Earlier this year the Madison Gay Hockey Association (MGHA) and Team Trans put together a Friendship Series that was due to be played at the beginning of April.
And then, COVID-19 happened.
The event was postponed, but leading up to it, two members of Team Trans joined me for a wonderful conversation about sports, identity, and what it means to build a space between them.
Meredith: First off, why don’t you tell me your names, the positions you play and your pronouns, please.
Avery: Avery, I use they/them pronouns. I play center normally, but I’ll play whatever except goalie if the need arises. I prefer defense over wing but center’s where I’m happiest.
Kate: My name is Kate, my pronouns are they/them, and I tend to play defense because I like wrecking people’s days.
Meredith: That’s a good reason. Um, how old were you when you started to play hockey?
Avery: I started my first year of high school.
Kate: I was 33. I’m older than I look. So it was seven years ago, but yeah, it was 33.
Meredith: What drew you to hockey in the first place, what got you into it?
Kate: My parents have always been hockey fans. But I’m actually from Indianapolis.
My parents got to see Wayne Gretzky play in his first game because they had season tickets to the Racers. They actually wrote my grandparents and told them they couldn’t make their car payment because they wanted season tickets for hockey. So they took the money that was supposed to be for this car payment and instead bought season tickets to the Racers.
We went to Indianapolis Ice games when I was a kid at the Pepsi Coliseum, which is, I think is where the Racers play too. That was like IHL [International Hockey League] hockey.
My dad would go and watch Red Wings games with his friend, and we’d go hang out with his kids who were our age. It was like the early 90s, late 80s, so when the Red Wings basically started getting really good. We went from “Oh hockey’s cool” to “Oh my God, hockey is amazing!”
I’ve always watched it and know kind of a lot sort of by osmosis, but there wasn’t a lot of hockey in Indianapolis when I was a kid. I also went to a Catholic high school. We had a combined hockey team with another school. We had one maybe two kids that played in the four years I was there. There’s any hardly any hockey at all much less hockey for people identifying as girls or women.
I would ice skate a little bit in high school, but never very well. And then it wasn’t until I came to Madison and found the MGHA was like, “Oh, they take people who can’t skate. Oh, cool. I can skate a little bit. I’ll be fine.” Then I got out there. I was like, “I can go around in a circle, but I can’t stop or anything.” I just kind of always want to play and finally at 33 got the opportunity. So that’s cool.
Avery: I went skating at the rink. I’m going to say near my house, but when I say near my house, in West Virginia, that meant an hour away. So, I did that with a friend. And I tried on hockey skates because the figure skates sucked and they hurt, not that their rental hockey skates felt any better.
But I liked it. I was like, I could just do this and I wasn’t really that sporty at the time. But I don’t know, I fell in love with hockey and I did it a lot. I almost played in college but none of the places that gave me offers were academically what I wanted, so I didn’t play in college. And here we are in, which is a good thing because I went and played club and got to stay. So that was nice.
I don’t actually know why I like hockey. But I do.
Meredith: How has your gender identity changed your relationship with sports?
Avery: It’s definitely complicated them.
Avery: See in high school, it was weird because in West Virginia you can imagine there wasn’t a lot of a lot of hockey at all. The hockey there was a boys team. I mean, it was it was co-ed in the sense that girls could join but it was all boys, except for me. In college, I played on the Women’s Club team, but again, by the time I graduated, it was me and another nonbinary person captaining the women’s team. At least three of the people on the team did not identify as cis. Granted that was at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. They’re very, very progressive. Great place to be trans, can confirm.
I don’t know if I’ve thought deeply about how this has changed my relationship with sports because I always played on boys teams, except when I didn’t in college, and then it didn’t matter except for rugby. But I stopped playing rugby because of an injury. Then I didn’t go back because of my gender. Rugby is the one sport where they would actually care at the level that I played about me being on hormones. So I just didn’t go back down that road, because I really didn’t feel like fighting with the National Small College Rugby Association about it. And I was not ready to play on the men’s teams. I’m sorry, the question was how is it...
Meredith: You’re fine! I was wondering how your relationship to both being an athlete and the culture that surrounds athletics evolved as your gender identity has evolved and how your understanding of your gender identity has evolved as you’ve gotten older, if that makes sense.
Avery: There’s definitely a change from when I was seen as female to now. I would show up at ice rinks then and definitely be seen as like, not as important a member of the team as the boys. I don’t really play in the same sort of areas of hockey but when I do play in spaces where there’s predominantly men I’m accepted more. I walk in and people just accept me as a hockey player at face value instead of having to prove that I can keep up with them, which is what I spent high school doing, proving that I could take a hit, do all those things and blah dee da whatever.
I don’t know, it’s weird, just like stepping on the ice and being seen as like [pause] even in high school before I knew what gender I was, I had my hair cut so that under a helmet the other team would ask me if I was a boy or girl. Even then, there were clues. There were so many clues, I practically tripped over the clues.
Meredith: It goes that way, it goes that way with gender and sexuality. It’s like oh, looking back, yeah, I should have figured this out way sooner than I did.
Avery: Yeah, I should have figured it out in like, junior year of high school. Did I? No. Because West Virginia.
Kate: Yeah. That’s right. Some of us figure it out. And then pretend we forgot about that and then figure it back out again. Like, it’s not always a straight line.
Meredith: No, it is. Definitely not. Definitely not.
Kate: I’ve never considered myself an athlete. I was a very Butch kid. I played soccer until I was in high school. I was never any good at it, and I was never an athletic kid. I would ride my bike around, but in gym class, I was always the last kid finished with the cross country run or whatever. I was the slow chubby kid for all my life.
But even playing in soccer, what I did have, and it is no surprise I play defense, was - it’s not competitiveness as much as a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I don’t know what a striker is in normal soccer but we had a position that would play between the defense and the midfielders. I think it was just something my coach came up with because we needed something. But I always wanted to play that position because I really liked the sort of aggressiveness of it.
Everybody else on the team had these careers in sports where they’ve played decently high level, they played an organized teams, as like high schoolers and adults where their gender mattered. I never played anything that organized, or when I have it’s been gay hockey or Avery and I both play on a women’s hockey team here that’s very gender inclusive; we have trans women. It’s a women’s team only because that’s the league of folks that we can play with. There’s not an organized league of queer folks besides the MGHA here, which is sort of its own thing.
I play in leagues, with the exception of that one beer league, even the the pickup Friday night hockey scrimmage that Avery and I both sometimes play in here, that have always been very queer-friendly and it is getting to be fairly trans-friendly. The straight people running it have always sort of said “No, we want to be like really welcoming and open to the folks from the MGHA, because we think you’re great.”
I don’t have a lot of stories of like sitting in a locker room going “Oh, I’m too butch to be here, or I’m too femme to be here.” The gender side of it is kind of more straightforward for me, I think, than the sports side.
Avery: Definitely. I’ve definitely had that experience of like, sitting in a locker and not feeling like that belong there on both sides of it like high school. It’s always one room which was rare because it was basically the South. So they went on a broom closet that they just put some chairs in. Oh, nice. It was great. It was great. I have so many interesting closets I’ve seen in rinks across Ohio.
But like then in college I played like with my college team and with a rec league team. We have WHAM in Minnesota, the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota. It’s the biggest women’s hockey association actually in the world. I’m going to brag a little bit.
I played on a women’s team there and I played all four years in college and I was medically transitioning junior year. My team was cool with it. If they hadn’t been, I wouldn’t kept playing but like, none of them cared.
But there were definitely experiences like in the summer when I would play pickup or teams would text me and be like, “Hey, you want to play? We need more skaters.” No one would say anything, but I don’t blend in. No one in Minnesota ever said, ‘what are you doing in this locker room?’ because it’s Minnesota. But I felt I wanted to play with women because I like the game better. Like I’ve played both, but I like the game better. The attitude is better.
Kate: I think like for me it’s sort of because I haven’t medically transitioned, like, I still have a female body essentially. I still have all my factory issued parts, shall we say, I think it’s better to say that.
Avery: Sorry, only custom made parts here!
Kate: No, it’s beautiful. It works so well a way to sum it all up without having to be like, “Well, I have not had any medical procedures.”
As somebody who hasn’t medically transitioned, I think most of the time I get clocked as a lesbian, a queer woman, especially if I’m there with my wife who also plays hockey - once she’s back from her multiyear concussion hiatus now. It’s sort of interesting in the ways my gender almost gets erased more than it stands out, if that makes sense.
Meredith: It totally does. Like, I have more hair at the moment than I usually do. But like the balder I get, it’s like, the more the gender aspect of my presentation goes away and the more just like, oh, you’re real queer, aren’t you? It just comes out to people. So I totally get it.
Kate: I think about the straight dude league that we played in that summer. I didn’t have any issues, and part of it was that our team was very chill. I kind of had that attitude of “Fuck you, I’m gonna knock guys over if they’re stupid.” Not run into them, but just I’m gonna show how badly they’re skating.
But our friends who are cis gay men who were dating at the time, and obviously gay, had a much harder time. Especially the one who was more anxious, was a little more nervous about being there. Then he plays worse because when he gets anxious, right? So the one who could play a little bit better and is a very solid defensive player didn’t get as much shit.
But the one who’s playing forward who is a little bit more anxious and wasn’t playing as well. They didn’t even know his name. They called him by his number on his team and would blame him for anything that went wrong. They stopped playing halfway through because it was straight guy bullshit, basically. I think that even if my wife and I ended up on that team, I don’t think we would have experienced because I think we would have been sort of given the Butch woman pass almost because they’re totally down with Butch women and not with effeminate man or with gay men.
For me, it’s sort of been a different twist on that. I certainly am super hella queer and don’t mind necessarily being read that way, as opposed to other ways. I don’t know how else I could be read besides what I am, a Butch lesbian. But it’s also, as somebody who’s neither a woman nor a lesbian, like that can be very weird and invalidating and awkward and its a constant like “Do I come out? Do I tell these people my pronouns?”
On a team full of cis straight dudes, probably not, even though they’re all very nice cis straight dudes. On my women’s team that’s very trans inclusive, yes. I push the pronouns and I’m not the only one doing it too. I’m not the only person there with they/them pronouns. I’m not the only person there who’s trans. We have a spectrum of trans folks, we have multiple trans women that have played with us, trans men who played with us. So it’s, it’s a different world, but that’s been my experience in non queer hockey spaces and non queer sports spaces.
Meredith: Is there anything that hockey offers you as a group that you don’t find off the ice too much?
Kate: The nice thing about hockey is that you wear so much gear, and especially every group I play with pretty much insists on like a cage as well on or at least like the full visor, except that one dudebro pickup league that’s, you know, super queer and trans accepting. Well, queer accepting, they’re working on the trans stuff. They’re the only place I think I played with people that wear visors ever, it’s usually full cage.
And so there’s an anonymization almost with that. I’m a little face blind anyway. I go with a lot of cues like hair to differentiate people. In hockey you lose some of those cues, but you pick it up on other, like helmet color — because I don’t play at a level where people have uniform helmets or pants or anything like that — or numbers, height, the way somebody skates. And those are all usually not very gendered things, right?
I think it’s super, very almost democratizing sort of thing to have all that gear on outside of the locker room, at least. It’s like a de-gendered sort of space in some ways.
Avery: The MGHA is very much like that. I know for me with hockey it’s like outside of the MGHA, to the gear when I put on all the gear no one questions my gender on the ice as long as I don’t speak and I’ve shaved.
With hockey, it’s very much like you’re all in it together. I’ve played on teams with mixed skills and I’ve played on teams where we’re all the same skill. But you put on all the gear and you’re all struggling together and you’re probably all tired by the time you get the gear on and then, you go out on the ice, it’s very unique.
There is no other sport that has the same feeling. It’s like you’re stepping into a different world, like when you put on all that gear and you go out on the ice and you close that door, you’re somewhere else. You’re all there together. It’s your team and you’re learning together and you’re making plays together and you celebrate together and someone you know, scores a goal or makes a nice pass and you all fist bump. It’s just its own you unique thing that you can’t get anywhere else.
And it does kind of remove the gender from the equation. It doesn’t matter. Yeah, I have 10 billion stickers on my helmet, telling people my pronouns that no one pays attention to, but it doesn’t matter what your gender is, or what’s in your pants or if you’re wearing you’re binder or not or whatever. You’re just out there.
Meredith: I love it.
Kate: As de-gendering as it is when you put the gear on, I don’t want to downplay that there’s certainly spaces, like your average dudebro beer league hockey, where that’s still a very gendered space. Like I said with my friends with their experience even as guys, they had a lot of issues because they weren’t the right kind of guys. It’s not like all that hockey culture crap disappears because nobody can see your face or nobody knows if you’re a boy or a girl or not. It’s also not that you can’t have one person that just tortures the other team and like takes the puck and never passes.
But the best parts of hockey are exactly what Avery is saying, that you really need to have your whole team. It’s about everybody there and not just one person.
Meredith: I love that. I love that. And my last question, what are your favorite moments being part of Team Trans?
Avery: I’m going to go first even though I haven’t actually played with Team Trans yet. It’s just that joy, even just communicating electronically. We understand we all love this sport, but we’ve also all been shoehorned into gendered spaces, spaces that didn’t match our identity. And so we all sort of understand when we get on the ice we’re doing...like I’ve played hockey and hidden my gender both ways, right, to play hockey. A lot of people on Team Trans have done that, for sure the pros, for sure people who played at higher levels or people who just started as adults too, if they want to play in a gendered league or if they want to play on a certain team and like learn, they may hide their gender identity in order to be able to play to fit in to not be ridiculed off the ice before you’ve gotten on the ice.
It’s being a part of something unique. We share being trans and we all share being hockey players but we also share being trans hockey players. And because of the way hockey is, it’s just a world of its own. And then there’s the whole, you’re trans and you’ve stepped into a different world too. Then you put those two worlds together in a Venn diagram of where they overlap. It is so small that you don’t even have to, like, be in the same country to get it. And that’s, that’s incredible.
Kate: I guess I have two of them.
It hit me kind of halfway through the first period, how momentous this was. I had this sort of delayed reaction. It was everything good about all the queer and trans hockey I played, but without the people or the experiences that make it sometimes exhausting.
I didn’t have to worry about whether people would get my pronouns because if they didn’t remember them, they would check in, and be like, “Hey, I can’t remember, what are your pronouns?” It was just that simple. Or, because there was 16 new people, if one of us would use the wrong pronouns, that would have been just a general “Oh, yeah, like Avery is they/them pronouns” It was not the exhausting big deal that it can be to explain to cis people like “no, this matters.”
And then just at the end, like we didn’t really advertise, but we had ... and that’s kind of the difference like Katelyn Burns’s story is coming out any minute now. And I’m so excited because The New York Times article was written by, I assume, a cis person. She did a good job of understanding things, like there was a moment where I starting to tell the story of one of my friends and I had to be like, “Wait a minute, hang on, let me get him because this isn’t my story to tell.”
She understood that, asked everybody’s pronouns, seemed to be good about that stuff, and doing a decent job. But still, her description of the of the weekend was something like “The small but fierce group of fans,” almost de-emphasizing how big the crowd was. Whereas for us, we didn’t advertise. It was a couple people that saw from Harrison’s Twitter — Riveters fans that came out or Beauts fans that came up to see him play — and a couple of friends or family members. They were the most enthusiastic crowd for being 40-50 people in the bleachers.
There was a moment at the end of each game when we’d salute the crowd and they were cheering for us even though we lost the freaking game. We lost like eight to three, right, but it didn’t feel like a loss it because it was just this amazing moment of being there and being recognized and knowing that even without making a big deal about it, there were people there. They understood that it was a big deal.