By Isabelle Yuan ’20
In celebration of November as Transgender Awareness Month, Wellesley College’s Chinese Students’ Association (CSA) hosted a lecture with Schuyler Bailar, the first transgender athlete to compete on a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I team. As a LGBTQIA+ advocate and educator, Bailar travels across the country to give speeches about his journey. Sharon Lu ’20, CSA’s Social Impact Chair, invited Bailar to campus to generate greater awareness in the Asian/Asian American community about transgender and LGBTQIA+ issues. Lu, along with the event’s many co-sponsors, was instrumental in bringing such an engaging speaker to campus.
Bailar kicked off his lecture with a brief overview of his life, showcasing pictures of his childhood outfits and describing how he was bullied for his boyish appearance. As a young adult, he felt intense discomfort over entering the girls’ bathroom, which led him to grow out his hair and dress in more feminine clothing in high school. Bailar began swimming as a one-year-old, and the activity would serve as his outlet for the next two decades. He found enormous success as a competitive swimmer in high school and was eventually recruited to swim for Harvard University’s Women’s Swim and Dive team in 2013.
Incredibly accomplished at the age of 18, Bailar was miserable. During the lecture, he spoke candidly about how his mental health deteriorated to the point where he postponed college to seek treatment for his eating disorder. While recuperating at an eating disorder center, he came to realize he was transgender. It was there that he met another transgender companion and felt an instant connection. After learning about the possibilities of hormone injections and top surgery, he started to seriously consider transitioning.
Bailar was terrified about revealing his transgender identity to his coach for fear of losing his spot on the team or even as a student. Fortunately, Bailar received incredible support from both the women’s and men’s swim team coaches, Stephanie Morawski and Kevin Tyrrell, respectively. Coach Morawski assured Bailar that his spot was secure, and Coach Tyrrell even offered him a spot on the men’s team. After gaining the full support of the men’s swim team, he decided to join. Doing so has granted Bailar the title of first openly transgender D1 athlete, and his story continues to trend across social media and the news.
Bailar embedded humor and nuance into his lecture as he spoke openly to a crowd of more than a hundred Wellesley students and off-campus guests. He eloquently described how he grappled with competing with top surgery scars and the backlash he faced. At the end of his lecture, he defined the terms “transgender” and “transition,” by clarifying their usage and common misconceptions: people are not “transgendered,” and you should not refer to someone as a “transgender,” because it is an adjective. In particular, Bailar reminded the audience that there is no correct way to transition. It can mean many different things to people, and you should offer people the agency to decide what transitioning means to them.
During the Q&A portion, multiple students asked questions, including how he came out to his family, what his transition process was like, and how he and his coaches dealt with the NCAA’s rules regarding transgender athletes. One student asked for advice about coming out as a queer Asian American with a less accepting family. “First, the way someone comes out is important. In coming out, you should be clear, concise, and confident… attitude is important for how one comes out,” Bailar responded. He stressed that one should have compassion for their family and give them time to process. Although Bailar’s family accepts him now, he struggled to tell his conservative, Catholic, Korean grandmother. Afraid she would disown his family, he wrote an extensive letter emphasizing his respect for her and his hopes that she would understand that he was still himself, only a more authentic him. He acknowledged the difficulty in finding the right language for his grandmother, since the Korean word for “transgender” sounds just like the English pronunciation.
Another student asked for advice for transgender students and allies at a historically women’s college. He believes that there needs to be institutional change to the language and more training of faculty, staff, and students. His advice is extremely applicable to Wellesley, where students have advocated for the usage of “siblinghood” instead of “sisterhood,” for instance. Hopefully in the future, Wellesley’s administration and student body will be responsive towards Bailar’s advice. Bailar noted that there were more Asian/Asian American students present than in his usual audiences, and the fruitful turnout suggests there is strong interest from Wellesley’s AAPI community, and the general Wellesley community, to attend more events centered around intersectional, LGBTQIA+ awareness in the future.