In the last decade, more out transgender and non-binary students have chosen to participate in college athletics across the country. In the last five years, Bowdoin has supported at least three athletes during their transitions and as they navigated joining new teams. Historically, men’s and women’s sports teams have been prime examples of cis-normative culture—men played with men and women with women—but now, even at the Olympic-level, the NCAA and international sports agencies are committed to diversity and inclusion and adapted their guidelines to accommodate transgender and non-binary athletes.
“We need to stop assuming that every person on a men’s team identifies as a man and that every person on a women’s [team] identifies as a woman,” said Lex Horwitz ’19. “It’s so important to not make assumptions about someone’s identity because everyone deserves the space to explore their identity and, when they are ready, to share it with others. Assumptions are harmful because they can prevent this process from occurring.”
Horwitz identifies as non-binary, transmasculine. They joined the men’s squash team this season after competing for three years on the women’s team.
“Being on the women’s team, I was always conscious that every single time I’d be on the court, I’d hear ‘ladies’ or ‘girls’ or the wrong pronouns and it builds up. It got to be so that I wasn’t enjoying it anymore,” Horwitz said. “My best friend would tell me, ‘I think for your mental health, you need to quit the team, because they are not treating you with respect and you deserve to have respect.’ And I took that to heart so I typed up a letter with my reasons for wanting to be on the men’s team, mainly that I came to this epiphany that being on a men’s team—which is an identity that is closer with my gender identity—would feel more validating and comfortable.”
The NCAA creates guidelines surrounding inclusion and participation for LGBTQ athletes but leaves much of the policy work to the discretion of each college. Bowdoin chose to adopt all of the NCAA’s guidelines, adhering to strict nondiscrimination rules and hormone-level testing. For example, an athlete that identified as female at birth but no longer identifies as female may play on the women’s team as long as the athlete is not using testerone. Similarly, if a person identified as male at birth wishes to transition to female and play on the women’s team, they must undergo hormone therapy for at least a year before becoming eligible.
Rules governing the transition process ensure fair competition, undermining unequal advantage arguments that work to prohibit transgender and androgynous athletes from competing at the collegiate level. Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan not only informs transitioning athletes of the guidelines but also works with the Associate Dean of Students for Diversity and Inclusion and Director of Sexuality, Women and Gender Kate Stern to offer support to every student-athlete.
“Initially, [it’s] work that Kate does to educate people around the guidelines that are in place for athletic participation, which comes well after students have had conversations with Kate about the transition and transitioning process itself,” said Ryan. “[She is] a conduit to resources and the Health Center, who can connect students with local healthcare providers to answer questions that they may have regarding hormone treatment, access to hormone treatment and insurance coverage.”
Locker rooms often pose a large obstacle to transgender and non-binary athletes, and require individualized solutions based on the athlete, the team and the sport. Horwitz’s move to the men’s team prompted structural changes to the locker room facilities as well as small adjustments, such as adding a transgender-friendly placard to the walls of the squash center.
“The locker room is not just a physical space where you put your stuff away. It’s a space where the team dynamic can grow,” said Horwitz. “It was amazing to see so much structural [difference], like a protectoral change in the building. My goal was to make this the first actual transgender-friendly, comfortable, safe facility on campus. I have been so disappointed by this institution in the past, and I expected to be disappointed again, [but] I was just blown out of the water with how much support [Ryan provided] and how proactive and amazing he was with helping me.”
Individual student-athlete concerns and expectations shape much of Bowdoin’s response to LGBTQ students competing on both varsity and club teams.
“A lot of it comes down to communication and making sure that we’re working to meet the needs of our students,” Ryan said. “They should absolutely participate in every aspect of being a member of our teams; and making sure that we’re doing all that we can to make sure the student feels comfortable in their environment [is an aspect of this].”
In addition to supporting structural changes, the athletic department has instituted training programs, led by Stern, to acquaint coaches with the LGBTQ community and the unique challenges students may face. Head Women’s Rugby Coach MaryBeth Mathews prides her team on its inclusive culture and begins each season with a talk on inclusivity.
“I start out by just saying a few words about how everyone is welcomed and valued,” said Mathews. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from divorced parents, from a rich family, a poor family, the color of your skin or your sexuality. You are welcome, [and] you will find a home on this team.”
“Margaret Mumford [’07, a former team member], told me she didn’t come out until late in her sophomore year, but on that day, she knew she would be OK here. That gave me shivers, and I [thought] that’s an important thing to say, so I say it every year.”
Even with encouragement from the athletic department and coaching staff, coming out to a teammate or team is an emotional endeavor and may include pronoun mistakes in the days after. Jackie Jaques ’19, a non-binary rugby player, appreciated the support of their teammates during this transitional period.
“Over the summer, I decided that when I came back to the team, I would say that my pronouns are just they, them and see how long it took to catch on. It took a while and that was annoying, because I wanted to be focusing on rugby,” said Jaques. “We weren’t living up to what we set up for, but we’re all coming from different places, and I really saw the team grow. It’s not just about having the words and doing one step to be welcoming but putting in the effort and having conversations with people.”
For students that have changed their name to better fit their identity, being called by their name as opposed to their dead name is another obstacle, in addition to pronouns.
“Last season, [seeing] my dead name on the [lineup] sheet would make me feel so uncomfortable and so disrespected and invalidated,” said Horwitz. “Even throughout the end of the season. There were a couple of people that still deadnamed me, which to me just doesn’t make sense. The majority of people were great and would correct themselves, and I just tried to keep my head up and assume the best. But [being deadnamed] just started really tearing me apart.”
Ultimately, as with any organization on campus, the individuals in the group—both leaders and members—set the tone. By showing a commitment to respecting queer members, such as learning names and pronouns or going to OUTAllies training, individuals can have a large impact in the culture on their teams and across campus.
“When I got onto the men’s team, every single person on the men’s team did OUTAllies training this year and I didn’t even need to ask them,” said Horwitz. “The captains had been like, ‘Hey there’s this training, and we think everyone should go.’ And so everyone went to the training, and our coach actually made that practice optional so that people could go.”
Anjulee Bhalla contributed to this report.