As a kid, I had a bowl haircut and loved wearing my brother's athletic clothes. I was often mistaken for a boy in public places. Early on when wearing my baseball uniform it was pretty difficult for anyone to tell I was a girl. I recall being yelled at in countless public bathrooms by grown women as I waited in line. I vividly remember one woman physically trying to push me out the door while on a family vacation in Virginia. I was 8.
By the time I was 10, I would do almost anything to avoid using public restrooms to save myself the humiliation. I remember feeling major pains from suppressing using the bathroom until I got home. My older sister would often find herself explaining to adults that I was a girl which was almost never followed by any kind of apology from those whom she corrected.
As I think back to those heart pounding moments of bathroom-related anxiety and embarrassing episodes with adults, these are far from happy memories. While I was born as female and identify as such, I'm certain my childhood struggles were not even 1/10th of the pain felt by trans children and adults who attempt to use the restroom of the gender they identify with.
A few weeks ago, I spent almost three hours on a variety of social media platforms defending high school athlete Mack Beggs when ESPN broke his story. The transgender wrestler from Texas was denied the opportunity to compete with males and ultimately was given the choice to wrestle females or not compete. Mack chose to compete and went on to win the girls' state high school championship. The internet went into a frenzy of sheer panic and hate. When I read about Mack Beggs, I thought immediately of my own athlete.
Four years ago, I began recruiting a student-athlete for our women's NCAA rugby program. As a rugby player and a high school wrestler, this athlete was more than academically and athletically qualified for recruitment. A spirited kid who I would later learn had been treated as a second-class member of the high school wrestling team, I have often wondered how many more of these athletes existed long before Mack Beggs.
According to my athlete, there were countless hours of running stairs alone and training in isolation from the team because the coach believed it would devastate the male athletes to compete or practice against a "girl". At that time, no girl's wrestling existed at this player's high school.
Our job as coaches is and always will be to judge an athlete based on character, academics and athletic talent. During the recruitment process, I never imagined nor did I expect that two years later this athlete would announce that he identified as male. Despite never imagining or expecting it, it was no chore to be understanding and supportive of a hard working, reserved, intelligent and determined human being.
My athlete shared this information of his identity with the team during preseason. It was in our "fortitude circle" which is the space where any players who are willing to share are asked to reveal a struggle or obstacle they overcame that is part of what they believe makes them who they are. After an hour or so with only a few athletes left to share, I saw the former wrestler's hand go up to speak. With a bit of a shaky voice my athlete spoke with a strength I will never forget.
"Coach, you said it could be anything we have overcome that has shaped who we are, right?"
"Absolutely." I said.
"Ok, well then I want to share something that is less about who I am but what I want my future to be," he said.
It was then that my player shared with 22 teammates and our coaching staff that he identified as male. After a few moments of silence, several players approached their teammate and began to dish out hugs. I looked around the room and then at my athlete who appeared to have a look of relief.I nodded and said, "We support you and will always have your back."
A few weeks later, my athlete requested to be referred to by another name. The team was informed and our program made the simple adjustment as well as a commitment to use the masculine pronouns of "he" and "him".The question of how I "got my team to accept this" is one that appears to perplex many adults as though it's a curse, rather than just a reality.
Truthfully, the team's acceptance was on their own with an open door policy for anyone who wanted to share thoughts. For our program and my staff, the adjustments were small and relatively seamless compared to the cost of the emotional turmoil for any person forced to suppress years of feeling as though they were born in the wrong body. If I give this generation credit for anything, it's being accepting when you allow them to have open and honest conversations free of judgment.
I will admit, a few times in the first month or so I did have to correct myself by saying "team" instead of "ladies". Every now and again I would slip and say "she" as force of habit. I was quick to acknowledge and correct myself and my athlete was understanding and patient. From my perspective these were very small adaptations to make so I have to wonder: Why is this such a big deal to other people and what is everyone afraid of? This topic has prompted many predictions of the end of society when this subject arises. I remain skeptical as to how anyone can come to this conclusion but understand that there are just too many who prefer to talk than listen.
Please remember, this is a small percentage of the population, but an important one. When I think about the level of courage it takes for anyone to live their life as they choose whether Cisgender or not, I have much trouble comprehending how we are able to conjure up such fear around the subject.
My mind wanders to the national transgender bathroom discussion and how much hatred has been thrown around concerning this subject. My player has not asked to use a different bathroom, nor did he demand a separate locker room or any special accommodations. Although if he had, I would have done everything in my power to work with my institution on a solution because this is no less important than an athlete who asks to switch dorms or needs assistance in the endless areas where our students require a helping hand.
Incidentally, my trans player was served far more grief going into the women's bathroom than he ever does going in to the men's bathroom now. Realistically, it's a no-win situation when society gets a hold of any responsibility to be the moral judge.
I turn my thoughts back to the Texas wrestler and wonder, if my trans athlete was just a few years younger, he could have easily been Mack Beggs. My heart broke as I read post after post of adults roasting a 17 year-old all over the internet. Thousands of strangers raked a child over the coals based on a decision of the Texas State High School Association to which there could be no appeal.
While high schools clearly have some catching up to do, thankfully the NCAA rules in college are much more defined. For an assigned female at birth athlete, once you begin taking testosterone or "T", you must participate on the men's team. When and if that time comes, our program and institution will abide because it is spelled out very clearly. Based on the poorly constructed decision of the Texas State High School Association where Beggs was concerned, it appears we have quite a ways to go in the application of common sense.
If you have never been, known or coached a transgender athlete, I want you to know that the so-called controversies are less challenging than they are simple conversations that are best served with a side of understanding.Like all athletes, the LGBTQ community is and alway will be part of the fabric of our educational institutions. For those athletes who may still be afraid to expose themselves to their teammates, coaches, family or friends, we must let them know that their allies are close by.
As a coach, I see how difficult it already is for young people to feel comfortable being their authentic selves amongst their peers. The road is even harder when you add in the fear of being judged or dismissed for who you love, how you dress, and even the risk of being hated as you suffer from feeling as though your body does not match the gender you identify with.
I make no assumption that everyone will fully understand the trans athlete population by the time this piece has concluded nor do I claim to be an expert. However, we as educators have the power to agree or disagree on this topic without being in favor of hurting or persecuting other people in the process.
If you have not had this conversation about openness with your team, I urge you to do so. Even if you do not believe it applies, you really never truly know until you talk to them. For coaches fielding that tough conversation and do not know where to start, try this:
TO ALL MY ATHLETES:
"You will be safe if you need to talk, protected if you feel threatened and I promise to be understanding even when you are struggling to explain how you feel. Remember, those who throw stones at the words "safe space" are only those who feel it is their right to openly persecute others without consequence.
As a coach, I know all athletes are very in tune with assessing their coach's language and will take any cues that may ultimately shape and define their perception of how open or closed their leaders are.
As a coach I will continue to work harder in having these conversations while creating environments that include direct language encouraging understanding and kindness.
Our job as educators is to protect all of our students. We as coaches, teachers and administrators are the foot soldiers who will ultimately decide if federal or state discriminatory practices live or die in our schools.
I realize that it may already be difficult for athletes to walk into their coach's office and have tough conversations.
Please do not feel that you cannot come to me about who you are. As athletes and students, you will soon be in the workforce which means I must do my best to impress upon the professional world what kind of impact these discriminatory decisions may have on your generation.
To all my athletes, coach has your back."
Not ready to have this conversation with your team or class? Here is your first call to action: Repost, forward, email or pin this up this where your team or students can see it. This is the first step in letting your athletes and/or students know they are supported, if they do not already.
Note: I am open to any coaches, teachers, connections or followers wanting to share their experiences or ask questions, but will not be entertaining attacks on this subject.