I AM a man who loves sports. I am a man who was raised as a girl named Jen and had to wait decades before coming out.
By the 1990s, we had come a long way in terms of opportunities in girls' sports. I played basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball and tennis at Ponaganset High in Glocester, R.I. I was particularly good at basketball, helping the team win four straight state titles and getting named first-team all-state as a junior and senior. Sports were my refuge, because in those days we were nowhere in terms of understanding the spectrum of gender identity. This made transitioning from female to male intensely difficult.
After being recruited by Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., I struggled being part of the women's basketball team. Though I had all the appearances of a woman, inside I was a man. It felt completely inappropriate for my male mind and soul to coexist in locker rooms filled with half-dressed women. This wasn't a new feeling. Jen had desperately wanted to play high school football; she couldn't even entertain the idea because girls did not belong on the field with boys.
It wasn't until 2001 that I gradually assumed my male identity. Thanks to social progress, I was able to introduce myself to the world as the person I always was on the inside. Today, I am back in my hometown as the country's first openly transgender high school coach. I coach boys' JV soccer at Ponaganset High and boys' middle school basketball. I'm working with Ricky Bonilla, who collaborated with me on this article, to continue the journey toward equality.
Having lived through years of marginalization, I was deeply moved by the LGBTQ athletes who made their presence known throughout 2014—with pride and joy and nothing resembling shame. After discussing his sexuality in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, center Jason Collins signed with the Nets in February, becoming the first openly gay man to compete in one of the four major team sports in this country. Before being drafted by the Rams, defensive end Michael Sam proudly and courageously talked about his sexuality; immediately after he was picked, he embraced the man he loves. As an openly gay player, midfielder Robbie Rogers helped lead the L.A. Galaxy to the MLS Cup.
There were less heralded stories too. When Mitch Eby, a defensive end at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., told his teammates that he is gay, they burst into applause. Offensive lineman Chip Sarafin at Arizona State got similar support. Catcher Matt Kaplon of Drew University in Madison, N.J., hit a life-winning home run for himself and many other baseball players when he came out. And I'm ecstatic that a young trans athlete today can watch Fallon Fox compete in women's mixed martial arts. (Because some fans think there is an unfair advantage for male-to-female athletes, I also thank Fallon for challenging misinformation about the biology of transgender athletes.)
To all athletes and coaches who came out this year, representing a wide range of sports, ages, circumstances and backgrounds: You helped the world realize that a person's sexual orientation need not be suppressed but should instead be celebrated. We are redefining what it means to participate in sports as our true selves. We are setting the example of what it means to be a true team. My hope for 2015 is that athletes keep taking the fields and coming out because—while it is a personal journey—they can lift others out of darkness. Everyone can play.