Life as a trans woman in the world of hockey

For those of you who don’t know, I am a transgender woman. I’m 29 years old. I’ve been out and physically transitioning since I was 27. I have known that I was trans since I was 25 but have had thoughts about wanting to be a girl since I was 12. I’ll be completely honest with you guys; I’ve wanted to write this article for a very long time. I wanted to write it long before I was here at WIIM. But ever since I got here, I knew one day I’d write it on this website to this audience. And with the end of this beautiful website impending, I figured I won’t get another opportunity to write it here if I don’t write it now.

Look, I don’t think this can be questioned. Transphobia is very much alive and prevalent in and around the sport of hockey. That’s not to say it’s only prevalent in hockey; far from it actually. It feels like every day, I’m seeing something on Twitter about a new law being proposed somewhere in the United States that would negatively impact transgender people in some way. While we’re getting more positive representation than ever in media, that doesn’t take away the large amount of transphobia that gets spat out into the world.

So, why hockey? If transphobia is a worldwide problem, why am I pointing out hockey specifically? Well, there are two reasons for that. First, hockey is my second greatest love in the world (behind only my fiance). It has been a part of my life since I was very little with some of my first memories in life watching the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. Secondly, homophobia and transphobia seem to be engrained in hockey’s culture. I say this as someone who played hockey for 14 years and has watched the sport for my entire life and it is something that needs to be fixed.

Life in the Locker Room and Closet

Before I give my stories, I want to clarify first and foremost that I will be telling my experiences as both a transgender woman and as someone who lived identifying as a cisgender man for 25 years of my life. These are my experiences but that does not mean they are every transgender person’s experience. Some may have better experiences and some may have far worse. I also want to add that these are MY experiences. Some of them may seem familiar to you and some may seem completely foreign, but please understand that they are authentic.

Growing up, I played a lot of sports. I played soccer, baseball, tennis, golf, and, of course, hockey. Among all of those sports, none of them had even close to the amount of homophobia and transphobia that hockey did. Slurs were second nature to nearly everyone in the locker room and, sadly, I’m not innocent in that. I grew up very Christian and very anti-gay and anti-trans. So, when I was surrounded by people using slurs all the time, it became part of my own vocabulary. I regret that so much and I hate that I ever used those words and there really is no excuse. But to me at the time, those words became so normalized that I saw no problem slinging them around, just like nearly everyone else in the locker room.

Joining the teenagers in saying these words were the coaches. The coaches often would use the words as much as we did. And when these words were used, they were always aimed at someone they were accusing of being weak or not very masculine or tough. I was unfortunately a prime target of these words. I was never the most masculine person growing up and I certainly wasn’t very tough. I got called slurs a lot. But even more than just slurs, I got called gay a lot. I got called a girl a lot. Words that by definition are not insulting, but were aimed at me in an insulting manner.

I was supposed to be tough and strong and masculine. I was a hockey player for god’s sake. So if I wasn’t those things, I was a girl or I was gay or I was whatever slur they wanted to throw at me. The thoughts of wishing I was a girl? Those stayed hidden. Playing hockey caused my personality to change. I tried so hard to be masculine and tough. And to a teenage me, it meant joining in on the slurs and it meant treating being weak or sensitive like the worst thing that you could be. I had to fit in so they wouldn’t suspect that I wished I was a girl.

The most difficult thing I had to deal with happened during my senior year of high school. It was my only year playing high school hockey after sticking with travel all the way through my junior year. That season, one of my teammates decided he was going to start calling me “Brittany”. He got a good chunk of my teammates to join in and at least a third of my team if not more was calling me Brittany consistently. This spread outside the team as well. There were even a couple of siblings of teammates who joined in on the nickname.

It lasted the entire season and even after the season was over. I’d get Facebook posts on my wall calling me Brittany at random times for no reason other than they knew it upset me and because they didn’t see me in person to do it that way. Around the same time that this was happening, there were tons of rumors about musical artist Lady Gaga and her gender/sex. The number of transphobic jokes I heard about Lady Gaga during my teen years in hockey locker rooms is extremely high. Combine that with being called a girl all the time and this girl buried deep in the closet was only getting buried deeper.

A Return of Nightmares

By my early-20s, I was finally becoming a better person. I became an ally of the LGBTQ+ community as I made more friends who identified as such and learned more about them. I became more tolerant and I grew as a person. I made a couple of trans friends for the first time and I talked to them about what they were going through. When I was 23, I started questioning my gender a bit more. I started thinking about how much of a feminine person I was and if that meant something. Around the same time, I got back into the hockey world.

I was a part of the student-run radio station in college and became a broadcaster for the women’s hockey team. We needed someone to join me and the only person who stepped up was a freshman who came to my college specifically for our very successful sports broadcasting team. Immediately, I realized I would be in for a long year.

This guy was a massive homophobe and transphobe. He was the kind of guy that if you called him a transphobe, he would respond “I’m not afraid of trans people” and I know this because he literally told me that. He would want to talk politics in the car together 75% of the drive to games and he would often spew this awful, homophobic, and transphobic rhetoric. Occasionally I stepped up to him about it, but I was too afraid of conflict and he was too stubborn to change his mind.

For the first time in three years, I was back in the hockey world. And for the first time in three years, I was consistently surrounded by anti-LGBTQ+ speak. It felt like the escape played a part in what saved me. Not being around that environment consistently helped me become a better person and helped me get closer to the realization of who I really am. And now that I’m back, instead of changing my behavior, it just affected my mental health.

I struggled every time we went on a road trip together. The fear of what he’d say and try to talk about with me while I drove two hours to our next game was terrifying. The anxiety I felt was exhausting. I dealt with this for two years because, despite all of this, we were really good as a broadcasting duo and I sacrificed my mental health because I felt it would help me progress my career. However, I’ll never forget that despite all the anti-Trump rhetoric I tweeted on my timeline to potentially drive him away after graduating, the thing that made finally him unfollow me was coming out as trans.

Coming Out to a Scary Place

When I was 25 years old, I finally realized I was likely a transgender woman. However, despite finally reaching that conclusion, I was still a long way from revealing that to the world. The fear I felt was immeasurable but finally, on my 27th birthday, I did it. I told all of Twitter that I was trans. And from that point forward, hockey Twitter became a much more difficult place for me.

Any time I reply to any tweet from the NHL page, I get bombarded with transphobic tweets from people I don’t know. I thankfully have a group of friends who will stand by me against transphobes, but that doesn’t stop them from showing up in the first place. I often feel nervous and scared to reply to any tweet from a hockey page. It’s a feeling I never once had pre-transition. But now, it’s a fear I have every time I hit the tweet button about anything remotely hockey related.

There isn’t a single Twitter moment that stands out like the other stories. The Twitter experience comes from a variety of random people who all get blocked shortly after but it doesn’t make it any less exhausting. What does stand out to me is how I was received when I first joined WIIM with my introduction article. I was talking about who I am and I made sure to include that I was trans because it is who I am and I’m damn proud of it.

When I chatted with JJ about the comment section, he told me that he would be deleting any transphobic comments aimed at me, and as far as I can tell, he has done that. However, there was a comment when that first article dropped that I saw before JJ got to it. It was a simple message. A vomiting emoji and “Really???” It was clear what it was about.

There was no other reason for it. That was about ten minutes into my time as a published writer at WIIM. While every person I’ve seen since has been fine to even wonderful, that one moment showed me that there were absolutely people who did not want me here because of my identity. And that is extremely difficult to deal with as a lifelong Red Wings fan and hockey fan.

Pride Night Failures

To wrap things up, I want to talk about the NHL’s issues with Pride Nights this season. We have now seen two players refuse to take warmups with a pride jersey on it. We’ve also had two teams just flat-out change their mind about wearing their pride warmup jerseys at the last minute. It has been a hotly debated topic on opinions and free speech and it has shined a negative spotlight on the NHL.

These incidents have shown that teams will cave to hatred and bigotry. Being anti-trans or anti-gay is not just an opinion. It’s bigotry.  It’s hard to feel welcome in a sport where teams won’t even wear a practice jersey out of fear of the outrage they might get from either the fans or from players and will take the side of bigotry rather than the side of support. The league is making progress, but it’s clear there are still enough homophobic and transphobic people out there not just in the fanbase, but on the teams as well, that impact an entire organization’s decisions.

In Conclusion

So, what now? I think the biggest step is more people being loudly supportive of the trans community in the world of hockey. Fans can step up and speak their mind and that’s great. However, the outward support of NHL players will put the biggest impact on the image of the league and help trans people feel more welcome in the sport.

The next step is if you witness transphobia, call it out. It’s not hard to stand up to transphobia, especially as a cisgender person. Lastly, just be a kind person. It’s not difficult to be kind to others and the more you spread kindness, the less toxicity in the world. I don’t expect hockey culture to be fixed in a day. It’ll take years to get the current attitude out of the sport. But progress is being made, and we as fans of the greatest sport on the planet need to keep making sure to move forward.