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Trans Iowa trailblazer Kyla Paterson sees hope despite legislative setback in her state

In 2015, she was Iowa City High’s first out trans student-athlete and says more will come despite the passage of a trans-athlete ban.

Kyla Paterson is an up-and-coming advocate today, but as a senior at Iowa City High, she blazed a path for future trans student-athletes to follow
Kyla Paterson

For Kyla Paterson, growing up as a transgender girl in Iowa City was a journey within the journey. Sports for her was not only a diversion, it was a safe passageway.

“I didn’t know what trans was until I was 14,” said said on the latest episode of the Trans Sporter Room podcast. “I went 14 years feeling I was a girl, but I didn’t know how to say it. At 14 I came out, and before that I did pretty much any sports you would ask me to.”

The following year she was a freshman at Iowa City High, started hormone replacement therapy and then gave up sports because she figured she had to. In the middle of her junior year in high school in 2014, Paterson had the itch to play sports and soccer was her goal.

“I was originally going to go out for the boys team,” Paterson said. “I was discouraged by some of the boys because they said ‘Hey, you’re a girl. You should play on the girl’s team’ and they were super staunch about me playing as a girl because they figured it would be super awkward to have me on the team. I had always talked about being a woman, so I should be able to compete with other women.”

She spent the next year getting herself in shape and adapting her truest self. She was also bolstered by a change in the regulations. The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, one of the world’s oldest confederations dedicated to sports for women and girls and a body that had pioneered organized competition for girls decades before the passage of Title IX, adopted regulations for the inclusion of transgender girls in 2014.

Paterson, shown here readying for action for ICHS in 2015, made the school’s JV soccer squad
Kyla Paterson

In Spring 2015, Paterson earned her place on the junior varsity girls soccer squad. In her first game as an Iowa City High Little Hawk, she made an impact of sorts.

“I got yellow carded in that game,” she giggled. “This girl just ran into me and they called the foul. She ran into me and bounced off of me.”

The season saw a mix of resistance to her presence from certain parents and support from her teammates, her coaches and her school.

“A lot of parents saw me as a boy and saw me as threat to their child,” she lamented. “My coach at the time? She defended me. She made sure my teammates were respectful of me.”

That communal spirit did in fact extend to the team.

“We supported each other and we wanted to succeed,” she said happily. “They were some of my best friends on this planet because they saw me as just another teammate. They didn’t see me as just ‘the trans girl on the team’.”

It was that spirit and support that propelled her into becoming a budding political organizer after high school. By 2018, she was elected as the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Stonewall Caucus and would hold the post through 2020.

She also noted that with the sweet experiences have come some of the bitter that has grown since she graduated from Iowa City High.

The current wave of anti-trans legislation, including Iowa’s trans student-athlete ban HF2416, and the backlash from recent successes for transgender women in sports reminds her of the perceptions made against her when she was playing high school soccer.

“When I was in high school, people called me a ‘monster’ because I was bigger than the other girls,” she recalled. “That’s what they see us as now, especially in the Republican Party in Iowa. They see us as not human and as predators.”

2013 Emery Awards
Paterson cited MMA competitor Fallon Fox as her inspiration to return to sports in high school
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Then and now, Paterson draws strength from other transgender heroes in sports. She cites MMA fighter Fallon Fox as the inspiration that led her to try out in high school.

She’s as much a fan of University of Pennsylvania swimmer and NCAA qualifier Lia Thomas now.

“A lot of cis people are giving their uneducated and horrible opinions while I’m over here crying because I’m geeking out because of her,” Paterson exclaimed. “She is such an inspiration to trans athletes.

“I had Fallon Fox to look up to and, much like Lia Thomas, she was heavily attacked. At the same time their success meant so much to us.”

Syndication: The Des Moines Register
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed HF2416 into law, effectively banning trans women and girls in Iowa from interscholastic and intercollegiate sports
Kelsey Kremer/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

Hours after Paterson’s appearance on the Trans Sporter Room, the Iowa Senate voted 31-17 to pass HF2416. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed the measure into law in a ceremony in the state capitol in Des Moines Thursday.

Paterson made her feelings known via Twitter:

Despite the result, and with likely legal action against the new law to follow, Paterson believes that future trans student-athletes in Iowa will again have the chance to follow in her footsteps.

“You bet I will go to their game! I will be there when they make their success,” she said confidently. “I’m probably going to cry when that happens because they will have worked so hard to be at that place. That is trans joy and success.”

Kyla Paterson had a lot to say about her journey in sports, politics and the battle over HF2416 and what it means for Iowa high school sports. Check out the complete interview on this week’s edition of the Trans Sporter Room on Megaphone, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple podcasts, and many other platforms for Outsports podcasts as well.