Showers, Uniforms, Pronouns: Testimonials of Non-Binary Student-Athletes

On a cold February morning, I walked from my dorm, Dana Hall, to the Field House. I was bundled up in my down-lined canvas overalls and the vintage Carhartt coat that my butch heart holds so dear. Slightly tired, but pumped to practice the weight throw, I had my headphones on and strutted into the fieldhouse from the side door. Because it was about 7:50 a.m., many EVS technicians were finishing their shifts. I said hello to one of the techs I had seen many times before. As I began walking into the side door for the women’s locker room, he exclaimed to me, “Sir! That’s the women’s locker room.” He was right; I did not belong. As a non-binary person, I continued reluctantly into the most gendered space in athletics.  

My least favorite part of Swarthmore Athletics is the gendered locker rooms. Whenever I walk into the women’s locker room, I am surrounded by female-bodied people. This reminds me that, regardless of how I dress, what my name is, what my pronouns are, and how I identify, I am still a woman. In the locker room, the body is central. The locker room’s purpose is to store your clothing and gear, to change, and to shower. Though non-binary athletes’ dysphoria does not come directly from the locker room, this environment certainly does not help. 

Regardless of your gender identity, changing in front of people can be difficult, and it can be even more challenging for people of non-binary gender identities. Alum lacrosse player Taylor Chiang ’18 noted, “I’ve never been uncomfortable about getting changed in front of others in the locker room, but when I had my [chest] binder, I would go to a bathroom stall to change into a sports bra because I didn’t want people to see me struggle with it, or ask what it was.” 

Similar to Chiang, I am a female-bodied person with chest dysphoria and would change out of my binder in my dorm room before practice because I thought people would be suspicious or judgemental that I was changing in the stall. This discomfort largely came early in the season last year, before I owned a proper binder, when I wore a binder-esque sports bra into the locker room. One of my teammates complimented it and I said, “Thanks, I like it mostly because it is the closest thing I have to a binder.” After that comment, she was silent, presumably out of discomfort and confusion. After that, I decided to never come to the locker room with any sort of chest binder. I had a similar fear with wearing boxers. While I was transitioning into wearing boxers, I would go home and change into women’s underwear before I headed to the fieldhouse. Eventually, I came to terms with wearing boxers into the locker room. Still in fear of scrutiny from my teammates, I change out of them quickly, hoping no one notices me take off my Hanes. 

As a female-bodied person, I am not familiar with the men’s locker room, but Vaughn Parts ’20 mentioned that one of the saving graces of the locker room is the lack of mirrors. Coming out of the shower at home or even in a dorm room, where full length mirrors are a common room accessory, can be painful because genderqueer people often see a reflection that does not match what they feel. When I change or go to the shower, I am surrounded by majority cisgender people. If my reflection does not come directly from a mirror, a reflection of what my body should look like is seen in the bodies of women in the locker room. Track and Field alum Kayla ’19 noticed that a large part of women’s locker room culture is exercising femininity and heterosexuality, and said “My experience with gender difference on the team is pretty inextricable from my experience with sexuality difference. Almost everyone I was sharing a locker room with was talking about being attracted to men, and that was as alienating to me as talking about femininity/female presentation and what is and is not acceptable within that (what looks good, flattering, slimming, etc).” Both Kayla and I do not remove body hair, which is a common practice for many feminine-presenting and heterosexual cisgender women. Lifting my arms in the shower always seems to draw eyes, and even having pubic hair can be alienating. It feels like everyone in the locker room is watching you, even if they aren’t. Regardless of judgemental eyes, my dysphoria and discomfort in the locker room are at the forefront of my mind every time I get ready to practice or compete.  

I am blessed with a relatively flexible uniform for competition. When I throw, I can present androgynously and be addressed by my chosen name, Clay. Kayla, however, had to wear the Swarthmore-issued women’s uniform for the sake of uniformity and team representation. Kayla notes that Swarthmore’s track uniforms tend to exaggerate the binary: “I think track uniforms for women are horrible. Our uniform bottoms are the size of underwear. Also, there is no reason the men’s and women’s uniforms should be different, especially because we have the same coach and are essentially one team in every way except in scoring.” The women’s uniform tops for track and field tend to have more slimming effects, which also highlights Kayla’s comments about the femininity norm on the team. As a distance runner, Parts wears the more gender-neutral men’s uniform and shorter shorts, which feels comfortable for them. Chiang, a lacrosse player, had to wear a skirt as a part of their game uniform. Chiang acknowledged their slight discomfort regarding this convention, though they noted that it was not a dealbreaker for their participation in the sport. 

As an athlete on a women’s team, I am repeatedly misgendered. The second I get to the track for a competition, the only words to describe me are “she,” “her,” “girl,” “lady,” and “woman.” It makes my stomach turn, but my sport is divided by gender. Even the implements we throw are different. Within Swarthmore Athletics, however, I have noticed good reception towards genderless language and the fluent use of they/them pronouns. It is already difficult to ask people to use new pronouns, a request that is even more challenging with a coach because of the inherently unbalanced power dynamic between coach and athlete. My coaches and teammates, however, have been very good about using the proper pronouns and using my new name. Kayla, Parts and I all have the same coaches, and they have been relatively good with pronouns with all of us. 

Still, Swarthmore Athletics and media coverage continue to hang a little behind. For one, the locker rooms are gendered, so I have had to come to terms with that discomfort. A further challenge is that the awards for the athletic department are all gendered. In addition, I have never had a pronoun used for me in media coverage, and Kayla rarely does. If the writers did not know what our pronouns are, they could just ask, or find this information on mySwarthmore. Avoiding my pronoun altogether makes me feel profiled and does nothing whatsoever to affirm my gender identity. It wasn’t until May 14, when I qualified for Outdoor Nationals, that Swarthmore Athletics publications began using they/them pronouns for me in their articles. The publications show Swarthmore Athletics’ ongoing reliance on my coaches for information, including photos, stats, performance updates, and now, apparently, pronouns. 

Non-binary athletes exist at Swarthmore. We are a little uncomfortable, but, at the end of the day, we love our sports. What could make athletics a better experience for us? Consider making the uniforms more gender neutral. Host a training where coaches and fellow athletes learn the experiences of LGBTQIA+ athletes, including the use of preferred pronouns and gendered language in athletics. Ask athletes what their pronouns are for media coverage. As I head into my final year competing in women’s shot put, I am reminded that, for this sport, I am cis, and that is the way it is going to be, because, y’all, I like winning. 

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *