She was the quintessential recruit for the women’s swimming team at Harvard University: a nimble breaststroker with a fierce work ethic and sharp intellect. But when Schuyler Bailar jumps into the school’s Olympic-size pool this fall, he instead will be a member of the men’s team, the first openly transgender collegiate swimmer in U.S. history.
Emerging from a tortuous year of self-reckoning and a lifelong quest to feel comfortable in his own skin, Bailar, 19, will be navigating far more than the usual freshman challenges; he also will be a pioneer and role model as society openly grapples with shifting mores about traditional male/female gender lines.
Bailar, a 5-foot-8, 170-pound athlete, struggled for years through depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders and a broken back. As a girl, Bailar competed at a high level — setting a national relay record on a girls’ team with future Olympic champion Katie Ledecky — but she was confused and pained.
“I was a very lost kid who didn’t understand why I spent my entire childhood being a boy but not really, one who focused intently on studies and swimming to distract from anything that came up in my mind,” said Bailar, who grew up in Virginia and attended the private Georgetown Day School in the District. “I was caught between two worlds.”
He isn’t anymore. Though he bears scars across his chest from surgery to remove his breasts and mammary glands — and he faces some fears about living as a man — he feels better now than he ever has. And the world, so far, has been far more accepting than he imagined.
His parents, Terry Hong and Gregor Bailar, told him that they loved him no matter what. When he told his Korean grandmother that he was transgender, she said: “Well, I knew that. Now I have two grandsons from your mother.”
Then there was Stephanie Morawski, the Harvard women’s swimming team head coach, who first met and recruited Bailar as a young woman but came to realize that the authentic Bailar is a man. Earlier this year, Morawski recommended that Bailar try swimming with the men even though it meant losing a top prospect from the women’s team. Both teams won Ivy League titles in 2014.
“One of the things we all noticed — coaches, captains, team members — is that when Schuyler was passing male, he was very happy,” Morawski said. “Why should gender play a role? Schuyler is a great person. Schuyler wanted to swim and was already accepted to Harvard. . . . Why wouldn’t you want to help?”
Switching squads meant that Bailar would go from being one of the school’s strongest female swimmers to possibly the back of the pack on the men’s team. “It meant giving up the goals I had set for myself as a swimmer,” Bailar said. “But I had to let go of those goals. This isn’t a choice.”
When Morawski asked Kevin Tyrrell, the men’s head coach, whether his team would accept Bailar, the answer came quickly. “We don’t see this as much of a big deal,” Tyrrell said. “Another kid to coach.”
When Tyrrell told the nearly 40-member squad, not a single swimmer raised a concern. Said Kent Haeffner, a rising Harvard sophomore swimmer from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: “He’s just another member of the team. That’s the way we’ve embraced him.”
That Bailar is being welcomed into Harvard’s swimming community — male and female alike — speaks not only to the teams’ culture, but also to how quickly a national discussion about the complex nature of biological sex and gender has moved into the mainstream, pushed in part by the public transformation of Caitlyn Jenner, who transitioned from famous male Olympian Bruce Jenner to female this year.
Experts don’t know why some people are physically born one sex but psychologically are the opposite, but they believe it results from a mixture of genetics, hormone levels and life experiences. Gender identity generally solidifies for most children between ages 4 and 6, but children who don’t feel the way they look don’t understand the concept of being transgender.
Bailar says it is difficult to explain how one can be physically born female but feel male; he just knows who he is. He is now taking testosterone, which he says makes him feel moody. As for genital reassignment surgery, he said he is not considering it right now.
Click here to continue reading.
SOURCE: Washington Post – Valerie Strauss