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May 28, 2012
Playing fields have long been segregated on the basis of sex. But what happens to the athletes whose physiology doesn't match their gender identity? Against whom do they compete? What obstacles do they face? And how are they being treated by sports' governing bodies?
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May 28, 2012

The Transgender Athlete

Playing fields have long been segregated on the basis of sex. But what happens to the athletes whose physiology doesn't match their gender identity? Against whom do they compete? What obstacles do they face? And how are they being treated by sports' governing bodies?

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If you've never seen the hammer throw up close, especially during a New England winter, the most arresting part of every heave is the conclusion: how hardened earth erupts when the metal comet splits the ground. Weighing nearly nine pounds with a four-foot wire tail, the stainless-steel ball is menacing enough that airports ban it from carry-on luggage. And on a brisk February morning in Williamstown, Mass., every toss by Keelin Godsey offers further proof of its violence.

At 5'9" and 186 pounds, Godsey is tautly muscular. He wears glasses and is dressed in black from his sneakers to his knit cap, which sheathes his blond, spiky hair. Over and over, from in front of a chain-link backstop, he grips the hammer's handle and whirls in accelerating circles until it's no longer clear whether he is spinning the ball or the ball is spinning him. His target distance, 226'4½", is out on a gravel path beyond the frost-covered craters. That's the qualifying standard for the London Games—a mark Godsey finally surpassed last month (with a throw of 227'8") at a meet in Walnut, Calif. With a top three finish at the trials in Eugene, Ore., in June, he will realize his lifelong dream: to make the U.S. women's Olympic team.

For transgender men and women, the physiological traits that distinguish them as male or female don't conform to how they feel about themselves. Some have undergone sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy to make their biological and gender identities match. Others, such as the 28-year-old Godsey, have not: He was born as a female and therefore competes as a female, but he identifies as male. Imagine a body, especially one as finely tuned as an elite athlete's, feeling inescapably foreign—as if it were intended for the opposite sex. "I take a lot of pride in the fact that I have a good amount of muscle mass, and I've done it naturally," says Godsey. "But in some ways, this is the last body I would ever want."

A physical therapist who was known as Kelly until his senior year of college, in 2005, Godsey is the first American Olympic contender in any sport to openly identify as transgender. When not competing he dresses and lives as a man, renting a ground-floor duplex in North Adams, Mass., with Melanie Hebert, his fiancée of three years. "I'm a female when I compete," Godsey says. "Every day I have to sweat, stress and freak out. How do I look? What is someone going to think of me? Is someone going to say something at a track meet?"

Consider something as simple as going to the bathroom. When using men's rooms—his preference—Godsey usually tries to conceal his chest; in women's rooms he accentuates it by wearing what he calls tight "girl shirts." Still, he has been escorted out of an airport ladies' room by security, interrogated at restaurants and once had to flee a group of snarling men at a truck-stop bathroom in Nebraska.

No one knows the precise number of transgender people in the U.S., let alone the world. One recent estimate by the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, which studies gender-identity issues, pegs the size of the American population at 700,000; the number of those who are athletes is even more difficult to determine. But Michelle Dumaresq, a transgender professional mountain biker from Vancouver, told Outside magazine that she talks with some 115 closeted trans athletes all over the globe. And since taking over as the NCAA's director of gender initiatives and student-athlete well-being in 2006, Karen Morrison has received about 40 transgender-related inquiries from universities, prospective trans athletes and those athletes' attorneys. Several queries were spurred by Godsey's coming out as a transgender male.

The first famous transgender athlete in the U.S. was a former Yale tennis captain and ophthalmologist named Richard Raskind, who underwent surgery in 1975 and became Renée Richards. She won a landmark New York Supreme Court battle in '77 that enabled her to play as a female at the U.S. Open. (Richards lost in straight sets in the first round to Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade.) Yet it is only now that transgender athletes are gaining sustained recognition from sports' governing bodies.

In 2005, the year Godsey came out, Lana Lawless, previously a male Rialto, Calif., police officer who was a one-handicap golfer, had sex reassignment surgery to become a woman. Five years later the LPGA denied her application to compete in qualifying tournaments, citing its "female at birth" bylaw. Lawless sued, dropping her claim only after the LPGA voted to revise its rule book that November. That same year wrestler Donna Rose—formerly David Rosen—became the first transgender, postoperative female to take the mat in the women's division of the U.S. Open national championships, in Cleveland, winning a 158.75-pound freestyle match. And in a November 2011 win over Tonga, Jonny Saelua, a center back on American Samoa's men's soccer team who identifies as female, became the first openly transgender athlete to take the field in World Cup play. (Caster Semenya, the 2009 800-meter world champion from South Africa, is not transgender. Semenya, whose defined musculature and deep voice generated worldwide headlines regarding gender and sports, reportedly has external female genitalia and internal, undeveloped testes, a combination that would make her intersex.)

The most contentious recent case occurred at George Washington in November 2010. Kye Allums, a 5'11" starting guard from Hugo, Minn., came out before his junior season, making him the only openly transgender Division I athlete. "Yes, I am a male on a female team," Allums calmly explained to reporters. "And I want to be clear about this: I am a transgender male, which means, feelings-wise ... I feel as if I should have been born male with male parts."

His composure belied the turmoil in the Colonials' locker room. Bombarded by media requests and transgender talk, some of Allums's teammates said they wished he had waited to come out after graduation; according to another player present at a team meeting, the word selfish was used. "It was crazy to go from them all having my back to no one having my back," says Allums. He also felt abandoned by coach Mike Bozeman. "He was like, Now you're affecting us," Allums says. "He pointed to the freshmen and he's like, 'Did you guys come here to have to deal with this?'"

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