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

Note: This piece, while submitted independently to Voices, was first published in the Phoenix on Thursday, Sept. 12. Any discrepancies in content are a result of independent editing processes.

On a cold February morning, I walked from my dorm, Dana Hall, to the fieldhouse. I was bundled up in my down-lined canvas overalls and the vintage Carhartt coat that my butch heart holds so dearly. 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 through the side door of 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. The locker room’s official purpose is to store your clothing and gear, to change, and to shower - but in this space, the body is central. Though non-binary athletes’ dysphoria does not come directly from the locker room, this environment certainly does not help. 

Regardless of one’s gender identity, changing in front of people can be difficult, and 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 I would change out of my binder in my dorm room before practice because I thought people would be suspicious or judgemental if I was changing in the stall. This discomfort came largely 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 of 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 taking 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 a majority of cisgender people. Like a mirror, the cis-women in the locker room reflect the image of my body that I experience dysphoria around every day. Track and Field alum, Kayla ’19, noticed that a large part of women’s locker room culture is exercising femininity and heterosexuality, saying “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).” Neither Kayla nor I 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 locker rooms is 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 acknowledges that though it was not a dealbreaker for their participation in the sport, this convention made them uncomfortable.

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. However, within Swarthmore Athletics, I have noticed a 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. However, my coaches and teammates have been relatively good about using the proper pronouns and nearly flawless with my new name. Kayla, Parts, and I all have the same coaches, and they have shown consistent effort to get our pronouns right.

Still, Swarthmore Athletics and media coverage continue to hang a little behind. For one, the locker rooms are still 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 Swarthmore Athletics media coverage, and Kayla rarely does. If the writers did not know what our pronouns are, they could have just asked, or have found this information on mySwarthmore.* Avoiding my pronoun altogether makes me feel profiled and does nothing whatsoever to affirm my gender identity. 

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 session where coaches and fellow athletes learn to understand pronouns and some of the experiences of LGBTQ+ athletes. 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, I am cis for this sport, and that is the way it is going to be, because, y’all, I like winning. 

*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.

PERSPECTIVESClay ConleyComment