This article is the latest in a series exploring the conversation about the inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s sports. You can find the series here.
The first time Jamie Neal competed in a softball tournament as a woman was a roller coaster of emotions. She had been invited to compete in a tournament in Nashville and was excited by the prospect of not just competing in her first-ever tournament, but also expressing herself fully as Jamie for the first time in sports.
Her teammates supported her, but as soon as she arrived at the tournament facility she was faced with chatter about her “cheating,” and that she didn’t belong at the tournament as a woman.
”I’d never played a tournament in my life, and the first thing I heard was that other teams were talking about protesting me.”
Yet Neal had complied with all of USSSA’s trans-athlete policies, which were in place before she came along. In fact, Neal said that if she wanted to participate in a men’s tournament, and an opposing team protested her being on their roster, she would be kicked out of the tournament or the team would have to forfeit.
She is not a man, and her legal documents – upon which USSSA eligibility is determined – affirm that.
The threatened protests never came, as opposing teams quickly learned more about the USSSA’s trans policy, that Neal had followed the rules, and that they would lose any protest that was pursued.
Since that first tournament a few years ago, Neal has gotten to know a lot of the other players. As they’ve talked and shared a beer with her, many of them have come to realize she isn’t some “cheater” just looking to win softball tournaments (in fact, her women’s teams over the years have lost the vast majority they’ve entered). Despite her increased personal connections building some bridges across the sport, there’s a harsh reality Neal still faces every time she steps foot on the diamond:
”I’m probably the most hated person on the softball field in the country.”
It’s the reality many transgender athletes face every time they compete. They are mocked. They are ridiculed. They are intentionally misgendered.
While their nature as athletes, the support of their community, and the empowering aspects of sports drive them to compete, one ill-informed spectator or competitor can make for an unpleasant afternoon, to say the least.
“It’s daunting to have to take a deep breath every time you step on a field and think, ‘are you ready to deal with this bullshit all the time?’” Jamie said.
The answer for trans athletes competing in sports today is, “Yes.” Even with all the hate they face, the benefits of sports still outweigh the backlash.
While detractors across the media, social media and even some on the same field point to wins and losses, medals and ribbons, the priorities for these athletes – the reasons they commit countless hours to compete and, far too often, be ridiculed – lie far away from the trophy case.
Competing for the first time as their true selves
While CeCé Telfer has been transitioning all of her life, it was in late 2017 that she had finally had enough. She had been racing on the Franklin Pierce Univ. men’s track and field team with the constant feeling that she just didn’t belong.
She wasn’t a man, and she didn’t belong racing with the men. She would rather be her true self in every aspect of life than have this one part of her day — her time with her men’s track and field team — put her right back in a place that conflicted with her very existence. She quit the team for her own mental health and well-being.
”Competing on the men’s team was a living nightmare,” Telfer said. “My teammates were always supportive of me, and they never made me the target of their jokes, but it was a very masculine environment. They weren’t mean or bullying me, I just wasn’t a part of it. And I got that, because I didn’t belong with them.”
Six months after quitting the men’s team to fully express her true self, last summer the burning desire to race and compete got hold of Telfer again.
“Last summer I thought, I really can’t stay away from running. I knew I had to compete again, I had to run.”
Finding a home on the track with the Franklin Pierce women’s team gave Telfer a new lease on sports she had never felt.
“Before when they would say, ‘gentlemen line up for the 100-meter hurdles,’ I would hold my head down and I couldn’t wait for the race to be over. It was so embarrassing for me. Competing on the women’s team for the first time, it felt like a breath of fresh air.”
That “breath of fresh air” feeling is resounded by many trans athletes when they talk about the first time competing as their gender.
Triathlete Chris Mosier had competed in girls’ and women’s sports all his life. In high school, he was an all-conference athlete in volleyball, basketball and softball. While he took pride in his excellence on the court and the field, there was still a feeling growing inside him that something was off.
When he switched to triathlons as an adult, he first raced as a woman. Because there were so few transgender athletes in sports — and in particular trans men — he didn’t know there was even the option of competing in the men’s category.
When he did some digging and found a path to compete as a man, he took it.
”I remember feeling so proud and happy to finally be competing in the race where I knew I belonged,” Mosier said of his first race in the men’s category. It was also after he had had top surgery, and it was the first time he was showing his scars to the world, the first time he was racing shirtless.
”I remember feeling so free, so at peace with myself, like this was the way it was supposed to be.”
To be sure, the first time competing as their true selves isn’t always a rainbow with pots of gold on each end. Issues of self-confidence and concerns about reactions from others still creep into the triumphant moment for many trans athletes.
Maia Monet, a pitcher in the local LGBTQ softball league in Orlando, said she was not out to teammates the first time she competed on a women’s team, prior to her gender confirmation surgery — “most people don’t read me as transgender.” That elevated her concerns about what might happen that first time out.
”My biggest fear was that someone would hit a ball back at me really hard and I’d take one at a sensitive place and I’d go down and everyone would wonder ‘why’s she in so much pain?’” Monet said.
Trans athletes can face unique challenges to say the least, making the support of the sports community that much more important to their own health.
The affirmative, validating power of sports
Still, for Monet and so many other trans athletes, the fear and anxiety that comes from putting yourself on a court or a field in front of fans and competitors is eclipsed by the validating power of sports.
“The camaraderie, being accepted as another woman by the women on the team, it all feels great,” Monet said. “it’s so validating.”
Before she ever showed up in the starting list for a girls race, high school sprinter Andraya Yearwood had competed in various sports in the boys competition. That included her adopted home of track and field.
”I just didn’t feel like me, running on the guy’s track team. I didn’t enjoy it that much. When I would get to the line to start a race, I never really enjoyed it.”
Now competing on a girls team as a girl, Yearwood feels “relieved. I am finally able to run on the team I identify with and compete on the team I identify with.”
Rachel McKinnon is a cyclist whose photo atop a medal podium last autumn unleashed a torrent of hatred from people across social media. McKinnon, who in addition to being an athlete is an associate professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston, said sports have a unique power to validate trans people as who they are.
”Trans people struggle with being validated by other people,” McKinnon said. “In North America we live in societies that are fundamentally invalidating. People use the wrong pronouns, they misgender us. To have to compete as a gender you strong dis-identify with, that’s as invalidating as it gets. Simultaneously sport can be one of the most validating things possible [when you’re able to compete as your gender].”
Kirsti Miller, who plays Australian rules football, put it even more starkly: “For some of us, our sporting family is the only family we’ve got.”
Another one of the ladies on the links
Mianne Bagger, the trailblazing former professional golfer, had left golf behind when she transitioned in the 1990s. It was a time when few sports organizations had specific trans-inclusion policies. Yet the amateur golf body in Australia had no restrictions on trans women competing as women. Her own love of the game coaxed her back onto the links, where she was welcomed by the other women in the local club.
”I was always welcomed by the girls,” Bagger said.
Various opponents and golf organizations raised eyebrows. Bagger, who had transitioned by this point many years earlier, didn’t back down from open, honest conversations about who she was and what she had gone through. Like Neal, she found the power of simply getting to know the other women and the rules-makers opened doors and built bridges.
”Humans fear what they don’t know,” she said. “So I removed that fear. And when I had the discussion with people, the tension cleared.”
For Bagger, returning to the golf course as a woman now unable to hit the ball nearly as far as she could before transitioning was validating. As she rose up the ranks and into professional golf, she had to put in just as much work as the other women to compete. She was, golf proved to Bagger and everyone else, just another one of the women trying to compete.
An intrinsic part of an athlete’s identity
While much has been written about LGBTQ people feeling pushed out of sports, for many others defining themselves as “athlete” is an intrinsic part of their identity they’ve carried all their lives.
For that group, that identity as “athlete” is a sanctuary, a place they go to remind themselves of who they are. As some trans people struggle with their gender identity, that identity of “athlete” can be a rock to build their lives and raise self-confidence.
”All my life, my siblings and I have always done sports,” Yearwood said. “If I were to just stop doing that, I wouldn’t feel good about myself.”
Like Telfer and so many other trans people, powerlifter JayCee Cooper left sports when she transitioned. Yet her innate identity as “athlete” didn’t simply go away because she stopped curling, the sport in which she competed at high levels as a youth.
”Much like not acknowledging my gender identity, not acknowledging that I’m an athlete, and that competition is a huge part of my life, very similarly I came to a point in my life where I gravitated back toward sport. I needed to compete and be around athletes.”
McKinnon has also been an athlete for as long as she can remember. Naturally gifted, McKinnon competed at high levels of badminton, as well as playing golf, rugby, baseball, basketball, tennis, and even competitive climbing.
“Losing sport would be a serious problem for me as a person,” she said. “Part of who I am is an athlete. It’s something I’ve done pretty much my entire life. It’s been a thing I’ve built my life around in various ways. Now cycling is almost a full-time job. The worry of losing that was a big worry.”
Competing as another gender
Even with that important part of their identity, for many trans athletes competing as the gender with which they dis-identity can be equally damaging.
“I felt this sense of embarrassment because of the category I was put in,” Mosier said about competing in women’s categories. “I was very proud of my athletic accomplishments, but I wasn’t proud or comfortable with the way the world interacted with me or the category I had to compete in.”
Racing in the men’s category hasn’t been without its emotional roller coaster for Mosier, either. At the very end of his first Iron Man, having just completed the grueling, self-affirming race and doing it as a man, Mosier was met by a jubilant race volunteer.
“Congratulations,” the volunteer cheered to Mosier who had just recently begun his transition, “you are an iron woman.”
“I was devastated. When he put the medal on my neck I didn’t say anything. I walked to the side trying to digest what had just happened. I was so depleted in every sense of the word. That race brought all of the joys of competing as myself, and all of the pain of not being seen as the person I know I am.”
With so much chatter today targeting trans-inclusion policies in sports, trans athletes have the very real fear that their presence in sports is hanging in the balance. If they were banned from competing as their gender, they would lose the self-affirming, communal aspects of sports that help keep them going.
If she had to compete in a men’s category, Yearwood said she would leave sport all together.
“I’m female,” she said. “Why would I compete on the male team? I wouldn’t compete in track at all.”
“I’m not going to take three steps forward to take 17 steps back. It’s not worth it. I love track and I love competing, and I know I’m an elite and competitive athlete. But I would not revert back to what it was to compete as a man. No. I finally got the chance to breathe. I wouldn’t hold my breath again.”
Yearwood and Telfer aren’t alone. Mosier said he has spoken with many transgender people who left sport because of mandates that they compete as their sex presumed at birth, or because they weren’t aware of trans-inclusive sports policies.
As positive as it is for trans athletes to compete as their gender, competing as another gender can be deeply damaging. No one — transgender or cisgender — wants to be told they have to compete as another gender.
The getting there
Despite all of this, detractors of trans athletes insist that the most important part of the sports-participation equation is the winning and losing of competitions.
”You can’t go into sport with winning being the thing that gives you value,” McKinnon said, “because almost everyone loses. Sports hurt too much. Training hurts too much just for wearing a medal being the thing your’e doing it for. Sport needs to be worthwhile even if you never win.”
To be sure, trans athletes take a lot of pride in winning. Mosier has used his platform as a consistent member of Team USA’s duathlon team to make sure trans youth see the possibility of participating in sports in their lives. Telfer, who won an NCAA national title a few weeks ago, is proud of all of the work that went into earning that championship. Cooper posts Instagram images of herself with medals.
“For me reaching my personal goals is winning,” Cooper said. “It has little to do with winning a medal or beating other people. I’m looking at PR’ing my totals and looking at my own progress, more than where I place.”
While there is still pride in winning for these athletes, it’s the other elements of sports — identity, the benefits of community and the struggle of competition — that keeps them fighting for the right to be their own true selves in the sports world they have called home.
”It’s personal achievement,” McKinnon said. “It’s having goals, it’s the community. That’s why they do it, and that’s what they’re worried about losing. They want to be there and be one of everybody else. They want to be treated like anyone else.”