This post may be atypical of my usual writing here at Bilerico, but I think it's something important to share.
As a transgender person, or more specifically, as a transsexual woman - I have had the unique opportunity to blend more than one life experience into a single lifetime. Each of us reconciles this particular situation in our heads in different ways and there is no one right or wrong way to get comfortable with it all. Some of us find a need to distance ourselves or even reject our previous lives in order to move forward in our new one. Others find ways to integrate the two in some way that makes sense for us. And, just as there is no one right strategy so too do our needs and our perceptions of ourselves change over time. It can get very complicated.
I say this as a preface to sharing that I registered and competed in 72kg division of the Women's Freestyle competition at the United States Open Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Cleveland this past weekend. This event is the Super Bowl of Wrestling and attracts the best of the best in the sport from all around the country. For me it was the culmination of years of effort to get comfortable with such a situation, of months and weeks of hard work to condition and prepare myself to compete with some of the elite wrestlers in this country, and of setting personal challenges and goals.
In a broader sense, though, it was an opportunity for me to come full-circle, knowing that my self-identity as a wrestler through high school and college effectively masked any indication of my true self to the outside world. Finally, the two had come together.
As an "activist" it's often perceived that everything you do has some flavor of activism to it. As we speak out about injustices and fight for rights and respect for ourselves and for others who are "different" it's easy to lose sight that the goal of it all is simply to live our lives and to find happiness. That's all I've ever wanted, but I've come to accept that I refuse to reject or apologize for my unique life experience in order to do that. Sometimes it's important to take time out from fighting to just live. In my world that's called "Balance", and that's an important consideration for me these days.
My life balance is a complicated thing. It's some interconnected relationship between my present and my past, my Yin and my Yang, my realities and my dreams, my fears and my needs, my body and my soul, and any number of other practical and impractical considerations that have become strong motivators for me. I, like most of us, are complicated multi-faceted people who cannot reduce ourselves to simplistic explanations or labels. Furthermore, I've come to accept that I've got needs that require attention whether I understand them or can explain them or not. This recent wrestling drive - which is probably as symbolic as it is real - is one of those things.
When I sat down with my coach several weeks ago to explain what I wanted to do he asked me what my goals were. Fifty year old women coming into a sport typically associated with high school or college boys isn't something you see every day. I told him I had two objectives: (1) that I had set this as a personal physical and mental goal, so getting myself into a position where I was comfortable simply stepping onto the mat ready to compete was most important and (2) as a stretch goal I would like to win a match.
It would be easy to say that I was trying to make any number of statements. For example, I refuse to believe that being 50 is an acceptable excuse for NOT doing something I want to do. For sure - my body is not what it once was and it has been battered and bruised in recent weeks as I have prepared for this but that has only strengthened my appreciation for the achievement.
It would be easy to say that I'm making a statement that LGBT people can participate in any capacity in life that we want. I have long been a believer that each of us sets our own boundaries in our minds so to wander outside our comfort zone and to participate in broader mainstream efforts can be a difficult stretch. But I didn't transition to expect less out of life - I did it to expect more. And the only thing keeping me from doing this would be me.
It would be easy to say that I'm trying to test boundaries or build awareness or challenge traditional thinking. None of those things apply. I truly have no agenda here. This was actually pretty simple - it was simply about me. It was a test of me. It was something I needed to do for me. And the less complicated things stayed, the easier that would be.
When I told people what I was preparing to do the first words out of their mouth were often, "But you're 50 years old!". Believe me, I don't need reminding. I know. And often, the second thought that was either said or unsaid was, "Are you going to compete against the men or the women?" And although I understand the this question might seem appropriate to some it highlights the continuing stigma that trans-peope aren't "real" men or women, or are somehow both. This is unfortunate.
I could launch into an extended tirade here, but will limit my comments to the fact that I refuse to marginalize my womanhood simply because I had to fight for it. Nobody in that gym knows how much I have risked, endured, lost, gained, learned, or am willing to sacrifice simply for the sake of being Donna - just another woman. And, frankly, that's not important in that context as every athlete there has a story of sacrifice. What is important is that I find it tremendously empowering that while I was growing up girls never had the chance to compete in a sport that I learned first hand builds mental and physical discipline, that allows opportunities to grow as a person and as an athlete, and that establishes traits that last a lifetime - but they do now. The world has changed, and so have I.
I came out to my coach a couple of weeks ago as the tournament got closer. My coach is an amazing man - a two-time Olympian with multiple National and World Team credentials on his resume who has competed at the highest levels of the sport for a long, long time. His response was that it was a non-issue - that he was more concerned with what was in a person's heart than with the details of what was on the outside - and we hugged. It was a moment I'll never forget.
The weekend itself was almost surreal. Starting with weigh-in on Thursday it was like stepping into a time warp. The last time I competed competitively on a mat was 1979 - over 30 years ago as a junior in college - so to be standing in line with all the other girls waiting to be weighed and checked by the doctor was one of those "pinch me, I must be dreaming" moments. And, once that passed - all that was left was to do what I came to do. To wrestle.
Somehow, the intersection of sports and transsexuals always seems to raise concerns. The question of "unfair advantage" becomes a convenient excuse for preventing us from participating in athletics which, for many of us, have become as much a part of our life fabric as our careers or our faith or any other component of ourselves. To deny us the opportunity to participate and to compete and to potentially excel is to take part of ourselves that we cherish. And, to accept that or allow that is implicit agreement with something that is bad and wrong and needs to be changed.
The fact is - I wasn't breaking any rules by competing in the Women's 72kg weight class. I had blood tests a few weeks ago that verified that my blood chemistry is appropriate for who and what I am. I was the oldest athlete registered to compete in the tournament by nearly 20 years, so somehow implying that an AARP member who has only recently returned to the sport somehow has some physical advantage over a dedicated athlete who has competed at national or international levels but isn't even old enough to drink yet is ludicrous. And, to imply that my past gender somehow provides an unexplainable competitive advantage isn't only narrow-minded and an insult to women athletes, it's arrogant. None of those apply.
This past weekend was the culmination of a lifetime of dreams. It was the intersection of so many of my selves and so many of my life tracks that I can't even put it into words. Whether others can understand that, or how others choose to perceive it, is immaterial to me. This wasn't about them. And, what defines me in my own mind isn't whether this was something overly masculine or not feminine enough for others so much as the dedication it took to accomplish. Character has no gender or age limit. Personal challenges or goals cannot be set by the concensus of others. And, the minute any of us believe we can't do something we either (a) never really wanted something in the first place, (b) have given up, or (c) weren't creative, dedicated or patient enough to make it happen.
>I reached a number of life goals this weekend. I stepped on the mat on Friday evening with my head held high. I soaked in re-awakened sights and sounds and emotions that had been buried by time and that I never in my wildest dreams imagined experiencing again. But this time - I experienced them as me. And that made all the difference in the world.
I won my first match. I pinned my opponent in a little over a minute. As we walked back to the center of the mat and the referee held my hand up it was truly a moment to savor. In a word - it was amazing.
I ended up wrestling some of the best women athletes in this country over the weekend, and once all was said and done I took 6th place. My body is sore and bruised and really unhappy right now that my heart and my spirit pushed it so hard. And, the energy of the moment has passed to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. That will pass, but the spark of that moment and the experience of the weekend will truly last me a lifetime.
Note #1: Some have asked whether the "Trans" issue ever came up. The answer is both yes and no. During warm-up prior to my first match my coach pulled me aside to share that some of the other women had apparently looked me up online after weigh-in and were aware of my unique history. We both knew that would probably happen and I reiterated to him that I wasn't breaking any rules, and that I certainly wasn't hiding but at the same time all I was there to do was to compete just like everyone else. He said he was on his way to the head table to discuss it with tournament officials. He came back a half hour later to tell me we were all set. And, that was that. I offer my thanks and appreciation for everyone there who was able to keep things that were actually pretty simple from getting too complicated.
Note #2: Some are asking whether I am planning to continue this temporary insanity. Finishing in the top 6 qualifies me for an invitation to participate in the US World Team Trials in June. The short answer is - I don't know. I'm still processing it all. What I do know is that I'll be back practice as usual on Wednesday. I have lots of work to do. I expect to participate in a tournament in San Francisco over Memorial Day. And I hope to compete at the Gay Games in Cologne in July.
Note #3: There are so many people to thank for helping me to make this happen. From all the support of my coach and Sunkist to the wonderful good wishes sent by so many - it was almost overwhelming. After my second match I went into the back and cried - it all finally spilled over. The beauty of competition is that it highlights our humanity, and that's something I hope I never lose.