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Navigating Bowdoin as a transgender athlete

April 21, 2017

Until last summer, Jake* lived his life as a woman. As a member of the Class of 2017, he had been a starter for the Bowdoin women’s ice hockey team for three years.

“Originally the way I thought about it was if I could be born again, I would want to be born a man, like no questions about it. But that’s just not my reality, that’s just not going to happen,” Jake said.

Ann Basu
FORGING A PATH: Athletics pose unique difficulties for transgender students, such as Jake who stopped playing hockey after transitioning.

Although he was familiar with the transgender community, for the first few months, transitioning didn’t seem like a realistic option, even as he reflected more deeply on his gender identity.

It was over the summer of 2016 that Jake fully realized his identity as a trans man, through therapy and the influence of other prominent members of the transgender community, such as Schuyler Bailar, the first openly transgender NCAA Division I swimmer.

“I can think back to the exact moment when I realized that I was trans and that that could be an option for me. I remember looking at [Bailar’s] Instagram, looking at pictures of him—like post-surgery, post-hormones—and seeing his smile and how happy he was as a person. You could just feel he was so happy to be who he was,” said Jake.

“And I said to myself, ‘I want to be just as happy as that guy one day and if this is what it’s going to take for me to get there, then I want to do that. And there’s nothing better that I’d rather do.’ And so from there, it was like, OK, I know I’m trans now. I have to come out to my mom, I have to come out to my brother. But at least I’ve gotten this far in figuring out who I am.”

Jake’s initial plan of action was to postpone transitioning and openly identifying as a man until after graduation, using the clean break and new environment to really start his life as a man. Some of this hesitancy was tied to his role as a senior member of the Bowdoin women’s ice hockey team.

“I always knew that one could take hormones, one could have surgery to fix it. But at that time I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to do any of that. I’m playing hockey, my body is so healthy. I just had hip surgery done so I didn’t want more surgeries,’” said Jake.

However, upon returning to campus in the fall, the internal pressure of all that had happened over the summer pushed him to come out to a couple of peers. Their positive responses helped Jake realize that he would be able to transition at Bowdoin in a supportive environment if he chose to.

“As soon as I saw how receptive everyone was, I was like, ‘Wow, if I really wanted to, I could pursue hormones.’ And then I was like, ‘What about my hockey season, right?’ And I was super conflicted,” said Jake. “But it got to the point where I felt like I definitely want to have surgery, I definitely want to start hormones as soon as possible. But I was really nervous to tell my coach—it was a really hard decision.”

Bowdoin, like the other schools in the NESCAC, follows NCAA stipulations for the participation of transgender students in athletics, which are almost entirely focused on the use of hormones.

According to the NCAA rules, trans male student-athletes may participate on either a men’s or a women’s team if they are not taking testosterone. If a trans male is receiving testosterone treatment related to a gender transition, they can compete for a men’s team but not a women’s team. Trans female student-athletes cannot compete on a women’s team until they’ve completed one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment.

While Jake could have competed for the men’s ice hockey team, the decision to physically transition and take testosterone unavoidably prevented him from having the senior season on the women’s ice hockey team he had imagined for the first three years of his Bowdoin career. In addition, the obvious differences in the team and the sport itself led Jake to take up a student-coach role on the women’s team for the season.

The gendered system of collegiate athletics adds a level of complexity and difficulty not only to transitioning, but to being transgender in itself. For athletes who are already members of certain teams especially, even if they don’t pursue hormone treatment, they are often faced with the decision between playing for the team they’ve been a member of and the team of which gender they identify with.

Most trans athletes are forced to make some choice between their gender and their sport. This can manifest in many ways, from making the decision to postpone transitioning to more subtle ways such as choosing which locker room to use.

While using the locker room that matches your gender might seem simple, many athletes will agree that the locker room is not only a changing room, bathroom or storage space, but a communal space that is inherently tied to team culture and dynamic. In choosing to use a different locker room, you’re choosing to separate yourself from your team.

“When we were about to start the season it was like ‘Oh gosh, we need to think about this, how do we handle this?’” said Women’s Ice Hockey Head Coach Marissa O’Neil. “Obviously nothing about his mind and how he behaves and how he views everything has changed—he’s the same person. And so on the one hand, does anything need to change? But at the same time … he is a man and he appears as a man, and would that make other people uncomfortable?”

Ultimately the solution Jake and the team came to involved him using the locker room for shorter periods of time when fewer people were there.

The situation demonstrates the way many of the challenges transgender athletes face are not anticipated in our normal systems and often have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. In addition, a solution that works for one person probably won’t work for every person or every team, which is a main reason for the vagueness in many athletic departments’ policies for trans student-athletes.

Even with these additional obstacles, Jake recognized many advantages that came with being a trans athlete, such as the invaluable support system of the members of the women’s ice hockey team.

“I really felt like [the team] had my back and that they understood what this was,” said Jake. “Maybe they didn’t know how to articulate it at the moment, but they definitely could understand that this was a hard thing for me to do—to choose.”

Gendered bathrooms are an area of anxiety for many transgender people. According to Jake, using the opposite gender’s bathroom for the first time is one of the biggest aspects of transitioning. Inherently tied into that anxiety is a fear of who you might run into and the reactions you might induce.

“When you think about the people who you might be most afraid of—telling them about your trans identity, or just running into them in the bathroom. I was afraid of the bigger athletes who are on the more contact-heavy sports, so like football and baseball and lacrosse,” said Jake. “But what was also nice was that because I was an athlete, I knew a lot of them. But that also is conflicting because when they know who I am, then they know that I definitely was a woman. So they actually might look at me more weirdly than before, versus, being like some random person who is all of the sudden in the men’s room.”

Jake noted that he felt some ease in his transition because of his familiarity with both the College administration and the Athletic Department. Having these relationships made navigating aspects of the process significantly easier.

For example, when he met with Associate Dean for Upperclass Students Lesley Levy, she immediately presented him with options to change his OneCard, name and gender markers through the Registrar and in Polaris.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I never even thought of that logistically.’ To be honest, I never even look at Polaris,” said Jake. “But that’s cool to know that that was an option and I wouldn’t have known that, obviously, if I didn’t go to my deans.”

For other members of the Bowdoin community—first year students in particular—knowing who to go to and actually reaching out to these resources can be quite daunting and difficult.

The Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity has a guide for trans students, but Jake is currently working on a pamphlet for Bowdoin students that details and describes resources on and off campus. After finding the Center’s guide very formal and wordy, he hopes this student-written resource will be helpful to other students who are thinking about their gender identity.

“It’s just an easier method for students trying to figure out what they can do, while still having that privacy of being on the internet and not having anyone know that they’re thinking about their trans identity,” said Jake. “I would highly recommend doing online research, and what’s great about that is you can do it in the confines of your own room, on your own time, without anyone knowing, in your own privacy.”

While the College offers a number of resources to trans students, it is still lacking an imperative resource: a counselor who specializes in gender therapy.

“What’s really important is that you need to find a therapist that you can connect with. Because if you don’t have that connection there, you’re not going to get what you need from therapy,” said Jake. “And that’s something that I didn’t understand. Originally, I was like, ‘I’m physically going to my sessions but I don’t feel better and I don’t know why.’ So when I found a therapist that worked for me—specifically for my gender needs—I was like, ‘Oh OK, that’s why.’”

Having a therapist who specializes in gender therapy is also important because many procedures require a certain amount of therapy and even a therapist to officially state that you have gender dysphoria. Not having a gender therapy specialist creates a large logistical and monetary obstacle for some trans students who need to find the money and means to locate and work with another therapist.

“Some insurances will say you have to have been in therapy for a year talking about gender dysphoria,” said Jake. “So if we can’t offer that to students here, we can’t support them, and on a logistical level, we definitely can’t support them, which is something that was very nerve-wracking to me. Because it’s like, well who are we going to contact? There were people in Portland, but how do you get to Portland if you don’t have a car? What if you can’t afford to do that?”

While Jake has found an understanding community at Bowdoin that enabled him to feel supported throughout his transition, the lack of a gender therapy specialist points to one of the ways Bowdoin can continue to work to provide trans students with the resources they need.

*At the request of the subject, a pseudonym was used.


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One comment:

  1. Carolyn Bryant (Bowdoin Friend) says:

    Thank you to the author for this informative and sensitive article, and to Jake for telling about his experiences with the Bowdoin sports teams. It has helped me understand more about what trans people have to deal with as they transition.

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