As part of the Harvard men’s swim team for all four years of college, Schuyler Bailar is the first transgender athlete to compete in any NCAA Division 1 sport. Currently, Schuyler is an inspirational speaker and advocate for transgender rights, body-positivity, mental health awareness, and inclusion.
Zach Stern: Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with gender during your childhood before you transitioned?
Schuyler Bailar: I was assigned female at birth and I spent most of my early years just being a kid. Gender identity forms around the ages of 3-5, so up until then I was put in dresses and female clothing for the most part, but my parents actually put me in a lot of gender-neutral clothing too. Around school age, I started. As I really got the agency to pick my own social plans, I began hanging out mostly with boys and I started presenting myself more as male. I don’t think it was intentional at first. It wasn’t like I want to look like a boy. It was, oh, what haircut do you want? I want a short haircut. Which one? Then I’d point to a boy’s haircut. What clothes do you want to wear? I only wanted to wear boys’ clothing. And my parents were very lenient with gender roles in that they didn’t force me to wear stereotypically female or feminine clothing or do stereotypically feminine things. They didn’t shove me into those boxes.
Still, I did feel boxed in during times when we had to dress up. When I had to go to a recital or a family event or something that required fancy clothing, I had to wear a dress. Those were often the worst day of the month or week because I put up such a fight. I just remember just disliking that. I don’t remember exactly why. I just had a visceral reaction of not wanting to be perceived in this feminine way. But I don’t think I really was able to articulate that at the time.
That continued until about the age of 12 or 13. Throughout middle school, I began to get bullied quite a bit for looking different. A lot of people made fun of me for not really being girly, telling me, “you’re not a real girl, so we’re not going to include you in the girl things.” At the same time, the guys knew that I was supposed to be this girl, so they decided that I wasn’t a real boy. So I got caught in between and that bullying got pretty stressful for me. I would come home pretty upset about it and I would talk to my parents, but I wasn’t very articulate about why I was upset. It was usually more direct interactions like that the boys weren’t passing me the football at recess or that so-and-so said something about how I’m not a real girl. And mostly the way it was dealt with by was by getting the boys to include me and during recess, which ended up happening. When I got to high school, I got sick of that. I got sick of getting thrown out of bathrooms because I didn’t look enough like a girl. I got sick of being afraid of going to the bathrooms. At the airport, we’d wait in line together and get in these arguments with other mothers especially. They’d tell my mom, “don’t you understand? You can’t bring your son to this bathroom”. These arguments got more and more stressful. So I decided to present as a stereotypical girl. That’s why I ended up growing my hair out, shopping in the women’s section, wearing makeup for the two times that I did, and trying to really present myself in this more female. The number one reason was to stop getting thrown out of bathrooms and then beyond that, to stop getting bullied for not looking enough like a girl.
Then, to take a couple more steps forward, I graduated from high school. Having struggled a lot with mental health issues, most specifically an eating disorder and depression, I decided to take a gap year to go to a treatment center, which is where I realized that I am trans. Because I was only with women in the treatment center, I was able to know by knowing what I wasn’t. Having a great therapist also helped me investigate my gender and learn to express it.
Zach: What was your experience like once you decided to swim on the men’s team after transitioning?
Schuyler: The men’s team was definitely one of the best decisions I made, but it did take me a long time to decide to swim for the men’s team because I was afraid of giving up all of the hard work that I’d put in to be a great female swimmer. I didn’t want to just throw that away. So I thought very carefully about what would make me the happiest and what was the best risk to take, and I ended up deciding that I should be on the men’s team because I should take that risk to really be me. During my gap year, the men’s coach said to the team: “We have this opportunity to bring Schuyler into the team. Do you want to be the kind of team that accepts a trans athlete? What do you think?” Everybody said yes. The coach said: “Great, and if anybody has any worries, please come talk to me in my office. You’re welcome to come chat with me.” And nobody did. The reason that’s important is because my team is very vocal and if somebody had a concern, I really do think they would’ve said something.
When I began on the team, the people who had been asked were the three grades above me and not in my own grade. So the freshman who came in with me didn’t have the agency to decide whether they wanted me on the team or not. They were kind of thrown into the mix and they were also the youngest and the most immature, so we had a lot of learning and growing to do together. I don’t mean to say that to disparage them. It just means that we had to walk through that process together in a different way than the rest who had that extra eight months to learn about it.
The whole process involved a lot of learning and patience on both sides. Many people said ignorant and sometimes harmful things, not because they meant to but because they didn’t know any better. And I had to understand that that’s where they were coming from and be able to sit in those moments and say to myself, “they’re not being mean, they’re not trying to. That hurts, but I have to be able to sit here and figure out how we can work through this together.” And we did. Again, it’s not an attack on my teammates — I think they’re really wonderful people — but we all had to have the patience to walk into it together. And they really did that. The team together did that. The coaches did that. So it was a really positive experience with my team in how we all dealt with me being trans. These are some of my best friends to this day, and many of them came to speeches during my tour and have come to marches with me to support trans rights and trans folks. I will add that the first year of my experience on the men’s team was probably one of the hardest years of my life because everything was so new — but it wasn’t because of the team. The team was really wonderful.
Zach: I’m also curious to hear about your speaking tour. What kind of reception did you get and what are your reflections on that experience looking back?
Schuyler: My biggest takeaway from the tour was that there are so many more people than I expected who are so ready, excited, and hungry to learn about how they can be better allies and supporters of trans folks, especially trans youth, who just don’t have the tools or the resources. That was so heartwarming because I think I had this expectation that people wouldn’t be accepting nor excited. 60 percent of the places we went to were in classically conservative areas, and that’s why we went them. The target was to go to places that might not have as many resources or exposure to trans folks and LGBTQ issues. But I was nervous. Most of my speeches had previously been up and down the East Coast and in Seattle which doesn’t bode for a whole lot of like negative responses. There are some here and there, but these are liberal places. So I was really nervous about it. But I mean, gosh, I had so many amazing conversations with folks who didn’t even know the word “ally,” or didn’t understand the word “transgender” and who were just so excited to learn. I think that’s really important. There is so much more support out there than we think that there is; we just have to rally them in the right way. We have to give them the right resources and the right education, but people have good hearts.
Zach: Is it hard line to walk the line between at one level focusing on education and giving others the benefit of the doubt while still calling out prejudice and protecting yourself from it?
Schuyler: Absolutely. It is hard and it’s something I talk about a lot with folks, especially when they’re talking about coming out to family members or friends. The key is being able to start by giving people the benefit of the doubt and trying to come from an angle of education while also understanding when boundaries need to be set. And that’s a really confusing line to draw because you never really know when to draw it. It’s just a case by case basis — a gut reaction kind of thing. There are times when I’m going to really prioritize having an educational conversation with somebody, but there are also times when I won’t even try. I’ll just draw a line, which means I’ll delete them on Instagram, I’ll block them, or I won’t even engage. I’ll say to myself, this is not good for my mental health and I’m just not going to try. That’s something I have to decide for myself.
I will always give kids the benefit of the doubt. If they’re having that resistance to my conversation, I’ll absolutely talk to them because I think that it’s so worth it. It’s really important for them to be able to engage in that intellectual conversation about these kinds of things and learn from that. Some adults I just won’t because I just don’t think it’s worth my time. There are many adults who are not engaging in a conversation with me in order to learn — they’re engaging in order to convince me that I’m wrong. That’s not a productive conversation.
Zach: You talk a lot about the idea of the gender boxes that society creates for trans people and also for cisgender people. How do these boxes affect people’s transition and how do they impact people’s understandings of trans identities?
Schuyler: What I always say about myself is that I didn’t jump out of the box of womanhood in order to jump into somebody else’s box of manhood. The reason I say it that way is because I did feel very boxed into this notion of what womanhood is supposed to be, and that’s not who I am. At the same time, when I said I’m actually a man, folks then were like: “Here’s this other costume you can put on — the other gender roles that you should, therefore, assign to yourself. My response was that while some of those might fit, some others don’t. None of this is about gender roles to me. Somebody recently asked me, “If I identify as a woman, but I know how to use power tools, does that make me trans?” No, it just makes you a woman who can use power tools. That’s a gender role. So I think it’s really important to tease apart the difference between gender identity and gender expression. I think that for trans people, the problem is that the two get conflated, and people — including trans people — expect that if they’re going to transition, they have to assume all the roles that everybody else assigns to the other gender. They’re transitioning into the presentation. I’ve had people tell me that I’m supposed to play video games because I identify as male or that I have to be stoic and can’t have emotions, but that’s really not what it means to be a man. Maybe to you, but I’m not going to do things just because other people say that makes me a man. I know that I’m a man. That’s in my heart.
Zach: Especially regarding the more conservative areas that you visited on your tour, has that idea been something that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around?
Schuyler: It depends. For the most part, people are understanding. If I were to ask, “if I were to throw on a dress right now, would that make me a woman?”, The crowd always says no. Nobody’s confused by that. And so then I say the other gender roles are no different. Mostly when I tease out the differences between gender identity and gender roles, people are able to understand that they are two distinct things, but they still like people to engage with the gender roles they’re assigned. People often seem to like gender roles because it’s tradition.
To some degree, that’s fine as long as people aren’t being harmed. I like to open the door for my friends and that’s considered a masculine thing, but I don’t think there’s a problem with that. With some of the girls I’ve dated, I bought them flowers — another male gender role — but I don’t think that’s harmful. The problem is that people are being harmed in a lot of ways by other facets of these gender boxes, so I think it’s important to investigate the risk associated with each behavior.
Zach: What do you see as the path towards breaking these types of boxes down?
Schuyler: I think we as a society — the greater US — are already making progress in a lot of ways, including women in the workplace and voting. The more we can engage in that kind of diversity, the more we’ll break down these stereotypes. It takes people going against the grain, recognizing that of course a trans person can be in sports, or of course a woman can be the head of a tech company. It just has to happen, to be honest with you. But to help push this change along, I think diversity and inclusion initiatives in every company are imperative. That includes working on a policy to make sure it’s inclusive, working on task forces to make sure that they’re inclusive, and examining recruiting materials to make sure that companies are not engaging in explicit or implicit bias in their recruitment of employees. We need to change the way the corporate world works to make it more diverse and inclusive. And these are already initiatives that are happening: people really do want policy reworked and diversity. I think on an individual basis, it’s about everybody investigating their own implicit biases because we all have them. That’s the society that we are raised in. We’re also psychologically wired to create groups in order to understand our own needs, and that’s not a bad thing in itself, but when those groups start hurting people, then it’s a bad thing. Being aware of what your biases are is a great place to start, and everybody has the power and the ability to do that.
Zach: What role do you see for education in changing how we raise our kids and promoting a culture of acceptance?
Schuyler: Here’s the biggest thing about kids. They’re not usually born hating. Most kids are born with a lot of love and a lot of ability to be in touch emotionally because that’s all they have when they’re kids. They’re operating from a point of emotion, which means all they want to do is connect. And they’re wired to try to connect with people because that’s how they survive from an evolutionary standpoint. The reason that’s important is that a lot of school systems and people teach kids to inhibit their emotions and to behave a particular way, but I think we need to teach them how to think, not what to think. Around 80-85 percent of my speeches are in schools because I think middle and elementary school students are at a perfect place to be taught to keep their minds open. They’re already part of the way there because they haven’t learned all this hatred. That’s where we can really make the biggest difference because we can then create a whole generation of people that don’t grow up with all these biases. I think that’s key.
Zach: Shifting gears for a moment, I know you talk a lot about body image. What role do lessons about body image play in people’s discovery of their gender identity?
Schuyler: Diet culture and body shaming culture is unbelievably toxic, prevalent, and impactful no matter who you are. It clinically attacks more women or assigned female at birth people but plenty of men have insecurity with their bodies, too. For trans people specifically, we have a higher rate of eating disorders than any other demographic. In a recent study, something like 70 percent of trans people reported eating disorder symptomatology or eating disorder diagnoses. That’s insane. A lot of that is connected to body dysphoria — the experience of one’s body feeling incongruent with their gender identity. That’s often comorbid with body image distortions – negative, often unrealistic views of one’s own body and how it looks, often associated with having an eating disorder. I think there’s so much overlap between these terms for trans people specifically, and it can be really complicated to tease them apart. We have so many expectations of what bodies are supposed to look like from the media, from our parents, and from diet culture, so I’m a big proponent of not having any of that messaging that says your body must look a certain way, whether it’s gendered or not. I think it’s harmful no matter who you are.
Zach: It seems like trans women competing in women’s sports have been met with a lot of backlash over the past few years. Why do you think critics are responding this way?
Schuyler: There are a number of reasons. The first one is that misogyny and sexism are present always, and people are misogynistic towards trans women. I think it all stems from toxic masculinity and this idea that trans women are not real women. There are also a lot of women that are resistant because they think it’s in some way destroying womanhood. Another major factor is the notion of passing. Biologically speaking, testosterone is a one-way street. If you put testosterone in anyone’s body, they will go through testosterone-driven puberty. Their voice drops, their body hair changes, their facial structure shifts, and their body mass redistribution shifts, but most of these things cannot be reversed when testosterone is removed. For me, I take testosterone, all those changes are catalyzed, and then I pass as male. People read me as male and cisgender. The problem is that for trans women who have already gone through testosterone-driven puberty and then go on testosterone suppressants and estrogen, their facial hair won’t stop growing, their Adam’s apple won’t disappear, and their masculine facial structure won’t change, so a lot of trans women are read as men because of the way we are socialized to believe these features are masculine. The reason that’s important is that trans women are oftentimes recognized socially as transgender and that makes it unsafe. Many men are attracted to these women which makes them insecure, adding fuel to the problem of violence against trans women. That’s a symptom of toxic masculinity, raising men to think that they need to be insecure in those moments.
In terms of sports specifically, there is also the belief that testosterone-driven puberty gives you an advantage. There’s a lot of science that supports that, so I’m not going to try to argue with that, but there are also a lot of ways that people are working to ensure that get trans women can be included in female sports in a fair way, and the rules are forming before our eyes. I’m sitting on a group that works on these issues in the International Association of Athletics and the NCAA has really good rules based on testosterone levels. If you’re a trans woman that wants to compete as a woman, you have to prove that your testosterone levels have been lowered to an average female level for at least a year. I think that’s as fair as it gets right now with all that we know.
People are reacting to that because they think it’s going to threaten other women. My response is that there is biological diversity everywhere, including with cisgender women. If we see a 6’3″ cis woman who’s good at basketball, we say, wow, she’s made for basketball, but if we see a 6’3″ transgender woman, people say that’s unfair. The reality is that there are all kinds of biological diversity and when it suddenly is because somebody is trans, people are really reacting to that. We need to make sure that what we can control is controlled — testosterone is one example — but I think it’s worth noting that a lot of these biases are coming out of people’s biases towards trans women. We don’t cap women at a certain height because they’re tall, we put them in sports because they’re tall. I think that people are reacting from a place of fear and toxic masculinity that permeates all of society. We need to check our biases while also staying up to date in our research on how best to include folks who have transitioned after puberty to make sure that we’re being fair.