Two days after competing in his final collegiate swimming and diving meet, Schuyler Bailar came to speak to the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and other student-athletes and administrators at Brandeis University. Bailar, the first openly transgender athlete to compete in any sport on an NCAA Division I men’s team, vied all four years competing for the Harvard University swimming and diving program.
He was one of a select group of “notable graduates” highlighted in the Harvard Gazette Commencement Program and received the prestigious Harvard Director’s Award. The award, as determined by the Harvard Varsity Club “recognizes the person (or persons) who, through his/her pursuit of excellence and service to Harvard Athletics, has displayed exceptional leadership, personal character, integrity, and commitment to education through athletics.”
Four-year Harvard University swimmer Schuyler Bailar (Photo by Gail Farris)
The honor is not an annual award, but is only given when a student-athlete demonstrates outstanding contributions. Bailar was the seventh recipient in history and the first swimmer to be honored.
“We wanted to bring him in a prior year as we were searching for a speaker on inclusivity and he had such a unique story,” said Brandeis men’s soccer head coach Gabe Margolis, who has been active with the campus SAAC since 2012. “We like the idea that each student-athlete can be true to one’s self and that having different people on teams can make each team such a special place. We had trouble finding a date that worked for everyone previously, but this year it worked perfectly.”
“We first thought of bringing him in for ‘deis IMPACT!, which is a week-long campus festival of social justice,” said Brandeis Associate Director of Athletics Lynne Dempsey. “We started talking about Schuyler with our SAAC council and he seemed like a great fit for us as we have spoken about challenges and possibilities for transgender athletes at Brandeis.”
“I really enjoyed meeting the students and faculty at Brandeis,” Bailar recalled. “I spoke to a group primarily comprised of student-athletes, which is always a special group to me.”
For Jac Guerra, the first out transgender student-athlete at Brandeis, Bailar serves as an important role model. “Having someone like Schuyler is important simply because it’s so much easier to feel like you’re not alone in doing something when there is someone who has done it before you,” explained Guerra, who is a transgender male competing on the Judges’ women’s track & field team. “Being able to watch another transgender athlete participate in sports at the collegiate level has made me feel like I’m part of a community, rather than having to go it alone. It’s almost like I have my team, who I love deeply, but also this broader team of current and former LGBTQ athletes who are open about who we are and set the precedent that other athletes can be as well.”
Jac Guerra is the first out transgender student-athlete at Brandeis University
OPENNESS AND TRANSPARENCY
“What struck me right away is that he was just so genuine and matter of fact. He was making sure everyone else was feeling comfortable,” Dempsey noted. “Instead of setting ground rules, he was relaxed and sensitive to the interest of the audience, encouraging everyone to ask questions. He said there are no bad questions because if you are asking, it means you care about the answer.”
“In a very kind way, he got us to think about how we generalize and stereotype in many different ways in our lives and how we need to constantly be on guard against our assumptions,” said Brandeis Interim Athletic Director Jeff Ward. “As with all of the speakers who I thought were effective in fighting prejudice, he didn’t want people to feel guilty. He wanted them to learn.”
“I was curious how comfortable our student-athletes would be asking questions,” Margolis stated. “They jumped in right away and the questions were flowing. Several student-athletes had great questions, but I credit Schuyler for his demeanor and wanting people to ask questions.”
“The speech was given for an audience that I believe was almost entirely comprised of student-athletes,” Guerra commented. “While I’d like to think that all of my peers at Brandeis are LGBTQ-affirming, it was really moving to have people who might not have sought out a discussion about transgender experience have such complex, thoughtful questions. Having my teammates come with me to the talk was also meaningful to me as it gave them the opportunity to reaffirm their support for me by being willing to listen to someone who’s had a similar journey.”
Bailar has always been open about his transition, both physically and emotionally. “The whole presentation was so impressive on so many levels,” Margolis recollected. “He presented a slide show and talked about growing up as a girl. He spoke about what he felt at the time and what that meant to him.”
L: Bailar 6 1/2 years ago; R: Bailar last week
Dempsey believed the student-athletes particularly connected with Bailar on the importance of being true to themselves. “He came to the decision that he was supposed to be a man and that he had to get behind that,” she relayed. “He spoke about how everyone goes through certain things and that at some point, you have to be true to yourself. Our student-athletes were in awe of someone near their age who could speak so freely and so openly.”
“His message went well beyond what it means to be transgender and the challenges he faced,” Ward commented. “In part, he spoke about the importance of support as individuals find their own way.”
Bailar is quick to point out that not everyone is ready to be as open as he is. “Everyone has to chart their own course at their own pace,” he stated. “There is no one way to transition, there is no one way to come out and compete. In the end, no one is ever required to disclose their identity, not in their social spheres nor in their sport. The only pressure one should feel to come out should come from within.”
One of the things that struck Margolis was how accomplished Bailar was as a swimmer prior to his transition. “He gave a full background, growing up as girl and being an elite female swimmer. That was a piece of his story I hadn’t thought of,” he said. “He potentially had the chance to swim for national championships and he gave that up too. He made everything very public and it shows people that it is OK to be yourself.”
In 2012, Bailar earned the first of back-to-back All-American finishes in the 100-yard breaststroke while attending Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C. At the 2013 National Club Swimming Association (NCSA) Junior National Championships in Orlando, Florida, Bailar qualified for the U.S. Open Swimming Championships, the fastest U.S. meet in a non-Olympic year.
One of his most memorable swimming highlights was at the 2013 United States Swimming National Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana. Bailar swam on the 400-yard medley relay team that set the U.S. national record for ages 15-to-18, joining NCAA champion Janet Hu, NCAA qualifier Kylie Jordan, and five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky to post a time of 3:37.93. He was recruited by multiple Ivy League schools before deciding to continue his education and swimming career at Harvard.
“His athletic story was equally compelling for me. He went from being an athlete who received significant external motivation to one where it had to be mostly intrinsic,” Ward remarked. “In the end, I was left with the feeling that the intrinsic worth made him feel much more fulfilled and, in relative terms, meant he accomplished more. That is something we are constantly trying to help our student-athletes embrace.”
Although he fully understands that not everyone feels safe coming out, Bailar believes there can be great rewards in coming out. “Being openly authentic about yourself and naming your truth can also be incredibly freeing so I always recommend working toward that at some point,” he expressed. “I always advise anyone coming out to be patient and compassionate with both themselves and others. Coming out is an act of self-love, or at least, I believe it should be. Treat it as such.”
Guerra sees similarities in his and Bailar’s experience of coming out. “Schuyler described figuring out his identity while in treatment for an eating disorder during his senior year of high school, while I came out to my mom within a day of admitting to a five-year long struggle with disordered eating,” he explained. “Listening to this similarity during his talk stuck with me, knowing that a huge portion of transgender teens and adults struggle with eating disorders, yet it isn’t widely discussed even within the LGBTQ community. Having someone like Schuyler speak openly about his experience with an eating disorder is incredibly impactful for young trans people trying to deal with their own situations.”
There has been widespread controversy regarding trans athlete participation, including the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banning of women athletes from some events if they did not reduce their testosterone levels. That policy was recently upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Earlier this year, USA Powerlifting banned transgender (male to female) athletes from competing.
“It is important to note that the regulations regarding the legality of competing as a transgender athlete are also important to consider during one’s coming out and transition process,” Bailar described. “These differ based on institution, governing body, and state. I would advise any transgender athletes to familiarize themselves with the rules (transathlete.com is a great resource). I would also say that if the rules are not in your favor, don’t get discouraged. The world is changing. You can be part of that change.”
“Listening to Schuyler speak allowed everyone in the room to witness the result of a welcoming athletic community that chooses to approach the diversity of students as a positive thing, rather than a problem,” Guerra stated. “Having a successful, happy transgender person representing an athletic program reinforces the awareness that trans kids don’t need to sacrifice doing what they love in order to be themselves and be accepted by others.”
Margolis and Dempsey were encouraged that cisgender male student-athletes asked Bailar several questions. “We had a men’s basketball player who put his hand up and down and up. You could tell he wanted to ask a question,” Dempsey recalled. “Schuyler called on him and the student-athlete asked him what it was like to be at his first practice with his new body. Schuyler commented on what a great question that was and discussed how his Harvard teammates were his protectors.”
“Schuyler talked about how his conversations with the Harvard coaches opened his eyes to how open people there were,” Margolis recollected. “Being a swimmer, his transition could not be any more open. He is only wearing a bathing suit.”
Bailar is very active in the NCAA inclusion development and was impressed to see an NCAA Division III banner promoting ONETEAM, which came out of the Division III LGBTQ Working Group. “I was thrilled to find the NCAA DIII ONETEAM initiative in full rollout on campus,” he recollected. “I had not seen it elsewhere yet and I was excited that Brandeis had embraced it fully.”
Schuyler Bailar in front of ONETEAM sign at Brandeis University
He has served on an NCAA’s Common Ground, which meets annually to discuss inclusion of LGBTQ student-athletes at faith-based institutions. “The NCAA is very actively discussing inclusion in collegiate sports and I applaud their work,” Bailar voiced. “Common Ground was one of the most moving experiences in my college career and I am happy my employer Brighton Jones is allowing me to continue to be a part of my NCAA inclusion work. I hope that Division I can soon adopt ONETEAM too. Continuing the conversation, and staying vigilant with rules and policies that promote inclusion will be critical for the NCAA not only for college athletics, but also for the influence their positions have on high schools, middle schools, and club sports.”
“Schuyler and I chose different directions in terms of medical transitioning, but as a whole, we still had the ability to be part of teams who recognize us for who we are, and push us to our potential, regardless of our history,” communicated Guerra. “Recognizing trans athletes for what we have to give to the athletic community, rather than the difficulties our participation may give rise to, is at the center of what people like Schuyler are trying to promote. That is the approach that I believe that the collegiate athletic community should take towards LGBTQ athletes, and LGBTQ athletes towards their own performances: elevate, celebrate, repeat.”
“Schuyler bringing such awareness to our athletics community made us really take a look at what we need in place,” Dempsey said. “We have a gender-neutral bathroom at the pool, but it is not set up in an ideal way. We need to be thoughtful about locker rooms and what options we have. Older facilities are not set up in a way to make it easy and present challenges. We are committed to making our facilities work for all student-athletes.”
“A line that has always impressed me when listening to Schuyler speak is how when the Harvard men’s coach heard about Schuyler’s situation, he didn’t react with apathy or disengage himself from the problem,” Guerra recounted. “He gave Schuyler the option of swimming with the men by saying, ‘He’s a male swimmer at Harvard and I coach the Harvard men’s swimming team.’ Putting it in those terms seems simple, but just by recognizing the identity of trans athletes as they are, and giving them appropriate options, is exactly the kind of progress that has been needed from so many coaches and athletic directors.”
“We had about 50 student-athletes in attendance and that was a strong number,” Dempsey remarked. “The way they were discussing the speech immediately after and in the following days prompted many others, including staff, to say they wished they had been there.”
“He was one of the best, if not the best, speakers I have heard across all genres,” Margolis contributed. “I was blown away. The whole presentation was so impressive on so many levels. He is as impressive a person as I have come across and he left a big mark on me.”
“It was one of the best presentations we have ever had,” Dempsey added. “He said that he wasn’t speaking for every trans athlete, but rather sharing his own experience. He is so gifted and was very poised as a presenter, yet not in a scripted way. He wasn’t hitting points. He made everyone feel comfortable and went in the direction of the questions from the student-athletes.”
Guerra admits he was shy about introducing himself to Bailar after the speech, but the two did get a chance to talk. “Thankfully, he found me and we were able to speak. We acknowledged that everyone has their own journey, as he knew I competed with the women, and talked about how the differences in our sports allow for certain benefits. For me, the fact that track does not have very different uniforms between the genders makes life easier for me. Even while the majority of his speech was talking about how being transgender pushed him to make the specific decisions about his swim career, he reaffirmed to me that there is no right way to go about being transgender in sports, and that his path is only one of those ways.”
“When Schuyler spoke with our students at Brandeis, it was one of the best talks I’ve ever heard. He’s charming and bright with a welcoming personality that makes any topic easy,” Ward ruminated. “He spoke about the support and thoughtfulness of his teammates. It was certainly a lesson for our students, but it was also something I have seen many times. When teammates understand that a teammate needs support, they quickly learn to abandon their prejudices and rally in support. I’ve seen it happen with issues of race, sexuality, and privilege. The power of the team is sometimes used poorly, but when given the chance (and maybe a little guidance), it can do so much good.”