Why do we give attention to people who are coming out as trans or LGBTQ? How does doing so either normalize or sensationalize their existence? These are some of the candid, hard-to-frame questions that Concord Academy students had the opportunity to ask on May 16 of visiting speaker Schuyler Bailar, the first openly transgender athlete to compete on a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 men’s team.
Because people are still marginalized based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, Bailar said, “representation is crucial — it’s actually life-saving.” As a child, he said, he never saw other queer or trans athletes. “That made me conclude that I literally could not exist in a public space if I were to out myself,” he said. It’s what spurred him to make himself a public figure, to speak honestly and openly about his experience. Now he receives messages daily from young people who tell him they are alive today because they saw his story.
Bailar shared that story with CA. Assigned female at birth, he spent much of his childhood presenting in the way he felt most comfortable — as a boy. Despite his straight-A performance in school and exceptional promise as a young swimmer (in the top 20 in the nation as a 15-year-old competing on a women’s team), despite having already been recruited for Harvard, he was bullied and miserable. Taking a gap year before college to address an eating disorder and his gender identity, Bailar faced a difficult decision — to continue with his plan to swim for the Harvard women’s team or fully embrace his identity and potentially lose the ability to compete in the sport that was his lifeline.
The enthusiastic encouragement of the Harvard men’s coaches and Bailar’s teammates provided another way forward. In his first race in college, his first against other guys, he said he realized that “for the first time in my life, I was swimming as just me, as just myself.”
This February, while Bailar was up on the starting blocks, about to swim the final race of his career, the entire Harvard men’s team was chanting his name. “I don’t think there was anything that could have ended my season, my career, better,” he said, “and there’s not any better proof, in my opinion, that a trans athlete can be included on a team at that level.”
Bailar shares his story “to prove that possibility — that you can be exactly who you are in any facet of what that means to you that differs from the norm or what society expects,” he said. “Your identity as something that is different does not ever have to hold you back from your own success, from your own passion, from what you love to do.”