Transgender athletes thwarted in pursuit of university sports
Trans athletes yearn for the freedom they've known on the sports field, but face exclusion instead
When Alex Hahn, a transgender man, was a four-year-old in Moncton, he slipped into a black leotard and tiny ballet slippers every Saturday and waited for his mother to drive him and his younger sister Kirstyn to ballet class.
One day, standing in line at a store with his mom, Hahn saw a boy wearing a soccer shirt and cleats.
Hahn fell in love — with the uniform.
Although his family usually stuck with stereotypes — girls wore dresses and danced, boys wore pants and kicked a ball around — Hahn's mother took him out of ballet and let him play soccer.
"Soccer quickly became my favourite thing in the world," he said.
On the field, Hahn could forget feeling trapped in a body he thought shouldn't be his. He felt free.
He played soccer throughout public school but thought his soccer days would be over when he graduated.
The 19-year-old athlete applied to St. Thomas University in Fredericton to study psychology.
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After hearing good reports about a clinic in the New Brunswick capital, he also decided to begin his transition to a man.
Hahn was elated when the STU soccer women's coach invited him to a soccer practice.
But almost immediately, he was confronting what other transgender athletes in Canada experience: a choice between playing the sports that have become their therapy, or becoming the people they believe they were meant to be.
Hahn wouldn't be eligible to play soccer if he took testosterone, the hormone women need to transition into men. This was confirmed in an online ethics course that all university and college athletes in Canada are required to take.
Testosterone, Hahn learned, is forbidden. And how transgender athletes can fit into the university sports system depends on where they are.
Testosterone is considered a performance enhancer because it increases muscle mass and strength. At STU, soccer players are randomly tested for hormones throughout the season.
"I was excited to start becoming the person I waited to be for so long," Hahn said. "But what soccer player would say no to university league? It's a dream."
He chose soccer over his transition, though it meant he'd play on the women's team.
The winger appeared in 11 games for the St. Thomas Tommies last season.
'Let's do it, girls' from the sidelines
But the liberty Hahn once felt on the field was now tainted, and the sideline cheers of "Let's do it girls" and "'We can do it ladies" didn't help.
Hahn, who had to rise above family disapproval of his sexuality — a grandmother was in the habit of switching grocery lineups to avoid cashiers she thought were gay — felt everything he'd fought was being undermined.
"Using female pronouns again and being part of the women's team, it hurts a guy," Hahn said.
This summer, Hahn decided against soccer and will take a year off university to start his transition.
"It was such a hard choice and it took me such a long time to decide what to do or what to choose," said Hahn. "It was a hurtful process."
Hahn is not the only transgender university student who has had to give up sports to transition.
Considered too small
Jacob Roy started kicking a soccer ball as a four-year-old girl in Saint John. Throughout school, he also swam and played rugby. Sports were his therapy.
"It's like anything that went wrong, whether you are upset or just had a bad day, you come to this place where you're part of this team and it's like your second family," he said.
But Roy, now 20, quit sports 10 months ago when he decided to transition from female to male.
Even before taking hormones, Roy felt there was no longer a place for him to play.
"I didn't know where I belonged and no one really knew either," he said.
As a student at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, Roy talked to men's soccer and rugby coaches and both rejected him.
For the soccer team, he was told he couldn't play because he was taking testosterone. For rugby, he was told he'd get injured because he was too small and not strong enough.
Roy's concerns were taken to the athletic board at UNB, but he got the same answer: he couldn't be part of the team.
"I had to miss the entire season, as well as every season since."
U Sports doesn't have policy
U Sports, which governs university intercollegiate and varsity athletics in Canada, doesn't have a regulation or policy for transgender athletes or anything in its rules that protects them from discrimination.
Lisen Moore, the chair of the U Sports equity and equality committee, said the organization has a draft policy, aimed at bringing inclusion and fairness to transgender athletes, but it's still being studied and can't be made public yet.
U Sports has been working on the policy for 18 months. It was delayed, Moore said, by a review of the Guide to Creating Inclusive Environments for Trans Participants in Canadian Sport, a document released in May 2016 by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports.
According to the guide, there is no scientific evidence "to suggest whether, or to what degree, hormone levels consistently confer competitive advantage."
The centre suggests transgender athletes be allowed to play in the team of the gender they identify with, "whether or not they have undergone hormone therapy."
Lisen said the goal of U Sports is to come out with "a very strong and respectful transgender policy that's going to allow all individuals, regardless of how you identify, to participate in university sport."
But the organization has not set a launch date for its policy, which would affect 40 other universities across the country.
"Change takes time," Moore said.
Up to individual schools
In the meantime, coaches make their own decisions, which creates inconsistencies across the country that drive transgender athletes away from sports altogether, said Charlene Weaving, who teaches in the human kinetics department at St. Francis Xavier University.
"Why should the onus be on transgender athletes to have to fight for inclusion?" asked Weaving, who has been studying the regulations and barriers related to transgender athletes.
Things are a little different at the Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association league, a part of the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association, which does have regulations relating to trans athletes.
That organization, which governs athletics at colleges across Canada, says that a transgender male student athlete being treated with testosterone for diagnosed gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria may compete on a men's team but is no longer eligible to compete on a women's team.
At the same time, a transgender female student athlete being treated with testosterone suppression medication for gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria may continue to compete on a men's team but may not compete on a women's team until completing one year of testosterone suppression treatment.
Sees urgent need for change
Moore said university athletes who feel discriminated against should talk to the equity office or athletic director at their universities.
But Roy said his experience has taught him otherwise.
"The second someone who is biased against transgender people is like, 'I don't agree with that lifestyle,' you automatically don't make the team," he said.
This is why Roy said policies are needed urgently.
After being turned away from sports in Saint John, Roy has transferred to St. Thomas University, where the demographics look more welcoming.
The National Survey of Student Engagement suggests LGBT students make up seven per cent of first-year university enrolment on average. At STU, they're at 17 per cent.
"I wanted to be closer to a larger trans community," said Roy.
Starting his transition
Although St. Thomas is a university, its soccer team plays as part of the Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association.
When Hahn was part of the team, he spoke with the university's LGBT counsellor. She met with the team and explained ways to help Hahn feel safer. She recommended more gender-neutral cheers, such as "Let's go Tommies" and "Let's go Greens."
"There was an [outpouring] of support that really made Alex feel included and welcome, and it was well-known that he was wanted," said Michelle DeCourcey, the STU women's soccer coach.
I was so set back and worried about things that I didn't have enough time to take care of my mental health.- Alex Hahn
Vanessa Pettersson, who was co-captain, said it was an "eye-opening experience" to have Hahn on the team.
"The whole team was very on board," said Pettersson. "We would always check in with Alex to make sure he felt comfortable."
But it was still a women's team, which hurt, Hahn said.
According to college association rules, Hahn could play on the St. Thomas men's soccer team even while taking testosterone to transition.
Just wants to play sports
Hahn isn't sure he has the strength or build for a men's soccer team. All he knows for sure is that he wants to play, so for now, he will focus on recreational soccer.
"The first year I had in university was very hard with everything going on," Hahn said. "I was so set back and worried about things that I didn't have enough time to take care of my mental health."
This summer, he will officially begin his transition.
"At this point I'm just ready to start becoming me."
'Urge to prove everyone wrong'
After being rejected by coaches, Roy decided he wouldn't give up.
This fall, he'll try out for the St. Thomas men's rugby team, part of the club league Maritime University Rugby.
The team has no rules preventing transgender athletes from playing.
"As a coaching staff we would allow any player that identifies as male to try out for the team and be given an equal shot just like anybody else," said Curtis Lauzon, STU's rugby coach.
Roy will spend the summer training hard to make the team.
"I have an urge to prove everyone wrong."
Listen to CBC reporter Maria Jose Burgos discuss the challenges faced by transgender athletes