Thanks to G Ryan for contributing this piece. G is a sophomore at the University of Michigan, and a U.S. National champion in the 800 meter freestyle. They are originally from Kutztown, Pennsylvania and swam for NBAC before starting at Michigan.
I hand in my approved absence form for the Big Ten Championships, notifying my professor at the University of Michigan that I will be missing a week of class. As I turn to leave, my professor stops me asking, “Gillian? Who is that, G?” I cringe and take a deep breath, preparing once again to explain the double life I lead. In every arena except for athletics, I am G. Only in swimming am I unable to assert my genuine identity. Because I identify on the gender spectrum somewhere other than “woman” or “man”, the binary arena of athletics is complicated to navigate.
As a genderqueer athlete, I feel that part of myself is sacrificed in order to participate in the sport I am passionate about. The polar opposites most common, men/women, ladies/gentlemen, etc. all exclude me. Since I am outside traditional labels, the conventional structure seems unable to include me. You could ask, what does it matter? In my experience this exclusion undermines confidence, self-esteem, and motivation. If every day, a little bit of myself is weathered away with the failure to adjust language, I lose pieces that I can’t get back. Athletics demand elite physical bodies, but sometimes fails to recognize the importance of a healthy mind to go with it.
My physical body chafes and itches like an ill-fitting suit, one I can’t take off at the end of the day. This feeling can be exacerbated when I am upset, frustrated, or emotionally vulnerable. Since my appearance doesn’t align with my gender identity or expression, walking around half-naked in a skin-tight suit never helps. To minimize the discomfort, I avoid mirrors as much as possible and wear long shorts and loose shirts when I can.
My teammates and coaches are incredibly supportive, but are hindered by society’s general lack of knowledge about gender identity. At practice other considerations take precedence with so many people involved. At the same time, it is emotionally difficult for me to qualify and change the gendered statements so that I can feel included. It is exhausting trying to be two people at once and conform to the expectations of others. I act as though it’s okay that I am excluded from most conversations when emails, invitations, and congratulations are addressed to the ladies and/or women, because every time it happens I have to remind myself it wasn’t intentional and that it doesn’t invalidate my identity either. When the motivational speech is directed to all of the powerful, strong, and independent women on the team, I have to remind myself that being a powerful, strong, and independent person is good enough.
I want to be able to come into the pool after a tough day of classes and be recognized for who I am, the real me. If I’ve been kicked out of a restroom under the accusation that I’m “in the wrong place”, the last thing I want to do is keep up an act at practice for other people’s benefit. It would be a relief to be addressed with my preferred name and pronouns. I use “they/them/theirs” instead of “she/her/hers” for the same reason I prefer “G” to “Gillian”. It allows me the freedom to be the most authentic version of myself. I smile and accept others’ mistakes, because it is hard to correct them and also because some days I just don’t want to have to explain myself, again. Acceptance is different than respect. I can be accepted although I am different, but using my pronouns and acknowledging my identity means that I am intentionally included rather than inadvertently excluded. It is a challenge to change previously ingrained habits, and everyone makes mistakes, but learning is all part of the process.
I am not a woman or a man, and I shouldn’t have to be. I am a person. A student. An athlete. A teammate, friend, and competitor. I walk onto the pool deck, and use the requisite gendered spaces. I change in the women’s locker room, I grab the women’s practice, and I swim for the women’s team. But I know that even as I do so, I don’t have to pretend anymore. Now, you know that too. Let me reintroduce myself. Hi. I’m G.