This blog post was graciously shared with Project Respect and written by the most fabulous Jasper Malchuk Rasmussen, who was last year’s youth employee at PR.
Today I went swimming for the first time since I started have the gender feels. It was a free outdoor pool (woah!), and as I was slightly drowning my way back and forth I realized some of the reasons why I had stopped swimming all those years ago.
Back when I was 10-15 I used to be a competitive swimmer. During those years I practiced between two to four days a week on top of my field hockey practices and games (which also ranged from two to five times a week). I was an incredibly fit and athletic youth–and I loved it. I loved sports. I loved the sensation of pushing my body to its edge, while at the same time being aware of just how far I could go. I was hyperaware of my body, and I haven’t felt that level of connection since.
Its strange how the popularized narrative of the trans experience™ can influence how a person perceives their own self and identity. Before realizing I was trans, I had such a strong connection with myself through sports and physical activity. After I started to understand my gender identity to be more complex than I originally thought, I slowly distanced myself from sports and all of that physical activity that I loved so much.
One of the reasons I distanced myself from sports was because of how binary and hyper-gendered they are. I was on two field hockey teams back in the day. One, a ‘women’s’ field hockey team in a “ladies league” where our uniforms were skirts. The other, my private school’s ‘female’ field hockey team. Now skirts are not inherently gendered, but this experience of performed hyper-femininity (to me) within a sports context as I was realizing my own gender identity felt extremely alienating, and ultimately ended with me not pursuing field hockey at a competitive level.
Now swimming as a sport is not inherently gendered outside of swim meets (which are divided by sex and age *sigh*). Practices were often mixed and divided based off of speed, or group. That being said, the culture surrounding swimming (swim suits, team interactions and coaching) is incredibly gendered. Policing of ‘female’ swimmer’s body hair was common, as well as strange heteronormative displays of masculinity amongst the ‘male’ swimmers. Now this was also probably in part to my being in swimming during that oh-so-beautiful puberty phase–but nonetheless, these displayed attitudes strongly conformed to and reinforced society’s notion of performed gender in alignment with assigned sex. The ways in which these notions were played out and enforced in the sports context, ultimately ended with my queer trans ass leaving organized sports.
Another reason for my break-up with organized sports was the idea of my gender identity and body being two separate things in conflict. The trans experience™ as popularized by media often discusses the “stuck in the wrong body” experience, alongside the “I always knew” tag lines which have come to represent all trans experiences (as non-diverse media representation often does). For me, this notion of being stuck in the wrong body manifested itself in an extreme disconnect between my body and mind. If I was to be truly trans, how could I continue to do these immensely physical activities authentically? Wasn’t my display of comfort in athleticism a denial of my identity? If my body is supposedly the source of all my discomfort, then how can I find pleasure in physical activity? These thoughts circulated my head, and in my want to affirm my gender, I stopped participating in organized sports.
Now I was fortunate enough to live in a place such as British Columbia, where athletic activity can easily exist outside of the heteronormative and hyper-gendered spaces of organized competitive sports. I found solace in hiking and kayaking thanks to my childhood summer camp. Because of the work of some fabulously rad folks, the camp was an extremely trans and queer-friendly place. I had a space where I could explore athleticism without the fear of my gender not being acknowledged. I could be my authentic self.
Since moving away from BC I no longer have that access to nature and the activities that I have grown to love. As a result of this disconnection between myself and nature I’ve realized an increase in dysphoria surrounding my body. Strangely enough, when I’m engaging in sports and athletic activity I feel very little dysphoria. I am moving. I am listening to my body, and pushing myself to do more. Athletic activity provides a space where my mind and body can communicate–as they need to–without outside pressure. When I’m engaging in athletic activity, the disconnect that I feel everyday as a result of my discomfort with my own body gets put on hold. In the moments where I am active I am my authentic self–regardless of society’s perception of me in that moment.
However, I have realized that these feelings and sensations only begin to happen in spaces outside of organized sports. Outside of the heteronormative spaces that enforce society’s views of gender and sex. I found solace in hiking and kayaking, two very solitary and non-gendered sports. I found these activities in a space where I was welcomed for who I was, where there was a sense of created community from shared experiences of identity. Only then was I able to reconnect with my body.
For those living outside of these experiences, the importance of space and community can easily be missed or misunderstood. But as someone who has experienced alienation from spaces due to identities outside of the ‘norm’, I can’t begin to stress the importance of created space and community for those with shared experiences and identities. For me, I’ve realized the importance of trans and queer-friendly athletic spaces. But there are so many more. As much as people’s identities are different and multifaceted, so are the spaces that must be created. Sports are one thing, in a sea of spaces and communities that need to be held.