If you've never seen the hammer throw up close, especially during a New England winter, the most arresting part of every heave is the conclusion: how hardened earth erupts when the metal comet splits the ground. Weighing nearly nine pounds with a four-foot wire tail, the stainless-steel ball is menacing enough that airports ban it from carry-on luggage. And on a brisk February morning in Williamstown, Mass., every toss by Keelin Godsey offers further proof of its violence.
This is an article from the May 28, 2012 issue
At 5'9" and 186 pounds, Godsey is tautly muscular. He wears glasses and is dressed in black from his sneakers to his knit cap, which sheathes his blond, spiky hair. Over and over, from in front of a chain-link backstop, he grips the hammer's handle and whirls in accelerating circles until it's no longer clear whether he is spinning the ball or the ball is spinning him. His target distance, 226'4½", is out on a gravel path beyond the frost-covered craters. That's the qualifying standard for the London Games—a mark Godsey finally surpassed last month (with a throw of 227'8") at a meet in Walnut, Calif. With a top three finish at the trials in Eugene, Ore., in June, he will realize his lifelong dream: to make the U.S. women's Olympic team.
For transgender men and women, the physiological traits that distinguish them as male or female don't conform to how they feel about themselves. Some have undergone sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy to make their biological and gender identities match. Others, such as the 28-year-old Godsey, have not: He was born as a female and therefore competes as a female, but he identifies as male. Imagine a body, especially one as finely tuned as an elite athlete's, feeling inescapably foreign—as if it were intended for the opposite sex. "I take a lot of pride in the fact that I have a good amount of muscle mass, and I've done it naturally," says Godsey. "But in some ways, this is the last body I would ever want."
A physical therapist who was known as Kelly until his senior year of college, in 2005, Godsey is the first American Olympic contender in any sport to openly identify as transgender. When not competing he dresses and lives as a man, renting a ground-floor duplex in North Adams, Mass., with Melanie Hebert, his fiancée of three years. "I'm a female when I compete," Godsey says. "Every day I have to sweat, stress and freak out. How do I look? What is someone going to think of me? Is someone going to say something at a track meet?"
Consider something as simple as going to the bathroom. When using men's rooms—his preference—Godsey usually tries to conceal his chest; in women's rooms he accentuates it by wearing what he calls tight "girl shirts." Still, he has been escorted out of an airport ladies' room by security, interrogated at restaurants and once had to flee a group of snarling men at a truck-stop bathroom in Nebraska.
No one knows the precise number of transgender people in the U.S., let alone the world. One recent estimate by the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, which studies gender-identity issues, pegs the size of the American population at 700,000; the number of those who are athletes is even more difficult to determine. But Michelle Dumaresq, a transgender professional mountain biker from Vancouver, told Outside magazine that she talks with some 115 closeted trans athletes all over the globe. And since taking over as the NCAA's director of gender initiatives and student-athlete well-being in 2006, Karen Morrison has received about 40 transgender-related inquiries from universities, prospective trans athletes and those athletes' attorneys. Several queries were spurred by Godsey's coming out as a transgender male.
The first famous transgender athlete in the U.S. was a former Yale tennis captain and ophthalmologist named Richard Raskind, who underwent surgery in 1975 and became Renée Richards. She won a landmark New York Supreme Court battle in '77 that enabled her to play as a female at the U.S. Open. (Richards lost in straight sets in the first round to Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade.) Yet it is only now that transgender athletes are gaining sustained recognition from sports' governing bodies.
In 2005, the year Godsey came out, Lana Lawless, previously a male Rialto, Calif., police officer who was a one-handicap golfer, had sex reassignment surgery to become a woman. Five years later the LPGA denied her application to compete in qualifying tournaments, citing its "female at birth" bylaw. Lawless sued, dropping her claim only after the LPGA voted to revise its rule book that November. That same year wrestler Donna Rose—formerly David Rosen—became the first transgender, postoperative female to take the mat in the women's division of the U.S. Open national championships, in Cleveland, winning a 158.75-pound freestyle match. And in a November 2011 win over Tonga, Jonny Saelua, a center back on American Samoa's men's soccer team who identifies as female, became the first openly transgender athlete to take the field in World Cup play. (Caster Semenya, the 2009 800-meter world champion from South Africa, is not transgender. Semenya, whose defined musculature and deep voice generated worldwide headlines regarding gender and sports, reportedly has external female genitalia and internal, undeveloped testes, a combination that would make her intersex.)
The most contentious recent case occurred at George Washington in November 2010. Kye Allums, a 5'11" starting guard from Hugo, Minn., came out before his junior season, making him the only openly transgender Division I athlete. "Yes, I am a male on a female team," Allums calmly explained to reporters. "And I want to be clear about this: I am a transgender male, which means, feelings-wise ... I feel as if I should have been born male with male parts."
His composure belied the turmoil in the Colonials' locker room. Bombarded by media requests and transgender talk, some of Allums's teammates said they wished he had waited to come out after graduation; according to another player present at a team meeting, the word selfish was used. "It was crazy to go from them all having my back to no one having my back," says Allums. He also felt abandoned by coach Mike Bozeman. "He was like, Now you're affecting us," Allums says. "He pointed to the freshmen and he's like, 'Did you guys come here to have to deal with this?'"
Bozeman, whose children were fielding questions about Allums from their teachers at school, admits to being overwhelmed. "I was winging it," says the coach, who was fired in March after going 42--75 in four seasons. "[The university] provided us with a sports psychologist to come and talk to the team, but that was toward the end of the year. We needed that at the beginning."
Allums chose not to return as a senior, primarily because a series of concussions caused him to miss all but eight games in 2010--11. And last May, despite a lifelong fear of needles, Allums began to physically transition. His doctor started him on testosterone injections of .5 cc, upped the amount to 1.0 cc three months later, but swiftly slashed it to .75 every two weeks because the higher dosage made Allums feel as if he'd been tagged with a tranquilizer dart. His voice has deepened; his hat size has increased; he sports a light mustache; he can run faster; and his feet have grown almost a half size. At 22, Allums, who moved to New York City in March, is planning a comeback. While he spends much of his time giving speeches on trans issues, he would like to use his remaining NCAA eligibility to play with a men's team at a small college while completing a master's degree in psychology or sociology. "Basketball is basketball," says Allums. "If I can play, I can play."
Even when Godsey had long blond hair at Chaparral High in Parker, Colo., "I always presented as very masculine," he says. He played basketball, soccer, softball and track, but his appearance—and the perception that he was gay—resulted in verbal and physical torment. "I was the awkward kid," Godsey says. "I was the 'gay' kid. I was the one who was different." There was the time when he came to school and found an explicit, derogatory message waiting at his locker. The time when a group of female students beat him up, breaking several of his ribs. (That attack helped spark an interest in power lifting.) The time when a former teammate from the girls' basketball team gave him a Bible, meticulously annotated, with highlighted passages suggesting that Godsey was going to hell if he didn't change.
The concept of being transgender still provokes extreme prejudice and hostility. A recent survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network of 295 trans students between ages 13 and 20 discovered a staggering degree of victimization. In the past year 87% had been called names or threatened because of their gender expression; 53% had been pushed or shoved; 26% had been punched, kicked or injured with a weapon; and 46% reported having missed school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable. "I truly believe that the issue of gay equality in our society is on the verge of being resolved," says Cyd Zeigler, the cofounder of Outsports.com, a publication that covers LGBT issues in sports. "Transgender equality is next. And a far bigger step." Allums's ultimate goal is to run a foundation devoted to trans youth—dozens of whom have reached out to him via Facebook. Says Allums of one 16-year-old who is warring with his parents, "It's like, What do I do to make him not hurt himself?"
The suffering is not limited to the young. In April 2007, Mike Penner, an acclaimed sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, announced he was a trans woman and changed his name to Christine Daniels. "I am a transsexual sportswriter," he wrote in his coming-out column. "It has taken me more than 40 years, a million tears and hundreds of hours of soul-wrenching therapy for me to work up the courage to type those words." And yet, after all those years and all that therapy, the transition proved too difficult. In October 2008, Penner resumed working under his old name. Just one year later he killed himself in his Los Angeles home.
Godsey missed chunks of time in high school directly because of bullying. But try as he might, there was no switch to be flipped on and off. At Chaparral High he assumed he was a lesbian, and why not? Godsey only learned the word transgender when he took a freshman seminar taught by Erica Rand, a women and gender studies professor at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Soon after, in another class, Godsey was shown a survey that had been administered by psychiatrists to judge gender identity. "In my head I was circling the answers," he recalls. "I was like, Oh, crap."
Godsey haunted Bates's library. The more he read by transgender authors, the more unavoidable the truth became. "Coming out to myself was actually harder than coming out to everyone else," he admits. "I was so internally transphobic." He pauses. "This is the first time I've been willing to really talk about it."
In the spring of 2005, shortly after shattering the Division III women's championship hammer record (by throwing 195'4"), Godsey tackled his biggest challenge to date. After confiding in Rand, the then junior e-mailed Bates's dean of students and athletic director to notify them of an impending change: Beginning with the fall semester, Kelly would permanently become Keelin and wished to be referred to as he.
Godsey still can't remember what he said when he stepped in front of the bleachers that fall and informed his women's track teammates of their captain's new identity. "Have you ever seen Old School, where [Will Ferrell's] debating and he just gets into that zone?" Godsey asks, laughing. "It was a nerve-racking experience. I kind of blacked out." All he knows is that the 30 or so girls around him were "pretty awesome" when they heard the news.
But as far as NCAA headquarters was concerned? Except for his first name and choice of pronoun, nothing about the athlete who would graduate as a 16-time All-America—in the hammer, discus, shot put and weight throw—was changing.
For the first month of gestation, everyone is female. After six weeks embryos with a particular male gene, almost always found on the Y chromosome, develop testicles, activating the cells responsible for testosterone production and the accompanying athletic disparity between men and women. Testosterone, which surges during male puberty, is the engine powering an array of a man's competitive advantages: greater height and weight, higher bone density, increased muscle mass and a greater proportion of oxygen-carrying red cells in the blood. Contrast this with estrogen's effects (accumulated fat on widened hips), and it is sensible enough to segregate athletes by sex. But the existence of openly transgender athletes complicates the question of who belongs where.
In 2004 the International Olympic Committee ventured the first answer, ruling that any trans athlete who wants to compete against those not of their birth sex must undergo sex reassignment surgery and then two years of hormone therapy—either testosterone supplementation (to go from female to male) or testosterone suppression (to go from male to female). But last August the NCAA, which had previously deferred to government-issued documentation for gender classification, released a 38-page handbook that took a different approach. Guided by a think tank held with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) in '09, the organization decided against requiring surgeries, which typically cost five figures and aren't covered by insurance. Genitalia, the NCAA concluded, do not impact athletic performance.
In a further departure from the IOC rules, NCAA guidelines stipulate that trans females need to undergo only one year of testosterone suppression before they can compete against women; trans males can receive a medical exemption to take testosterone under a doctor's supervision but can no longer compete on a women's team.
Following the NCAA's lead, a handful of colleges have created their own transgender inclusion policies. Bates was among the first, in April 2011. This year major-conference schools such as Cal and Syracuse have done the same. "The data are saying, if you haven't dealt with this issue, as a campus the odds are good that you will," says Ryan Cobb, an assistant athletic director at Cal. Adds Helen Carroll, the NCLR's sports project director and a former women's basketball coach at UNC Asheville, "As a result of Kye coming out, a lot of athletic directors looked around and thought, What would I have done if that happened on a team at my school? And they had no idea."
In the matters of toilets, changing areas and showers, NCAA guidelines recommend that athletes be allowed to use whatever fits their gender identity (and that, before away games, school officials consult the athlete and then confidentially notify the host school to ensure "access to facilities that are comfortable and safe"). Allums, after coming out, kept using the same locker room as his teammates. "I was like, I've been here for three years, why should I leave now?" he says. At Bates, Godsey was given his own makeshift locker room—a converted cement room with a door. "The school felt that it would be best and less confusing if I had my own space," Godsey says. "Did it suck? Yeah, it sucked. I didn't like it. I wasn't bonding with my team."
Yet for all that discomfort and backlash—of being referred to as female by P.A. announcers, of being called she-male or tranny on the road—neither Godsey nor Allums embodies the true third rail of the gender equity debate in team sports. Says the NCAA's Morrison, "We have not yet had someone born male who identifies as female and wants to participate on a women's team."
There is no published medical data on precisely how long it takes to negate the athletic advantages of a lifetime of testosterone exposure. But one athlete has tackled the question in a personal way. Medical physicist Joanna Harper, 55, who was born male, began hormone therapy in order to transition to female in August '04. Harper had been competing as a male age-group distance runner for years, and she carefully documented the impact that suppressing testosterone and taking estrogen had on her running. "I thought I would get slower gradually," Harper says. Instead she started losing speed and strength within three weeks. "I felt the same when I ran," she says. "I just couldn't go as fast." In February, Harper won the 55-to-59 age group at the women's national cross-country championship in St. Louis, but she is a shadow of her former athletic self. As a man in 2003, Harper ran the Helvetia Half-Marathon in Portland in 1:23:11; in '05, as a woman, she finished the same race in 1:34:01, a difference of nearly 50 seconds per mile.
Factoring in age and gender-graded performance standards, though, Harper is almost exactly as good a female runner as she was as a male—and it took less than a year of hormone therapy to get that way. Data that Harper has collected from a half dozen other male-to-female runners tell a similar story. "It doesn't answer definitively the question of whether I have an advantage or not," she says. "But it's certainly strong evidence that my performances in both genders are approximately equal."
Still, no injection can undo certain physical characteristics. Lindsey Walker, a 7'1" trans female from Cleveland, was known as Drew when she played basketball at Central Michigan from 2004--05 to '06--07. Walker did not publicly come out until after college, but she suffered all the same. "I didn't expect to lose all my friends," says Walker, who still has a tattoo bearing the initials of several former teammates on her back. "There were times I thought about suicide." But what if she'd transitioned at Central Michigan and become the starting center on the Chippewas' women's team? What if Walker, who has had five years of hormone treatments and is saving up for surgery, decides to try out for the 2016 Olympic team—something she says she's "definitely considered"? Her size, almost unheard of in women's hoops, would test the delicate balance between inclusion and competitive equity.
That's a radical case, but as society becomes more tolerant of transgender athletes, it's likely that more will come out at an earlier age. The NCLR has been working with one young, openly transgender soccer player and her family. Eleven-year-old Jazz (whose last name and state have been withheld by SI at the request of her parents) was born male and was diagnosed with gender identity disorder at age three. At five, after further evaluation—"It was critical to learn everything we could," says her father, Greg—she began to live as a girl. "Jazz blossomed once permitted to transition and hasn't wavered in six years," Greg says. "She is a happy, well-adjusted child who enjoys life and embraces her individuality."
Especially now. In December, after more than two years of banishment from her all-girls travel team—and continued appeals by both her family and the NCLR—the U.S. Soccer Federation forced Jazz's state youth soccer association to allow her to play. The USSF has since convened a task force to craft a trans inclusion policy of its own. "Soccer," Jazz says, "is something I hope to do for the rest of my life."
The date of the Olympic trials has been circled on Godsey's calendar for months. June 21 in Eugene is why he sets his alarm for 4 a.m., sneaking in practice before heading to his job; why he works as both a full-time physical therapist at Pittsfield's Berkshire Medical Center and a volunteer track coach at Williams College; why he continues to endure chronic right-knee pain. "I don't care if I have to be carried into the circle to throw," he says. "I sacrificed a lot to get to this point."
But there is a second dream that looms in the distance—and it's only the Games that stand in the way. This year, as soon as Godsey is out of Olympic contention, he will start to medically transition, and his career as an elite athlete will end. "How long could I possibly put off going on testosterone? I'm human," says Godsey. "I'm human."
When Godsey says it, his voice betrays exactly what he means. Years in the weight room have sculpted his traps and lats—he can now back-squat 275 pounds and power-clean 214—but only testosterone can change what Godsey calls "the most self-conscious thing about me." "My voice gives me away every time," he says. Depending on the situation, Godsey takes pains to stay quiet or "just kind of grunts a little bit." His fiancée, Hebert, adds that restaurant servers will get it right at first, "calling us sir and ma'am until Keelin starts saying something." And then they get flustered and backtrack.
A coworker of Godsey's at Berkshire Medical, Hebert met him in physical therapy grad school at Northeastern. She isn't transgender but had previously been in a relationship with a trans male and knew what to expect before she and Godsey started dating five years ago. "Some people I've dated, I've had to talk them through it, and I'm fine with that," says Godsey, as he sits across from Hebert in their living room after practice. "For us it was never something that had to be addressed. I got very lucky."
Now, whether Godsey makes the Olympics or not, a new life awaits. He cannot help but admit that the throwing circle has long been his safe space: a place segregated by sex, yes, but one in which success does not depend on outward manifestations of gender—his genitalia, his clothing, his voice. "I understand I'm throwing as a woman in a woman's event right now," says Godsey, who struggles to throw the 16-pound men's hammer. "But I'm not being judged off of whether I look masculine or feminine enough. I'm being judged off of my abilities." Distance is the only thing that matters, as it has since ancient Teutonic tribesmen flung the hammer to honor the god Thor.
And so, staring down the expanse of that cratered field in Williamstown, Godsey continues to toil: fetching his favorite projectile, dragging it back as if he's walking a stainless-steel puppy, summoning the strength to heave it again. "I feel ready," Godsey says. He sets his feet inside the circle, squinting out at that gravel path, and the hammer starts to whirl. Up close, on this brisk morning, both his dreams seem close to coming true.