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This trans college athlete is being faced with an impossible decision

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the political conversation about trans youth rights, sports teams have been a major focus. Nearly half of U.S. states ban transgender youth from competing on sports teams that fit their gender identity. People who support restrictions on trans athletes often say they are protecting girls' sports by keeping trans girls from playing, but the same restrictions can also affect transmasculine athletes. NPR's Embedded podcast has a new series about trans youth called All The Only Ones. It includes the story of a teenage athlete from Ohio who feels forced to sacrifice a part of himself in order to keep playing his sport. Here's host Laine Kaplan-Levenson. And a note - this story mentions Suicide.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good, Parker. That's OK. It's still your ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: White.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: To an outsider, field hockey practice can sound hectic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Still White ball. Still White ball.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But for the teenage field hockey star Parker Parker, running up and down the field is where he feels most at peace.

PARKER PARKER: Just imagine a blank piece of paper that's black, and there's just nothing. That's what it feels like - kind of go quiet, if that makes sense, kind of just a blob that exists.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And what feels so good about that feeling of, like, going black, of, like, nothing?

PARKER: Because I never feel like that. I feel like I'm so stressed out 24/7.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: There was just one problem. To play field hockey, Parker had to join a girls' team because there was no boys' team for him to play on. Parker knew he was a boy, but he was assigned female at birth, which made things like changing in the locker room really uncomfortable.

PARKER: With field hockey, you're constantly, like, reversing your pinnie, changing the color for, like, teams and stuff. And I kid you not. Like, I would look at my feet, and I would just do it as fast as I could because I'm like, I hate my body. I wanted to be a guy. Like, I just knew.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Despite that, he still got into it. But it meant that when he played with his high school team, he had to put on a skirt.

Have you asked to wear a men's jersey?

PARKER: Honestly, I'm too scared to ask my coach that for high school.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: How come?

PARKER: It's just a lot of stuff of - like, there's a lot of repercussions if you do something wrong. Like, next thing I know, I'm not starting, and I started all four years. So I didn't want to do something wrong and question anything. And so I just kept my head down.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: By sophomore year, Parker was feeling the consequences of keeping quiet about his trans identity.

PARKER: My mental health just - it went downhill. It was really bad, dealing a lot with suicide. I did not want to be here at all.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: He ended up in a hospital for a week.

PARKER: The psych ward really didn't help with anything about me being trans. Like, they didn't understand it. They told me that my dysphoria could be coped with. And I'm like, I can't really cope with it. Like, I need gender-affirming care.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Field hockey was the only thing that helped Parker cope, and his season was about to start. So to try to get released as quickly as possible, he hid his trans identity and pretended to accept the advice of the doctors. During Parker's senior year of high school, he started to notice politicians in his home state proposing new restrictions that would affect trans youth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Ohio House has passed a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for minors and places restrictions on what sports transgender athletes can play.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Last year Parker testified at the Ohio Board of Education meeting against an anti-trans resolution that had been introduced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARKER: If you ban me from playing the sport I love, I will lose a piece of myself. Field hockey is my life. So I ask for the state board to veto this resolution so my identity and humanity can be respected.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: All this had Parker wanting to leave Ohio for a more trans-friendly place, and his best ticket out was field hockey. He could get a scholarship that way, but to play on a college team, he'd have to make the same bargain that he did in high school because it's a women's-only sport. If he wanted to keep playing field hockey, it would have to be on a women's team. So when Parker was trying to get recruited, he was worried about being out.

PARKER: I essentially had to dead-name myself with coaches. And, like, I didn't tell any of the coaches I was talking to that I was trans. I just, like, was thinking - I was just like, but what if they don't recruit me because I'm trans?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So you basically went back in the closet - right? - just to go through this process.

PARKER: It was awful. I kept asking myself that. Like, why are you doing this? Like, why can't you just be honest? And, I mean, it just meant so much to me that, like, you know, I had a place to play in college that I just ignored that and pushed it down because I just - I guess I just wanted a place to play.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: He got recruited to play for Merrimack College right outside Boston. Once he committed, he came out to his new coach, who was super-supportive. But his coach's support isn't enough to allow Parker to live as his full self.

PARKER: The NCAA has specific rules that - like, I can't take T and play on a women's team.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: If he did, he'd go over the limit of testosterone that's allowed for trans men playing women's field hockey.

PARKER: I could transition in college, right? But I wouldn't be able to play. So what am I supposed to do?

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Parker probably wouldn't be in this situation if he played a sport that had a men's team - say, if he were a swimmer. He very well could swim on the college men's team and take T. That's because transfeminine athletes are the primary target of the current moral panic, as people are more concerned that they have some sort of unfair advantage. Parker knows this.

PARKER: People aren't accepting of trans athletes, especially trans athletes that are women.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Even though trans men aren't the main targets, he's swept up in these sports policies, and they're forcing him to make a painful choice. Parker could either wait years to transition into the body he wants so that he could keep playing the sport he loves, or he could transition into the body he wants but lose the sport he loves. In both cases, he has to give up a core part of himself.

PARKER: I just, like, don't want to have to separate myself like I feel like I've had to, which is, like, being an athlete but then, like, kind of being trans on the side. Like, I kind of just want to exist as a whole person.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: For now, he's figuring out what it means to be the first person like him.

PARKER: From what I'm aware of, like, I'm the first trans guy to play Division 1 field hockey. I'm the first. And I think it's going to pave pathways for other kids. If I can give that to some other kid who's going through it right now, then it's worth it.

SHAPIRO: That was Parker Parker talking to Laine Kaplan-Levenson, host of All The Only Ones, a series from NPR's Embedded podcast that explores the history of trans youth in America. You can find more of these stories on the Embedded podcast. And if you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - just those three digits, 988.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer and reporter for NPR's Throughline podcast. Before joining the Throughline team, they were the host and producer of WWNO's award-winning history podcast TriPod: New Orleans at 300, as well as WWNO/WRKF's award-winning political podcast Sticky Wicket. Before podcasting, they were a founding reporter for WWNO's Coastal Desk, and covered land loss, fisheries, water management, and all things Louisiana coast. Kaplan-Levenson has contributed to NPR, This American Life, Marketplace, Latino USA, Oxford American (print), Here and Now, The World, 70 Million, and Nancy, among other national outlets. They served as a host and producer of Last Call, a multiracial collective of queer artists and archivists, and freelanced as a storytelling and podcast consultant, workshop instructor, and facilitator of student-produced audio projects. Kaplan-Levenson is also the founder and host of the live storytelling series, Bring Your Own. They like to play music and occasionally DJ under the moniker DJ Swimteam.