Facing barriers

February 25, 2021

Since the establishment of girls sports in 1926, state athletic programs have remained separated by boys and girls teams, respectively headed by the Iowa High School Athletic Association and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union. However, this division can create challenges for athletes who do not identify with their sex assigned at birth. According to state athletic policies, students who identify as transgender may join the team they feel most comfortable on, but many transgender athletes still face obstacles while participating in their sport.

Dexter Hanna ’24 started swimming when he was in seventh grade and immediately developed a passion for the sport.

“I just fell in love with it, and I swim as much as I can,” Hanna said. “When I heard that you could do school swimming, I was really excited because it’s a new way to meet people at school, and I just had to swim more.”

Hanna identifies as a transgender male and chooses to swim for the girls team. He believes all students should be allowed to compete on their team of choice, regardless of their gender identity. Under Iowa high school athletic guidelines, when applicable, coaches are recommended to set a gender-neutral dress code that is comfortable for all team members. 

“I think that it would be okay to let transgender students compete on the teams of the gender they identify as because … you don’t have to wear a uniform that conforms to gender,” Hanna said. 

However, for sports like swimming, it can be difficult to enforce a gender-neutral dress code. Hanna occasionally experiences gender dysphoria, a feeling of discomfort that may occur in individuals whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics.

“It’s a little bit uncomfortable to wear a girl’s suit with dysphoria; it’s just not exactly where I’m supposed to be … but it’s all I’ve ever been used to, so it’s not that bad,” Hanna said. 

Similarly, Jem Alden ’23, who also goes by Jay, experiences gender dysphoria while running cross country and track and feels they don’t always fit in with their team because they are transgender. 

“I just always felt I was … the odd one out,” Alden said. “I’m not sure if I fit in trying to do [sports].”

I’ve felt like I’d be basically an outcast, like a black sheep.”

— Jaidon Lowman '23

Jaidon Lowman ’23, a transgender male, echoes these sentiments. In the past, they have been hesitant to play soccer due to their gender identity.

I’ve felt like I’d be basically an outcast, like a black sheep, because of [being] the only ‘girl’ on the team with short hair and dressing masculine,” Lowman said.

Hanna, Alden and Lowman all feel a lack of belonging to their respective teams due to their gender. However, Hanna has found the environment of the girls swim team considerate and welcoming.

“Everyone [on the team] is accepting, and there’s really no one that is transphobic as far as I’ve encountered,” Hanna said. “People make sure [they] use our correct pronouns.”

Hanna feels fortunate to live where he does, as he attributes some of this support to Iowa City’s diverse population and large LGBTQ community.

“I think I’m lucky to live in such an accepting community because Iowa City is really diverse, and people understand what it’s like … They’re all just really understanding,” Hanna said. “If they weren’t, then it would be a little more difficult because I might face transphobia … because not everyone is so supportive of that, and I might not be able to come out and be [who] I am.”

Although his experiences on the swim team have been overwhelmingly positive, Hanna still faces challenges as a transgender athlete, including being misgendered by those not on his team. 

“Being misgendered, it’s not a big deal unless they’re doing it on purpose because I still look like a girl … and I don’t blame them for that,” Hanna said. “If they forget, it’s a little hurtful, but it’s okay. If they’re doing it on purpose, then it’s not accepting [of me].”

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