I never expected coming out as a trans person in competitive cycling to be consequence-free. I knew that maintaining composure under high levels of scrutiny would challenge me in ways that I had not yet imagined. Askance looks, whispers, cold shoulders, outright name calling or negative cheering are all realities I imagined. As a trans person who has lived and worked in places where being “out” would have resulted in real bodily harm, sometimes I imagine the worst. But, the queer and blue Northeast got my guard down. I came out to USA Cycling, the ECCC, and effectively turned my life on its head.
The conference director of the ECCC was loud in his support for trans inclusion. USA Cycling was rational in their policy revision, and made the process of sorting through medical records and expert medical consultations about my physiology as respectful and painless as possible. And, many individuals in the competitive cycling community sent messages of support for my racing.
Yet, I was reminded that there is real risk in being an out trans person. Bad things can happen. Even in the most liberal of regions, with an excessively loud advocate for trans inclusion in charge, at a race with many friends and a huge, supportive team in attendance. There are quiet places just out of sight and hearing at most public venues – a wrong turn down a hallway to the bathrooms, an equipment trailer, a team van, the woods off the course.
Bad things do happen.
Less than an hour after being assaulted, I raced my bicycle; completely ineffectively. I came off the back of the criterium less than halfway through, crying. Thank god for the freezing rain, and total lack of spectators because of it – nobody saw anything. I rode straight off the course, down a desolate, muddy country road to a field of thawing, frozen pumpkins left out to decay from the season prior. I threw my bike, cried and kicked the shriveled pumpkins. And then I came back to the race and said nothing.
I made the decision that I would not discuss the incident or file a report with police because I did not want to take the chance of it even becoming rumor material. I came out in cycling because, beyond myself, it was the right thing to do to pave the way for the next generation of athletes. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was demonstrate grim consequences of coming out and competing, and potentially scare people away from the sport.
But, I had to tell somebody who could help prevent more of the same in the future. I tried to tell the conference director.
We were sitting in his car for a mini “meeting” that he had called for an update on how things were going since I had come out, in which he did an overwhelming amount of talking about how well it was going. I snuck in a few words about my discomfort with some of the types of cheering of my field from the sidelines of races, to which he said that he had never heard such complaints before and that he had never witnessed that behavior. And then… I did my best to say it. Maybe, I wasn’t clear enough. Maybe, I should have been more direct. But, suddenly the Prius meeting was over and I was feeling just as confused and isolated as I had been before. Or, perhaps more isolated. I had tried to ask for help, and was talked-over and overlooked.
The continued message of “Trans inclusion is here and it’s going swimmingly!” was so darned popular. Who was I to destroy that momentum and positivity by filing a police report, or filing an official report with USA Cycling and thus making it public?
For a while, I accepted this feeling of isolation and fear at races as my own burden to bear. I rationalized that I knew there were risks when I came out, and that I had thought about these consequences. What was one personal issue compared to the positive effect that my continuing to race in silence would have for future trans athletes? But, over the course of the next weeks, the silence chipped away at me – gritting my teeth while the offending man would walk up behind me and then put an arm around my shoulder while spectating a race, just for a moment, just to make it known that he could. I would put my head down and continue to spin on the trainer during warmup while he would self-appoint to pin my numbers to my speedsuit – another reminder that I had no power to stop him from putting his hands on me. And, these continued minor violations were so innocuous that nobody noticed. By the week approaching nationals, I was having nightmares, hardly sleeping, unable to concentrate at my classes, and emotionally shutting down.
When I finally did explicitly-enough state what was happening, I was approaching falling apart. This loudest of advocates for trans inclusion responded to my tears by telling me to “be more stoic”, and then forwarded some vague information to USAC against my wishes. I declined to file a complaint or name names, and that was the end of it. I retreated to my fiancé’s apartment in NYC for a summer of being harassed at a local track and being acutely aware that at even a very muscular 5’1.8, I am no match for the large track racer men who had begun to sling vague threats my way (for reasons entirely unrelated to trans issues).
Now, it’s been a couple of years, and I’ve been largely out of racing for injury and health reasons for a while. A lot has happened. There is a new trans women’s cycling team! A trans woman just won a major race! There is a new IOC policy, and a USAC policy to match on the verge of publication. Progress has happened, and I am so immensely proud to have contributed in whatever minor way I did.
Why write this now?
Being a trans athlete should not have consequences for one’s safety. This is completely unacceptable. And, it is never the athlete’s burden to bear. Being trans is not asking for violence. We must be crystal clear in that. If you are a trans person who races bicycles, and anyone threatens you or makes you feel unsafe at a race, please seek help from allies quickly and get officials involved.
Silence is not acceptable. Staying silent about the violence in our lives will destroy us from the inside out. Pretending we are “ok” allows those who are perpetrating violence (of all kinds! small and large!) to keep on doing it. And, our silence allows others to continue to sweep these difficult issues under the rug rather than take action and effect change. We need more progress and change.
There is a difference between making a statement of support for trans people in sports and being prepared to support trans people in sports. USA Cycling and it’s staff have conducted the most thoughtful and thorough review of evidence that anyone could ask for, and a policy is still underway. But, there is a gap between statements of support and policy change and preparedness. Local organizations and officials who are on the ground at races set the tone for what is and is not behavior becoming of a racer. The light blue shirts are sources of information for the community, and often the first point of contact for new and future racers at an event. Officials all take the Safesport course content and serve as the eyes and ears of USAC. These eyes and ears must be updated on USAC trans-inclusion policy, and have zero tolerance for any signs of hostile behavior towards trans athletes.
I am asking for USAC to launch an initiative to educate the local organization leadership and officials on diversity and inclusion issues, including but not limited to those of trans athletes.
I am asking for trans athletes to continue to race bicycles. Or, start racing bicycles!
I am asking for all of the allies, friends, family and community in competitive cycling to stay vigilant, offer emotional support for first race nerves or a buddy to walk to the bathrooms. And, for God’s sake, LISTEN. Really, truly, listen to what your trans friends are trying to tell you.