In the Blog
Sports Series: Gender Dysphoria in Sports
The fall issue of Shameless, our sports issue, will be on newsstands this month. Subscribe now to get it when it’s released – or visit us at Word on the Street Toronto this Sunday to pick up a copy and say hello!
by RJ Vandrish
From a distance, a trained eye can tell the age of a soccer team solely by the flocking patterns of its players. That is, the younger players are often grouped close together, chasing the ball, while the older, more experienced players opt for less bunched-up formations and choose more strategic positions on the field. I started playing soccer somewhere in between the two, still a few years before the concept of having a specific position transpired.
I played in a “boy’s” soccer league for about a decade and later branched out to basketball for two seasons. I even pursued my swimming lessons throughout all of the available swimming lesson levels and endured the physically taxing process of passing lifeguard and swim instructor courses. I was very athletic in the first two thirds of my life. But I shied away from these heavily gendered spaces half-way through puberty, probably because, deep-down, I knew I wasn’t a boy.
I came out to myself as transgender at 19. I was on a lifeguarding shift when I devised the idea that, if bisexuals exist, then surely “bigender” people must as well. After work, I rushed home and looked up the term I had created. It existed.
Even now, I recall things from my childhood that make so much sense which the understanding that I exist on the feminine side of the gender spectrum. This is most striking when I look back at my time in sports.
The first few years were fun, focusing on the sports themselves, will little social subtext. There were a few girls in my boys’ soccer league, as this was pre-puberty and was a non-issue. As we aged and started to feel the pressures to conform to gendered expectations, I felt increasingly alienated. Just as the girls left the boys’ soccer leagues and joined the girls’, or quit altogether, the display of anything outside of masculinity was similarly vanishing.
It wasn’t that coaches called us “ladies” as some sort of degrading motivation, but it was implied in the atmosphere created by the players. It didn’t help that the more popular players were the aggressive types placed in forward positions. Naturally, the forward players scored the most goals (I didn’t score much when placed in defense) and earned most praise, despite their frequency of yellow and red cards. The implicit message was that to become a better player, one had to assume the traditionally masculine traits. I stayed on defense and midfield.
In soccer, I arrived in uniform, ready to play. There was very little changing in front of my teammates. For swimming, however, I undressed in the men’s change room. Men’s change rooms are open-concept, to say the least; the changing area and showers have no stalls or dividers.
Even dressed in swimming trunks, most of my body was exposed when I was at the pool. Only now does that knowledge that I’m trans contextualize the inexplicable embarrassment and disgust I had with my body. Before swimming sessions, I would shaved my chest with new, stolen razors to hide the reality that my body was becoming hirsute. I wouldn’t even buy the razors because I didn’t want anyone to know I had body hair that needed shaving. Puberty was an unforgivingly public experience in a swimsuit.
While I loved soccer, my reasons to quit were nuanced. If I had continued in either league, I would have been joining adult leagues and the social aspect of that was not appealing. My teammates were people whom I largely couldn’t understand. They were becoming men, buying into gender roles, either because they fit them, or because they thought they should.
I grew apart from my athletic peers x2500 and from organized sports. Joining a gender-neutral or female league never occurred to me, as I didn’t know I was trans. At that time, I didn’t even know it was possible to be genderqueer or gender non-binary.
I haven’t played soccer or basketball since I quit both leagues. Sometimes I think about joining a soccer team, but I’m undecided. Similarly, I haven’t gone swimming in almost two years. Ever since I started hormone replacement therapy, public swimming pools haven’t been an option I want to explore.
This all said, now that I know who I am and what I will need if I return to sports, I might explore my former athleticism. I hear there’s a queer soccer group and trans-only swim nights in Toronto. I’m not sure if I will join, but at least there are some viable options. After all, I might not be able to resist the poetry of getting a sports do-over, now that I’m going through my second puberty.
RJ Vandrish is a genderqueer writer, musician and performance artist based in Toronto. Their work includes: as a musician (Lez Gauches and The Masses); as an actor/playwright/comedian (stage name: Rory Jade Grey); and as writer (The Spill Magazine, Lifestyler, and of course, Shameless).