October 11, 2019
Students packed the first floor of Ripich Commons on October 7 for guest speaker Schuyler Bailar, a Class of 2019 Harvard graduate who is the first openly transgender NCAA Division 1 swimmer and the first publicly documented NCAA Division 1 transgender man to compete as a man in any sport.
Bailar shared his personal journey from childhood to the present, discussing the confusion he felt at a young age, his profound depression, subsequent treatment, and the process – as a college student and as a competitive athlete – of coming to terms with being transgender and of transitioning.
After an impressive record-breaking career as a high school swimmer and being recruited for Harvard’s women’s swim team, Bailar took a gap year between high school and college while he dealt with mental health issues that necessitated lengthy in-patient treatment – treatment that eventually led to the realization that he was transgender.
Once well enough to begin college, he joined the Harvard’s women’s team while transitioning. His coach gave him a choice of continuing to be part of the women’s team or switching to the men’s team. He credits both the women’s and men’s swim coaches and team members on both teams for supporting him. “I had to decide if I wanted to continue to swim for the women’s team as I always had or if I wanted to switch to the men’s team,” he told the audience. “My coach and my team said to me, ‘You’re standing on the edge of a cliff. You have a safety harness on. You just need to jump. We’ve got you. Your heart knows what it wants. We’re just waiting for your mind to catch up.’”
Bailar shared the feeling of joy and triumph of finally being able to express his true gender identity as an athlete after undergoing top surgery and hormone treatments and joining the men’s swim team. He recalled his feelings at his first swim meet in which he competed as a man. “During the singing of the national anthem, for my whole life as a woman, I would put my hand against my heart like everyone does, but I would put my thumb under the strap of my women’s bathing suit,” he explained. “Now I’m standing at this meet—my first meet on the men’s team—and the national anthem is playing. I go to put my thumb under my bathing suit strap, and I realize that everything is still the same but also now different. I’m competing as myself for the first time. Just as myself. It suddenly felt possible to be exactly who I always knew I was, and that’s what it is: you can be exactly who you are. That’s what I felt in that moment.”
Bailar invited questions from the audience, fielding questions from many attendees, including several UNE athletes. After being asked about his family’s reaction to his gender expression, he addressed the issue of family acceptance, which, for him, as half-Korean, had a cultural component as well. He relayed the story of how nervous he was to try to explain to his Korean grandmother that he was identifying as a man, when there was no word he could find in the Korean language for “transgender.” As it turned out, his grandmother was not at all upset about the news and seemed to almost be expecting it.
“People cross culture and boundary and time to accept you. Does that always happen? No. But sometimes people surprise you,” he said to the audience. “I acknowledge that I am privileged to have the relationship that I do with my family and that not everyone has the same. But never be afraid of who you are.”