For transgender students, athletics can be a sore spot, and many Lewis & Clark students have mixed experiences. In the sports world, travel accommodations, trans-specific medical care, competition eligibility, and gendered language can prove challenging, but with the right policies and coaching, sports can affirm the genders of trans students.
Transgender refers to people who are a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, which can include both binary and nonbinary trans people.
LC follows the guidelines set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and allows trans students to compete on teams that match their gender, as long as they fulfill the hormone regulations outlined by the NCAA.
Interim Director of Athletics Mark Pietrok said these policies are constantly improving at LC.
“We regularly consider all the identities of our student-athletes and take this into consideration as we have conversations, work on initiatives, and plan for our athletic programing,” Pietrok said via email.
Anya Upson ’23 joined the women’s rugby team last semester and eventually decided to quit. Upson, who is nonbinary and was assigned male at birth (AMAB), struggled to be part of a team that was mostly cisgender women. They qualified to be a part of the women’s team according to NCAA guidelines that state trans athletes who were AMAB can compete on women’s teams after they have completed one year of hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
At first, Upson looked forward to attending practices, despite initial doubts.
“I was worried about feeling ousted from the group because it is a women’s rugby (team) and I don’t identify as a woman,” Upson said. “It was scary, but when I got on the team, I realized it wasn’t that bad, and there were other nonbinary people on the team.”
After accidentally hurting one of their peers during practice, Upson was afraid of harming another one of their teammates. They also felt like an outsider in the team because they had been made fun of for doing drag, which is a part of their gender expression. They had stayed back on campus for a drag show instead of going to a game in Seattle in December.
“I felt like I was either cheating in some sort of way or underequipped, which is a strange dichotomy,” Upson said. “I stopped doing rugby because it just got uncomfortable for me to be there.”
Alex Duquette ’23 is another trans athlete but has found his experiences as a part of the crew team to be affirming.
“There are other people on the team who are nonbinary, or somewhere on the trans spectrum and everyone’s super respectful about that,” Duquette said. “The coaches are always using their pronouns and everyone’s just very aware and knowledgeable.”
Duquette’s experiences at LC contrast greatly to his high school athletic career, where he remained closeted in order to compete as part of the girls’ team. He came out to his parents the summer before his junior year, started testosterone in December of his senior year and had chest reconstruction surgery three months later. He came out before coming to LC.
Duquette wanted to have both affirmation of his gender and to participate in athletics. He’s had an affirming experience as the coxswain, or steerer, of the men’s crew team at LC.
“I’d rather start fresh in college—no one’s going to know (I’m trans) and that’s fine,” Duquette said. “But, when I was thinking about the future, my life was absent without some sort of sport to do.”
Lindsay Woodward ’22 is also part of crew, but is on the women’s team, though he does not identify as a woman. Woodward started rowing his freshman year and has found the environment to be trans-friendly, with mixed-gender practices and coaches referring to the rowers as members of the women’s or men’s team, rather than women or men.
“My friends and I have all accepted that we’re on the women’s team and that’s OK,” Woodward said. “We get to compete with these amazing women and that doesn’t invalidate us at all.”
Woodward said that the NCAA guidelines are “very cut and dry.” Woodward would no longer be able to compete on the women’s team if he started HRT, but would want to wait on joining the men’s team until his testosterone levels stabilized.
Woodward decided to hold off on taking testosterone even though this would allow him to compete on the men’s team.
“(Being on the crew team has) become such an overall good experience for my mental health, that I think that when it’s being weighed out, being part of that team and part of that community for me is more beneficial,” Woodward said. “I have to wait two extra years (for hormone levels to stabilize) if I want to go on testosterone. I’ve been waiting 20 years already so I can wait more.”
Mal Spicer ’23 went to Casady, a private Episcopal high school in Oklahoma. When he came out as trans his sophomore year, the school changed its policies to ban trans students from participating in athletics. All the policies administration enacted about trans students were a direct result of him coming out, and they all had to go through the school’s bishop.
Unsurprisingly, it was difficult for Spicer to be the first openly trans student at his high school.
“I felt like they were looking to me to have all the answers,” Spicer said. “It was hard because in a way I had to speak on behalf of all trans people, and I know everyone has different experiences in their transition.”
He did not participate in sports until his senior year when he pushed back against the policy, and the school allowed him to join the men’s baseball team.
“It was really affirming, but also felt really alienating at the same time,” Spicer said. “I didn’t want people to view me differently as a player, as an athlete just because I’m trans.”
Spicer has not had any interest pursuing organized sports in college so far.
The stories of these trans students show the challenges trans people can face in athletics. Though many of these students believe LC policies are inclusive, Pietrok thinks the college can continue improving policies.
“I think we can always improve,” Pietrok said via email. “It is our goal to try to provide an excellent experience for all our student-athletes. In that regard, we continually strive to make pro
gress toward those goals.”
Upson believes that the college can do more to educate the campus about transphobia and improve the experiences that trans students have in athletics.
“I don’t really think that it’s the college’s fault,” Upson said. “I think they’re doing what they can, but it’s more of a deeper rooted stigma against trans people that does not originate at this college.”
Woodward said that LC policies are inclusive and encourages more trans students to participate in athletics.“I think more trans people should compete in sports,” Woodward said. “A lot of people are turned away because they think ‘I won’t be on the team I want, or maybe there’s going to be some sort of issue,’ but I think especially at Lewis & Clark there’s a lot of people who are willing to make it work.”