We walk out one at a time, in alphabetical order. My last name begins with B, so I am first. I can feel my heart beating in my ears, the sound held inside my head by my silicone cap. A little echo chamber.
“From Washington, D.C., freshman Schuyler Bailar,” the announcer booms.
I know everyone is watching me. I know I’ve done this on a thousand occasions before. But this time is different.
Underneath my crimson warm-ups, there is no longer a one-piece swimsuit that women usually wear. Instead, I am wearing a tiny little Speedo. I am now on the men’s team.
Hundreds of articles have been published about my switching from the women’s to the men’s team. “Transgender swimmer,” they all write. Some attack me for my history, saying I’ll never be a real man. Others say my history of an eating disorder just means I am a “deluded woman with body issues.” Many claim there is no way I could keep up with, much less beat, other men. “From beautiful competitive woman to mediocre ugly man,” one commenter wrote on a national profile about me.
As I stand by the edge of the pool waiting for the rest of my teammates to join me, I am 15 again, standing in my women’s swimsuit behind the blocks with three girls from my relay. I remember the confidence, the feeling of knowing I could do exactly what I had set out to do. I remember the rush of the natatorium going silent as I put my hand over my heart—my pre-meet ritual—my fingers and thumb straddling my swimsuit strap on my shoulder. I had done this at the start of every single meet during the singing of the national anthem. I remember staring out at the pool as the music ended, and I took a deep breath, imagining my final stroke of my race.
I take a deep breath now, staring out at the pool as a Division 1 college swimmer. Everything feels so different. I’ve never stood alongside 38 college guys before. I’m at a pool I’ve never raced in. And it feels like all eyes are on me. But, as always, the water resembles beautiful blue glass, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
This is different, but it is also the same. The same 25-yard pool. The same 100-yard breaststroke race. The same breaststroke I have done since before I can remember. The same echoing acoustics that make hearing so difficult. The same chlorinated air that makes everyone cough. The same “take your mark—boop!” before we launch off the blocks. It’s all the same.
When the team is gathered along the edge of the pool, the natatorium silences. We stand in identical clothing, and the anticipation dances in my fingertips. When I am this nervous, the most nervous, I imagine my blood is rushing through my veins like white-water rapids.
When “The Star-Spangled Banner” begins to play, I instinctively begin my pre-meet ritual. But this time, my fingers seeking my shoulder strap find nothing.
In that moment, I realize that while everything is the same, it is also brand new. For the first time in my life, I am competing as just myself—without the baggage of who everybody told me to be, who everybody said I was, who I thought I was supposed to be.
Today, I am just who I am. I am Schuyler.
My eyes well with tears. More than 19 years of stumbling to get here. Just a few months ago, I was ready to quit swimming. A year ago, I was ready to quit the world and life altogether. But today, I am standing tall, a proud Korean American queer transgender swimmer on Harvard Men’s Swim and Dive—the first openly transgender athlete to compete for any Division I men’s team in the NCAA.
Of course, surviving my first meet (and not getting last) did not mean that everything was easy from then on. It would take my teammates the rest of the year to consistently gender me correctly. It would take me nearly three years to feel comfortable around them. And all the years since I came out are still not enough to dispel all the hatred and bigotry about transgender people, especially in athletics.
Over the next four years, I not only became the first—and, at the time, only—transgender athlete to have competed for the team that aligns with their gender identity for all four collegiate seasons, but I also became a well-respected educator on transgender inclusion.
I never knew where this journey would take me when I began. The first speech I gave was at my own high school. The night before, I was awake until two or three in the morning, attempting to write the speech itself. Dozens of drafts in the trash, I had no idea what other people would want from me. What should I tell them? What could they learn from me? That speech was better received than I’d expected. Some students even said it was the best assembly they’d experienced. So, as word spread, one speech led to another. By sophomore year, speaking was the primary way I spent my free time. By graduation, 102 speeches were in the books.
Despite regular assurances that what I had to say was valuable to others, I often found myself perplexed over why people wanted to listen. I was just a college kid who wanted to swim. When news outlets would call me an “advocate” or “activist,” I used to tell them no.
“You only think that I am an activist,” I insisted, “because I am a transgender swimmer, and I’m talking about it.”
Before every single speech, I wondered to myself, Why are they here? Why do they care? Only rarely, the answer was clear: I was talking to a group of swimmers or transgender folks like me; we were comrades. But most of the time, I spoke to people with whom I had little to nothing in common, or so it appeared. I tried to imagine the perspectives of the audience members—the students, coaches, administrators, teachers, mental health professionals, medical providers, or employees at a bank . . . How could I connect with them? Because, in the end, the inability to connect is what breeds hatred and bigotry. That is, connection is the essence of our humanity itself.
At a small school in northern Vermont, I gave a speech to a room filled with student-athletes. It was a standard event. I shared my story and provided training on trans literacy before opening for questions. After the event, a group of students gathered in a line, waiting to talk to me.
A young man approached and explained he was on the wrestling team. He said, “You know, before I came here today and met you . . . ” He paused. I nodded and waited patiently.
“Before I met you,” he began again, “I was nervous about people . . . like you. My girlfriend’s best friend is bisexual and that used to make me uncomfortable. I’m not homophobic or anything, but I didn’t want to hang out with her.” He stared at the floor then glanced back at me as he admitted this. I didn’t say anything, yet. I wasn’t sure where this was going.
“But now I’ve met you. And you’re just like me! We are both just . . . athletes. We’re just guys.” He looked directly at me now. “So now, I understand.” I’d begun to smile, relieved.
At another speech at a high school in Pittsburgh, the audience was mostly students from local public schools’ GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) clubs, with the exception of a few athletes. At the end, two football players accompanied the GSA officers to the stage to give me a small gift. One asked if he could say something to the audience. Not knowing what he would say, I nervously agreed.
“Listen, before I came in, I was uncomfortable,” he said into the mic. “You know, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t speak, I just wanna sit over there and stay quiet.’ But when I came in, it was a very inviting environment. I was like, ‘Aw, I can do this! There ain’t no difference!’ You know, we’re all the same.” He then turned to me and continued. “And I want to say thank you, to you, for opening up my eyes to a brighter future.” The audience’s applause almost drowned out his voice as he finished. “This is reality. This is life.”
I just about cried. Really, I had to try very hard not to bawl onstage. And while this is still one of the most touching moments I’ve experienced at a speech, such unexpected empathy has not been unique in my career. Moments like this happen over and over again—people thinking that they would find themselves uncomfortable around me, a transgender person, but then meeting me and learning I am also just someone living my life, like them. These moments serve as resounding reminders of the power of empathy and shared humanity, that there is so much more love than we might imagine—for us queer and trans folks, or for anyone, really.
Sometimes this love comes in the form of hope. After a speech in North Carolina, I spent nearly an hour with people who’d stayed after, forming a line that snaked from the stage all the way to the entrance of the large auditorium. The last person in line was a shorter, curly-haired individual with a baggy sweater and jeans. He wore a pin with “he/him” scrawled across it, presumably in his own handwriting. He burst into tears as soon as he met my eyes.
“I,” he tried, before his voice caught again, and he stared at the ground.
“Take your time,” I said as gently as I could. He took a deep breath. “I drove six hours to get here,” he finally managed, wiping his eyes. “Wow,” I said, genuinely surprised. “Thank you so much for coming.
“I’m honored that you came this far. I hope you have somewhere to stay tonight—it’s late!” I smiled, trying to offer softness. He laughed and then gestured behind him. A person, who stood watching us about 20 paces away, waved as we made eye contact.
“My friend is here with me. I’m staying with her,” he assured me. “You were the first trans person I found online—I’m trans, too,” he shared, the words almost tumbling out of him. “For so long I didn’t want to be here anymore. I didn’t see trans adults . . . you know . . . living their lives. Seeing you, and reading about your story . . . ” I felt my chest tighten as I listened. I, too, struggled back tears.
“It saved my life,” he said after a few heavy breaths. “You saved my life. And I needed you to know.”
Love—and sharing love in the form of hope—is incredibly powerful. Lifesaving, even. Every time someone shares experiences like these, I find myself holding back emotions that threaten to break my whole body. Sobs I’m not sure would ever end if I let them escape unrestrained. The experience is certainly optimistic and deeply meaningful—someone has chosen to stay because of me—but grief floods all the spaces in between. This is the grief that we live in a world where trans children want to and do kill themselves. This is the grief that so many trans children do not see their own futures and their ability to thrive beyond the stereotypes of trans trauma. This is the grief that I am the first, and sometimes only, trans person so many have met and been able to find resonance with.
This is the grief that I hope to turn into love through writing this book.
Excerpted from HE/SHE/THEY: How We Talk About Gender and Why It Matters by Schuyler Bailar. Copyright 2023. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.