by Maggie Mertens, contributing columnist
Maybe you’ve seen the ad campaign for the OL Reign: the caption “She plays here” beside a photo of one of the team’s players.
On Feb. 9, the Reign tweeted out the ad with a link to buying season ticket packages for the upcoming 2021 season, starting in May. But the wording was slightly different. “They play here,” the caption read, beside a photo of Quinn, a midfielder who was signed by OL Reign in July 2019 and plays for the Canadian Women’s National Soccer Team.
The change is just one word, a pronoun, but it mattered a lot to Quinn, who came out as transgender and nonbinary last September in an Instagram post, started going by just one name, Quinn, and began using they/them pronouns.
“There was no precedent for it in sports, really,” Quinn told me recently over Zoom while discussing the decision to come out while playing as a professional athlete in a women’s league. “In the realms I was playing, FIFA with my national team or NWSL [National Women’s Soccer League], there were no written guidelines of whether trans people were allowed in sports.”
While Quinn worried about how the leagues would respond, they also felt coming out was “something I needed to do to continue playing soccer. Obviously, sports are a huge component of my life. They’re my love and my passion and also my career. So I knew I couldn’t be presented in the media and to fans and on my team as someone that I wasn’t. In order to continue playing sports and be in those spaces and be happy, that was something that I needed to do.”
And after Quinn came out, nothing major did change about their ability to play soccer on their national or professional teams. In fact, the OL Reign and the Canadian national team have embraced their new pronouns and name, offered them a uniform that fits comfortably, and attempted to make language around the team more inclusive. “Seeing everyone around me trying to make these spaces more inclusive, that’s really exciting. But it goes beyond me as well. I’m the one trans person on our team right now, but I think that that is now setting a new way for how we operate in our environments, which I think is really exciting.”
OL Reign fans have been supportive too. “I know that we have a good group of the fanbase in the LGBTQ community in the Seattle-area, and them reaching out has honestly been so kind,” says Quinn.
But being the first comes with growing pains as well. “I definitely think it was hard for my teammates and staff at times — for some of them, I’m the first trans person that they know personally.”
Whether they intended to or not, Quinn has become a professional-level example of the issue of transgender inclusion in sports at a timely moment.
An executive order signed by President Joe Biden in January that ensured LGBTQ individuals are included in federal anti-discrimination rules has set off a flurry of legislation in 30 states that would bar transgender youth from playing on a sport team that conforms to their gender identity. Many of these bills are characterized as “protecting” girls and women in sports — presumably from having to play with transgender athletes — despite there being no evidence that trans participation in youth sports harms cisgender youth. And transgender athletes don’t have a unique competitive advantage just by virtue of being trans either. Even so, in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, bills barring trans youth from participating in sports have already been signed into law. In South Dakota, the Republican governor recently vetoed a similar bill after a public pressure campaign.
When Megan Rapinoe testified before Congress about the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s equal pay lawsuit on March 24, she was asked by Republican Congressman Scott Franklin, of Florida, how she felt about President Biden’s executive order “allowing transgender boys to compete in women’s sport” as “a female professional athlete who has reached the absolute pinnacle of [her] profession.”
Rapinoe, who plays with Quinn on the OL Reign, responded: “As someone who has played sports with someone who is trans, I can assure you all is well, nothing is spontaneously combusting.”
In fact, despite the conservative talking point about how transgender women will ruin all competition in women’s sports, athletes like Rapinoe and Quinn have both said they support the inclusion of transgender women in their league. And if professional athletes can understand that transgender people are no threat to women’s sports, then why can’t we at least just let kids play?
After all, sports can be a lifeline for kids, especially LGBTQ youth, who face higher rates of stress, harassment, and suicidal ideation. Quinn says they first begged their parents to play soccer at age 3 but had to wait until 5 to sign up for the league. “In the hardest of times, dealing with my trans identity outside of sports, whether it’s navigating the world or facing discrimination in the world, sports were always my happy place to go to,” they said, “being able to connect with and feel joy with what my body could do.”
And Quinn wants that opportunity for every trans kid. “I’ve been completely overwhelmed by what’s happening in the United States with these bills. Just thinking of young trans folks and thinking of myself as a young kid, I’ve shed a lot of tears over the past weeks thinking about it and feeling really hopeless … It’s really difficult to picture me as a kid not having sports, so knowing that could be the reality for some folks in the future, I think it would really have changed my life in harmful and detrimental ways.”
Here in Washington, we actually were the first state in the country to introduce rules that allowed transgender youth to play on sports teams that align with their gender identity in 2007. And as far as I can tell, girls’ and women’s sports are still alive and well. Quinn says those rules are helpful at the youth level and that organizations can add to that accessibility by making sure kids feel safe and comfortable when it comes to uniforms that are gender affirming and locker room access, for example.
After all, kids are usually used to playing sports in environments that aren’t as rigidly gender binary as in professional environments. “I know from my own youth playing sports, I was on a co-ed team, and one of my teams played in a men’s league,” they said. “At the level most people in the world play sports, if you go to your local intramural basketball league or whatnot, we know it doesn’t need to be so strict and rigid when it comes to the gender binary.”
When Quinn takes the field for the NWSL’s Challenge Cup on April 16, they’ll prove that the professional sports world can become a little less rigid about that gender binary too. Hopefully all those lawmakers concerned about protecting gender equality in sports are paying attention.
Maggie Mertens is a Seattle-based writer who covers the intersection of gender, sport, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, espnW, Glamour, VICE, and other publications.
Featured image is credited to Jane Gershovich / OL Reign.
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