Leaving It on the Court: When My World Changed, Sports Stayed

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“Hey guys, I think this was my last game. I just don’t think I can keep up with the commitment anymore. There is so much going on for me right now with the baby and everything.” That is what I told them as we left the court at the end of our brief playoff run. New parent equals stress and sleepiness and crazy schedules. Some of them had been there before and could sympathize. They got it. Well, kind of. I never shared with the team the real reason I was leaving; that I newly identified as trans* and was struggling to balance my role in this men’s community basketball league with navigating my gender transition. All of the daily determination, energy and focus on my transition didn’t seem relevant in this highly gendered space. My teammates didn’t know that I was ending my run in this men’s league because I had to leave my male identity on the court. I was trying to push forward as a trans* woman and this was holding me back.

My parents enrolled me in sports programs at an early age. Mine was a childhood filled with weekend soccer games and after school basketball practices. Season after season, I followed a similar pattern: lace up the cleats or sneakers, eat oranges at halftime and mostly have fun. Sometimes, I wonder about what my path would have been had my parents encouraged participation in the creative activities I value as an adult. Then, I watch my toddler spend his days throwing, kicking and chasing various balls around the house and think, perhaps my parents just did what seemed right at the time. I was a good athlete, after all.

But looking back, maybe I allowed myself to hide in athletics. Maybe the constant practices and games prevented me from having a better understanding of myself. Maybe the physical activity helped to repress my feelings of difference and distract my mind from the questions I had about my identity. It’s a tidy narrative to explain why I didn’t begin to identify as trans* until adulthood, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. Perhaps that is how it went down for me, but the truth is, I don’t know and I’m okay with that. I have no interest in a lifetime consumed with analyzing my past. What I am committed to doing is moving in a positive direction. Whether I like it or not, sports are part of my story.

I now have a more nuanced understanding of sports and know that they’re more complex than simply competition and athleticism. The culture maintains a rigid allegiance to the gender binary. Gender transition, or any type gender nonconformity, throws a wrench into the works. The controversy surrounding MMA fighter Fallon Fox’s recent disclosure of her transgender background is a prime example. Fallon and other trans athletes such as Kye Allums, Keelin Godsey, Johnny Saelua and Gabbi Ludwig have started to challenge those norms and break down preconceived notions. What all of these athletes have in common is that they just want to compete as they are. And when it comes down to it, that’s what I want as well.

I am a good basketball player. Short, yet quick and solid at defense. I have a nice jump shot and often know just where to make the right pass. I was a nice fit at point guard for this group of guys. Still, regardless of how well things went on the court, the awkwardness of the post-game was undeniable. Small talk was difficult with the other players and I avoided the locker room at all costs. For months prior to leaving, my teammates noticed my body changes. I hadn’t yet started female hormone therapy, though I was physically very different than when I began playing two years earlier. I presented differently. I no longer used the same name. I was increasingly open about my trans* identity with friends, family and coworkers, however I wasn’t ready to be open with my gender identity on the court. I reached a point where it was no longer enjoyable or comfortable to keep playing in this environment, so I drafted my exit story. That was a year and a half ago and I haven’t been back.

When I first began to embrace myself as trans*, my world turned upside down. I felt unprepared. My sense of self and priorities were shifting. I had a new lens through which to view the world. I experimented. Things became awkward. I adjusted. I acted like I thought trans* people were supposed to act. I sought to be non-binary while simultaneously just wanting to fit in. It was an unsettling yet exciting time of self-discovery. As my transition continued, I realized my happiness included accepting the self that had always been there. Instead of rejecting my masculine biography, I welcomed it. I recognized this aspect of my history was integral to my development, then and now. I was breaking free as a woman, yet learning to love my past. It was at this intersection where I was most joyful and at peace.

These days, I’m not participating in any organized team sports. Raising my beautiful, adventurous toddler with my wife is the closest I come. I work out a couple times a week and maintain a regular yoga practice. Yoga has enabled me to connect holistically to my body and keeps my stress level down significantly. During my transition, focusing to keep my mental and physical energy up has been crucial. I feel great after a productive session at the gym. I feel happy about strength training to develop my hips and butt. I feel in charge and motivated as I work on my core.

Still, I have been itching to get back on the basketball court recently. The other day, I played with my little guy and shot some hoops for the first time since that last game. The rapid succession of air balls highlighted the practice looming ahead of me if I plan to play again. The musculature of my upper body is vastly different, a result of the feminization process initiated by estrogen. I grasp that I won’t be able to play exactly like I used to, though that is okay. I will find a new strategy. I have a reminder on my calendar to sign up for a local queer women’s league in the fall. I think this will be a more comfortable environment for me to get back into playing. Playing for the first time in a women’s league might trigger a whole new set of anxieties; however, I am a much stronger and confident person these days. I love the uniqueness and complexity of my gender and know that I will be ready to play ball when the time comes.


About the author: Robyn lives in New England with her love Gina Marie and their beautiful, ball-throwing toddler. She is interested in exploring a range of issues, like gender, cooking, parenting and the politics of sports. In theory, she rides her bike all of the time. You can find her on twitter (@1brobyn).

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

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21 Comments

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    like this very much though i’ve never had an interest in competitive sports….
    the important part is remembering and valuing your past, not denying it…
    thanks, robyn

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    i feel like the first twenty-something years of my life i identified as an athlete and that was all i knew, i didn’t even start to consider my sexuality or gender identity.. so yeah, this def resonated with me

    i also appreciate this:
    “I have no interest in a lifetime consumed with analyzing my past. What I am committed to doing is moving in a positive direction.”

    thanks for sharing your story!

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    This was an excellent piece, and you’re a fantastic writer :) I was wondering though, about your assertion that competitive sport “culture maintains a rigid allegiance to the gender binary”. I, too, grew up with the same sort of constant regimen of sports, but my experience was that I found more gender diversity and more acceptance of gender diversity in athletics than I did anywhere else, ESPECIALLY when I played Rugby in college. Though this may be because I played on Women’s sports teams (in whatever collective and problematic way we consider some teams to be women’s teams). Any thoughts?

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      Maggie, thanks for this comment! I do know that there a varied realities (depending on the sport, the level, the people involved, etc) and perhaps I brushed too broadly with that assertion of mine. I am actually hoping to explore this topic a bit more in the future, less writing about my personal experience and more of an investigation of gender in sport. I hope to be able to address some of what you are talking about!

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    I really liked this piece, Robyn. I particularly like what you wrote about embracing and accepting your past in a positive way, rather than dwelling too much on it. I think a lot of people, trans or not, can benefit from doing that as well. It also makes me glad to see a confident woman who can kick ass and take pride in both her athletic abilities and her femininity. And, as always, I love reading about happy queer families. Your little guy sounds truly blessed.

    BTW, I cannot see the name Robyn spelled that way without hearing that song “Dancing On My Own.”

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    “the physical activity helped to repress my feelings of difference and distract my mind from the questions I had about my identity.”
    I feel you. It took me a long time to realize that one reason I ran/trained so hard as a younger person was to exert some control over a body that was changing in ways I wasn’t necessarily thrilled with. Great piece.

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    thank you for writing about this, robyn. i’m not terribly athletic so it’s a story i don’t think i ever would have heard had you not written it for autostraddle. and i meant what i said above — though i don’t know very much about sports, i’m fascinated with the culture you describe and would genuinely love to read more from you.

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      thanks, Vanessa! I am very glad to be a part of this great collection of Trans*Scribe writers.

      Also, I kind of surprised myself with where I went in writing this piece, actually. I was really happy to be able to explore my relationship to sports, though it makes me sound so sporty, ha!

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    An amazing piece! You are an incredible writer!!! I am anxious to read more from you, even though I have never liked sports. I believe we all have something that perhaps we hid behind, but can also now embrace as part of who we are! I am so proud of you for all that you are doing!!! Love to Gina Marie and that beautiful ball throwing toddler!!!!!!!!

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