. Trans or gender-nonconforming people can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.