Patricia Nell Warren

Terri O'Connell: "Time to be Me"

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | March 11, 2008 9:05 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: NASCAR, sports history, stock car racing, Terri O'Connell, women's history

One of the most amazing stories in women's sports history is race-car driver Terri O'Connell, TERRI_30.jpgand her battle to become the woman she always felt she was. Details of the story will be revealed in her forthcoming book Dangerous Curves.

Born James Terrell Hayes in 1964 in a bible-belt Mississippi town, Terri was ID'ed as a boy at birth, and grew up in a well-known racing family. He fell in love with the sport at an early age, becoming a national champion in go-kart racing. JT's frail androgynous look was dismissed during childhood, because everybody in town knew about his premature birth and struggle with health problems like asthma. But as JT reached puberty, the frail kid started to morph into a girl.

Hayes' parents could see what was going on, and they struggled to understand. But gender science was in its infancy, so they didn't get much help from the medical or therapy professions. As JT moved on through national championships in midget cars and sprint cars, designing and building his own race cars in his dad's shop, life became an ever grimmer masquerade as a boy (loose clothes, the right mannerisms, taping the growing breasts flat). JT also had to repress that ever-more-powerful conviction that he was really a girl.

By the time JT turned 21, his adult frame was clearly a woman's. Cruel rumors ran that the hot shoe from Mississippi had some gender issues...that Hayes was a "fag." Finally an intuitive doctor ordered a chromosome test, which revealed that this athlete is an XXY in whom the XX influence predominates.

Hayes hungered to end the masquerade, but had always dreamed of being a top stock-car driver. In NASCAR, with its ultraconservative macho atmosphere, competing as a woman - especially one with such a "past" -- was going to be difficult. So his plan was this: NASCAR career first, and gender realignment later.

By then Hayes had logged nearly 500 career wins in various types of cars. But stock cars drive differently than other race cars. Their standard narrow tires, higher center of gravity and minimal grip on an asphalt or concrete track, make them hairy to drive and easy to wreck - compared to low-slung Indy cars with their wide tires and good grip. "It's like racing on ice at 190 miles per hour," O'Connell says. NASCAR racing takes the endurance, manual dexterity and instant reflexes -- not to mention the guts -- of a fighter pilot.

TERRI_27.jpgSo in 1990, at age 26, Hayes got a seat with a top stock-car team, Donleavy Racing, and enough sponsorship to finance one race. As a rookie, Hayes was good enough to step right into the national championship series, the Winston Cup. For the 1990 Goodwrench 500 in Rockingham, Donleavy put Hayes into their 91 car. He qualified among the top 15 drivers against big names like Dale Earnhardt. Unfortunately Hayes' race ended at midpoint because of engine glitches - a common problem in racing.

Hayes struggled to continue, looking for permanent sponsors. But the rumors got so ugly that in 1992 he regretfully gave up the NASCAR dream for the time being, and went ahead with long-delayed plans for gender realignment. A legal gender change was granted by the state of Mississippi, along with the new female name.

To earn money for the surgery, O'Connell continued racing, but quietly returned to midget cars and did it as Terri O'Connell. The masquerade was over - her driver's suit was now paired with girl makeup and girl hair-do. Incredibly, the midget-racing world didn't recognize their former national champion as the cute 5'6" 115-pound blonde bombshell who was rocketing around their tracks.

In 1994, to finish financing the surgery, Terri sold her race car. "It was finally time to be me," she says in her book.

In 1998 O'Connell let the gender realignment be known publicly - and was splashed all over the international mainstream media, including major talk shows.

Today, following a hiatus from racing and some years as a fashion model and motorsports apparel designer, Terri aims to return to racing stock cars. NASCAR wants to go global, and is being propelled towards diversity. Auto racing is one of the few sports where males and females compete head to head. Some talented female drivers are emerging -- in Indy cars, dragsters and stock cars. Terri aims to be one of those women in NASCAR. She has a standing offer of a seat on another top team, Eddie Sharp Racing, plus a cohort of fans and media people who would like to see her come back - and the first major commitment by a corporate sponsor.

Till recently LGBT sports fans have focused on "stick and ball" sports. But a new fascination with motorsports and NASCAR is emerging in the LGBT press -- I've been writing about it for and other publications. Hopefully our media and fans will want to support one of our own, in her aim to break back into NASCAR. After all, O'Connell has already driven in NASCAR Cup competition. I express this hope because, so far, the gay media have paid little attention to O'Connell, though her gender change became public knowledge 10 years ago. Few, if any, of our media rushed to her defense when some motorsports media and blogs were spewing all kinds of poisonous fundamentalist outrage that a national champion driver would dare go through a gender realignment...though the gay media haven't hesitated to defend out gay and lesbian athletes like John Amaechi when they are attacked.

Nor has any gay-owned corporation or nonprofit or foundation put a penny into sponsoring O'Connell's comeback, so far. Maybe the moment is finally here when they will discover her sport and grab hold of her story. For all its conservative atmosphere, stock-car racing shouldn't be underestimated as a possible showcase by the LGBT world. NASCAR is one of the biggest TV advertising markets in the U.S. Personally I would love to see LGBT logos plastering a race car that is out there trading paint with those mainstream boys. Especially a car driven by a woman who is fashion-model hot ...who fought like a tiger to be a woman.

O'Connell's book, which I am helping her edit, will be published later this year.

Today O'Connell stands in sports history as one of the few athletes - and the only XXY that I know of -- who has competed successfully as both woman and man. Now 43, she is still young enough to make a deeper mark in motorsports, where drivers often race into their 50s and 60s. Hopefully her career will re-start, and she can continue making women's history.

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Great story, great woman. One of many!

I'm with you, Patricia. I'd love to see her come back and make some waves. That's how you normalize some people's experiences.

This is awesome. I'm not really into NASCAR, but good for her.

I have not read the book yet, but I grew up just outside the town Terri is from. I knew her dad Jim and remember James when he was 2-3 years old. Hope she makes it in NASCAR.