Five athletes, five sports and five stories; each of them are making history for openly sharing their love and passion for their sport and simply being who they are. But these five are transgender athletes who are making their mark on history one spike, stroke, slap shot, punch and step at a time.
At the end of June on the 48th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the Olympic Channel, an initiative of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) launched a new documentary mini-series called “Identify” that shares the stories and experiences of five transgender athletes, all of whom are playing a different sport. In their individual journeys participating as openly trans athletes, there are some familiar names and some less familiar names featured. Each segment reveals an insight into their struggles as well as their triumphs of growing up transgender, and how they all channeled their love for sport into their personal identities.
Highlighted are athletes Chloe Anderson, volleyball; Schuyler Bailar, swimming; Harrison Browne, ice hockey; Pat Manuel, boxing and Chris Mosier, triathlon/duathlon. Each segment of “Identify” lets the athletes do the talking by sharing their personal insights and journeys. You also hear from family, friends, coaches and teammates who share intimate views of how each athlete grew and prospered as an individual as well as the impact that athlete has made on them, helping them to learn, understand and grow.
The focus for all the athletes featured in “Identify” is about their love for sport and how it impacts their personal identities. The one constant in each athlete’s life has been sport. No matter what else they might have faced day-in-and-day-out they could always count on the love for their sport to carry them through even the hardest of times. In fact, this is a struggle most athletes can relate to. Sport is just as much an integral part of an athlete as is being straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Facing an even greater struggle to become whole than most, asking a trans athlete to give up one part of the self to pursue another essentially sabotages the quest for wholeness.
Swimmer Schuyler Bailar recalls that on his women’s high school swim team he was one of the fastest swimmers. Needing to choose between transitioning and swimming, essentially he felt he had to give up part of his identity; for awhile it seemed that the two couldn’t co-exist. Fortunately that wasn’t the case after he was invited to join the Harvard men’s swim team based on his attitude, work ethic and overall love for the sport.
Greg Groggel, director of original programming for the Olympic Channel is the brains behind the “Identify” series. He and Nina Horowitz, the in-house Vice Media director/creator of the series worked together to ensure that each athlete’s story will reach millions of people via the Olympic Channel’s reach. These stories will inspire and encourage more youth to take up sports, something that has been and continues to be a barrier for many trans youth. Greg’s purpose for sharing the stories of these up-and-coming trans athletes is so current and future trans athletes finally have role models who are like them, actual trans athletes they can emulate.
There have been a number of trans athletes in the past who have competed in a variety of sports with varying levels of success. Unfortunately, after coming out as transgender these athletes faced enormous amounts of bigotry, ignorance and criticism – a stigma that continues today. It resulted in many retiring from sport when they couldn’t find support or available competitions. Despite their struggles, many of these athletes helped pave the road for today’s trans athletes who, as scientific, social and legal attitudes on transgender issues are changing, are more willing to be open about their personal transition journeys.
With strength and resilience, these newer trans athletes somehow block criticism and hatred to keep moving forward. And in the process they
have created more trans-inclusive policies and clarified previous grey areas that have affected trans and intersex athletes from a young age up to current elite athletes. The combination of their openness and new medical research has begun to break down discriminatory competition rules at the highest levels and establish ones that are more trans-friendly.
In November 2015 the IOC met and agreed upon a more inclusive set of guidelines regarding eligibility requirements for transgender and intersex athletes wanting to compete, one that still maintains the principles of fair play without compromising human rights. This updated policy does not require gender reassignment surgery, stating that female-to-male athletes wishing to compete in the male division can do so without restriction.
Athletes wishing to compete in the male-to-female division must maintain a specific limited amount of testosterone within their blood for at least one year prior to their first competition. This is to maintain consistency with the guidelines of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to ensure fair sport and also to accommodate female athletes with hyperandrogenism or excess levels of androgens (male sex hormones).
Chris Mosier, Compete Magazine’s 2013 Mark Bingham Athlete of the Year is one of today’s best known and highly respected transgender
athletes. Always frustrated by a lack of trans athletes he could use as role models, he decided to be open about his journey, using it to help other potential trans athletes. After he won a place on the U.S. Men’s Team in the June 2015 Duathlon National Championship, Chris began his quest to change restrictive IOC trans participation guidelines. His own international sport organization as well as many other national and international groups used the original IOC guidelines that required both internal and external reconstructive surgery prior to competing. Without a change, Chris would not have been able to compete with his Team USA teammates at the international championships in Spain later that year.
That change has opened the door for trans athletes to participate in a variety of sports at all levels on a global basis. It also has been aided by Nike and other sponsors showcasing Chris in ads and ESPN the Magazine’s 2016 “Body Issue” including him as the first transgender athlete. Shuyler, Chloe, Pat and Harrison, the other four athletes featured in “Identify” have been deeply inspired by Chris and could relate to him on their own personal journeys. Most importantly, he is continuing to compete in triathlons/duathlons for Team USA. Greg Groggel hopes this effect will continue to grow and expand as more athletes come out and share their stories.
While he was producing “Identify”, Groggel noted that as the five participants came out and continued to pursue sport as openly trans athletes, they received an overwhelming amount of support from their peers, coaches, teammates, friends, parents and other people within the community. This certainly represents a major shift in attitude toward the trans community in general and particularly for trans athletes. By sharing these stories on a high-profile outlet like the Olympic Channel, this series is bound to have a profoundly positive effect on the trans community.
“Identify” shows the world that regardless of your gender identity, you can pursue the sport you love and succeed while competing as your authentic self … on every level. The next generation of athletes carrying the torch for the Olympic movement will be one of the most diverse. By sharing these stories and creating these connections, we can continue to recognize that sport embodies the values of the Olympic Movement, “Friendship, Respect and Excellence.” It truly is for everybody.
Follow the Olympic Channel on social media and visit their webpage at www.olympicchannel.com. It is an outlet to share the best moments, highlights and stories from the Olympic Games and to keep the excitement and spirit of the Olympic Games going during and in between each Olympic celebration.
Special thanks go to Greg Groggel, Ian Fried and Catherine Philbin with the Olympic Channel and to Nina Horowitz with Vice Media for their valuable contributions to this story.
By Dirk Smith
Photos courtesy of the Olympic Channel
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