Bobbie Hirsch, a fencer for Wayne State University, will compete at the upcoming NCAA Regional in Chicago. He will likely be the first publicly out transgender man to compete in the male category at an NCAA Regional tournament in any sport.
He is also the rare athlete who has competed on both an NCAA men’s team and a women’s team, having competed successfully with the women for the 2021-22 season.
On the men’s team this season, Hirsch’s bout win percentage was 26.7%. That was good enough to qualify Hirsch for the NCAA Midwest Regional, being held at Northwestern University on March 11. Wayne State is currently ranked No. 24 in the country in men’s fencing — and No. 3 in the Midwest — by the U.S. Fencing Coaches Association.
Last year, Hirsch had a successful freshman season on the Wayne State women’s team. Yet competing on the women’s team simply never felt right for Hirsch.
“It kind of sucked, but at least I was able to fence,” Hirsch said of his one season on the women’s team.
Finding the sport of fencing he loves
Hirsch discovered fencing at age 11 — years before he identified as transgender — when he was engaged in gymnastics, a sport with which he never fell in love. One of his sisters was fencing by then, and the sport ignited something in him that engaged both his body and his mind.
“I like the strategy part of fencing,” he said. “It’s basically physical chess. It’s the perfect balance between strategy and physicality. There’s always something to learn, something to grow from.”
He got good fast, ultimately recruited to compete collegiately at various schools. Having not yet come out as a trans man, it was the women’s teams who were inviting him to compete in the NCAA. His family was proud, though there was a growing issue that would come to a head.
“Senior year of high school he declared himself as a man after he got a huge scholarship from the Wayne State’s women’s team,” his father, Jonathan Hirsch, remembered. “Once he got to Wayne State, it seemed he just thrived.”
While grateful for the opportunity to compete with a scholarship, being on the women’s team still created a conflict in Hirsch that was boiling over.
Hirsch began his medical transition with hormones last summer, making him ineligible to compete on the women’s team. He then worked with coach Slava Zingerman and other people at Wayne State to secure a green light from the NCAA to compete on the men’s team.
He got his wish.
Hirsch finds himself on the men’s team in year two
Moving from the women’s team to the men’s team at Wayne State has created some struggles, including in competition. With a winning record on the women’s team last season, his win percentage was well below that this season competing against men.
“Going from women’s to men’s fencing, it’s really hard,” he said. “Women’s foil, there’s a lot more time to think. It’s more meticulous. With the men it’s a lot more, ‘Go fast, hit.’”
Hirsch’s transition between the two teams has not been tough for coach Zingerman.
“I just treat everyone equally,” Zingerman said. “I don’t care what gender or race they are. They’re all my kids. The happier they are, the better results they’ll have.”
For Zingerman, the idea of Hirsch switching from the women’s team to the men’s team was up to one person and one person only.
“He decided he’s switching to the men’s side, and that’s that. It’s his decision and everyone has to accept it.
“There was no conversation about the locker room. And everyone has accepted it.”
The locker room, for Hirsch, is still an element to navigate.
He uses the men’s locker room with his team, but he doesn’t engage the same way as some of his teammates. He said the bantering in the men’s locker room is completely different from the women’s locker room, and it’s taken some getting used to.
“I don’t shower with the other men, as I have some trauma associated with that,” he said. “When I’m at a tournament at a different school, I don’t use their locker rooms, as I don’t know the people there.”
Competing on the men’s team is ‘liberating’ for Hirsch
Hirsch said competing on the men’s team has been a powerful affirmation of his gender.
“My brain blocks out a little of last year [on the women’s team] because it kind of sucked for me mentally. It’s so liberating to compete with the men’s team.”
One salient moment on the women’s team for Hirsch came when he and teammate Mycah Slade won an award for women’s foil.
“I didn’t go up to accept the award because I didn’t want to be seen as a woman, accepting a women’s award,” Hirsch said. “Being on the women’s team wasn’t good for my mental health.
“Now on the men’s team, it finally feels like I belong.”
His father, Jonathan, has seen a difference in his transgender son.
“Being on the men’s team has helped him emotionally,” Jonathan said. “It’s been amazing. He’s taken control of his life. He feels happy, He feels strong. He talks guy-talk with me. He goes on guy-trips with me. It’s been fun watching him grow into this.”
Bobbie said he’s received support from people across the sport, and he feels welcomed onto his new team by coaches and athletes.
He’s also gotten encouragement from people outside the team.
“One of the referees even came up to me over the weekend and said, ‘If anyone is being nasty to you or you’re having a hard time you come to us and we’ll support you.’
“People have been lovely.”