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A Girl in the Boys' Locker Room

I don't regret growing up as an athlete. But not everything about sports is healthy, and for me, as a transgender woman, the locker room was toxic.
Photo by Chad Cooper/CC BY 2.0

Someone recently asked me if I had done theater in high school, to which I replied, "Oh yeah, I was acting 24/7 back then." Actually, I played sports: soccer, basketball, and track. I came from an athletic family, so that wasn't a surprise.

When we are growing up, trans people like me learn early on how to play the roles expected of us.

When I see whole states and individual school districts suing for the right to force young trans people into the locker rooms of their assigned birth genders, my heart breaks. I barely made it through high school locker rooms and I was closeted. Threatening trans kids into using the incorrect locker rooms sets them up for a lifetime of toxic gender perceptions and pain.


Read More: "Call Me Matt"—Life As a Transgender High School Athlete

I spent my own teenage years struggling with gender dysphoria, which is the clinical term for the feeling that many trans people experience of having a body that is incongruent with their inner sense of their own gender. But performance on the field was never an issue for me. In fact, there was something freeing about playing out there, where the only thing that mattered was winning, and the only label that applied to me was "athlete." There was just the ball, my opponent, and myself—no dysphoria or suicidal thoughts or hidden longings for a forbidden gender. I was just me, not a boy who was secretly a girl.

Once the whistle blew or the race was over, however, it was time to enter my own personal hell as a transgender woman: the boys' locker room.

There's more to team sports than just playing well. There's a whole social structure, and for boys especially, that edifice is built on layers of masculinity. A constant game to prove which boy was the "alpha," with the winners earning power and respect from their peers, and even official rewards, like being team captain, from their coaches, who are looking for traits like "leadership" in the locker room.

Photo by Daniel Oines/CC BY 2.0/desaturated from original

And muscles. Why did it seem like everything in the boys' locker room revolved around muscles? So often at my high school in suburban Massachusetts, boys would walk around with their shirts off, flexing and preening. I remember one day I was just casually hanging around in the locker room before a track meet. I had already gotten dressed in my uniform as quickly as possible—I never took my shirt off in front of other people; I was way too self-conscious about my chest for something like that.


As I got up to head out, my friend Jim came around the corner, half-naked, casually flexing his pecs to make it look like each one bounced up and down at a time. Right, left, right, left. It was clearly a show for the rest of the room, an assertion of masculine dominance. Jim was in better shape than anyone else on the team, and he constantly reminded us of that fact. If I had been born a straight cisgender girl, I probably would have found Jim's body and his confidence attractive. Instead, I was too scared to even let my eyes linger, lest anyone accuse me of being gay—the ultimate knock on one's masculinity.

And yet, while being gay wasn't accepted there, the constant homoerotic tension was thick in the air. I often wondered if I was the only one who noticed it, as if there was something wrong with me, with how I perceived life inside the locker room. But that tension was undeniably fueling so much of the teasing between boys, and for me it was the most uncomfortable part of being there.

I remember getting ready for varsity basketball practice when I was in tenth grade. One of the captains, Joe, was stripped down to his boxers and as I was lacing up my high tops, he called another senior over: "Hey Brian, I've got something here for you!" Spreading his legs slightly, he presented his crotch. Brian sat down, glanced over at me, winked, and moved his head down to simulate oral sex.


There were a couple other boys in the lockers at the time. No one was saying anything, just watching. All of a sudden, just before making physical contact, Brian yanked his head back, a huge grin on his face while pointing and laughing at each person who was watching this all go on. "I got you! I got you! You really thought I was going to do it, didn't you! I got you all!" He pointed at me last. "You liked that most, didn't you, K? You want to switch places with me? I bet Joe wouldn't make you stop if you did."

I could feel the shame swarm from my tightened chest, flushing my face. I wanted to run out of there, but that would raise suspicions, so I replied with something along the lines of "Grow up!"—ironic coming from a 15-year-old to a bunch of 18-year-olds—and somehow managed to appear calm while walking out of the room. Had anyone noticed my true reaction?

This memory and the story with Jim stay with me as obvious examples of a male locker room culture that I simply didn't understand and was barely equipped to handle. I had no desire to grow into men like the other boys and yet was too terrified to have my truth revealed. And so, I desperately played the role expected of a "boy" like me. I tried to appear like I belonged, I tried to fit in as best I could, but I knew who I was deep down. I was a girl, but I spent a lot of time in the boys' locker room. I knew what was expected of girls my age.


Photo by Flickr user natintosh/CC BY-ND 2.0

I learned early in high school how girls are talked about in the locker room. They were possessions to looked at, to be longed for, to be used—not actual people with feelings and emotions.

Monday practices were the worst because those were the days when the boys would recount their sexual escapades from the weekend. Everything about the most memorable girls—the way her skirt fell over her hips, how much of her cleavage was on display, her flirtatious attitude—was recounted. There was an unspoken hierarchy of respect based on who did what with which girl the weekend before. Landing the hottest girl at the party proved who "belonged," who the "real men" are in the group. It was all part of the game. Throughout most of high school I had one steady girlfriend. We never advanced past heavy petting, but in the locker room, I couldn't tell the truth. When sex was expected or you were "less of a man," I could never tell them that I wasn't a man at all.

Femininity was admired from afar, but up close, among boys, it was something to be avoided at all costs. Femininity meant softness, and softness, in sports, meant you were benched. Coaches notice aggressive play and reward it. There is an expectation of being hard: playing hard, having a hard body—even "getting your game face on" means hardening your features, adopting a stone-cold demeanor. On the field, the alpha is clearly rewarded, with playing time, with admiration, or with the responsibility of being team captain. The chase to become the top dog is a constant game and it permeates everything like the smell of garlic.


Masculinity is performative for everyone to a certain extent, but for me it was especially essential. To be seen as feminine in the slightest meant becoming a pariah, so I had to be an actress to survive. It just so happens that I never was a boy or a man, so my acting job was made quite a bit more difficult.

Sometimes I got it wrong. Before I settled down with my high school sweetheart, I dated a girl from another town who once put my penis in her mouth. I knew it was the kind of thing that would give me respect in the locker room, but the idea of spilling personal secrets and trading the girl's reputation for masculinity points was detestable to me. I knew the performance that was expected of me, but I also knew how awful the whole system was. Partly it was my own morals, but mostly it was because I knew, deep down, that in another universe, I could very easily have been the girl being talked about among the boys.

It was weeks before I told anyone back in the locker room, but I finally did tell them one day. In graphic detail. In fact, I used way more detail than needed. My story was met by equal parts "That didn't happen" and "Dude, you went too far." I was confused. Why wasn't I being lauded like the others who had recounted a sexual "conquest"? But boys have a nonchalant way of telling stories. Where they said things like, "She did this, we did that," I talked about how I felt and how she told me she felt. In this instance the curtain had been pulled back just a tiny bit on my act and I was punished for it.


The thing is, everyone is playing a gender role of some sorts, with social cues we learn over time as boys and girls. The locker room is an important space for that learning, where those of another gender are not present. For many boys, it's where they learn how to become men.

Later in life, as someone perceived male, I could see high school locker room behavior being reproduced as soon as women were out of earshot. There's a telltale look given and a noticeable shift in attitude before the same old misogynist discussion of women comes forth. This never came naturally to me despite spending half a lifetime trying to learn all of the nuances of masculinity and manhood, and I could see other men engaged in this reluctantly—old habits rising to the surface, the curtain rising on the performance once again. Locker room culture and the pursuit of being "the alpha" still run deep within the definition of "being a man."

I don't regret growing up as an athlete. Sports helped me get into college and develop a work ethic. They provided me with hours of relief from the crushing gender dysphoria I've experienced my whole life. But not everything about sports is healthy, and for me, the locker room was toxic. It never got easier over time, and not much changed as I got older—talk about a disappointment. Instead, I decided not to pursue competitive athletics after my freshman year of college.

Even without the day-to-day anxiety of being discovered in the locker room, I still felt the lasting effects of what I learned there, and the unhealthy perceptions of how femininity is valued and judged by men. I would have nightmares over whether my womanhood could ever be enough for the people around me to believe it. I still notice little social interactions like that women touch and are touched infinitely more than men are. To me, it goes back to the locker room rules of Joe and Brian, joking but never touching boys. I go out now as my true self and someone's hand on my arm or the small of my back (or sometimes lower) is a shock to me, especially from men. How could they feel so entitled to touch me now, when back then it was such a source of shame and derision?

I have a feeling it's not just trans people who feel this way. Locker room culture and the male need to avoid being perceived as feminine has its hooks in everything. It goes into why there are so many consumer products labeled specifically for men, and why our national politics have been taken over by a bunch of people screaming about "cucks." I think that deep down a lot of men realize how demeaning and pointless this act is, but old habits die hard and there is still the worry that they won't "fit in" if they don't take part. In a way, they never escape the locker room.

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