At Strong Athletic, we believe that all humans should be able to participate in sports regardless of their gender identity. We share this belief with many people all over the world who know that equal access to playing and competing in sports is extremely important. Lex Horwitz also shares this belief. Lex wrote a two-part blog series for Strong Athletic - In part one, you'll meet Lex and read their story about the positive impact sports has made on their life. In part two, Lex writes about the “Transgender Athletes Debate” and their talking points they use when discussing the topic. The “debate” of whether trans athletes should be able to compete in sports is always relevant and now more than ever as more and more legislation is being introduced in the U.S. that bans school aged kids from competing in sports.
My name is Lex Pe'er Horwitz and I am a 24 year old, queer, non-binary transmasculine Jewish human — I’m also that scary transgender athlete that you’ve been reading about in the news.
Athletics has always been a key aspect of my life. My dad, Dr. Brett Horwitz, who was a competitive athlete himself, made sure that my sister Olivia and I would have access to athletics, knowing how crucial athletics were in his own life for his character development, mental strength, individual growth, and as a healthy mental health outlet. My athletic career began as a starry eyed 4 year old holding a tennis racquet, followed by ballet, gymnastics, Ti Quan Do, Hip Hop Kidz, figure skating — I had the opportunity to test the ropes and find my athletic calling. I had the privilege of being exposed to a range of athletic activities that made me feel the most at home. When I was introduced to squash, there was no turning back. In 5th grade, my mom, Dr. Brenda Horwitz, wanted to explore athletics for herself (something that she was not able to access as a child growing up on rural Long Island, NY) and took her first squash lesson. At this time, my sister and I had already streamlined our athletic focus on tennis — following in the footsteps of our dad. But when my mom talked about squash I could see this beautiful, innate curiosity, interest, and passion grow in her eyes. I wanted to look at myself in the mirror and see that same passion for learning, growing, and competition, so I picked her up on her offer to try out squash. Then it was time to make the decision — do I pursue tennis or squash?
I chose squash and I haven’t regretted that decision. Although I loved both tennis and squash, I found that squash was both more mentally stimulating and physically challenging — the perfect sport for an athlete who is never satisfied with being just good and wants to improve everyday on court.
Growing up, I was not exposed to the language, environments, media and/or communities that openly, positively, and affirmingly talked about queer identities — trans identities included. I went to an “all-girls’” school for 14 years where I was told time and time again that I was a female, that I had to be feminine, and that I was a woman — no questions asked or room to argue. Although I went to a “girls” school, from the age of 3, I already knew I was not a girl and was overtly identifying as NOT a girl. Throughout elementary school, I purposefully and dramatically exclaimed my distaste for the color pink, and even claimed I was allergic to it if I saw it. It was my way of saying, “Hey! You’ve taught me that girls like pink, so if I tell you I don’t like pink, maybe you’ll understand that I’m not a girl!”. In first grade I told my best friend that my name was Lex and that I was a boy. Although I can't remember what the response was from my classmates or teacher, what I do know is that I was conditioned and forced into the box, "girl," a gender that I was not, with no space or freedom to be the true me. I am sharing all of this to say that my family, community, school, and myself did not have the language or the safe environment to understand that I was a queer, non-binary transmasculine human. I grew up surrounded by media and messages from my environment that made any association with being queer seem like a death sentence — both literally and socially. So although I came to my queer/trans identities at a young age, it wasn’t until I had both the language and the safe environment that didn’t treat queer identity as something to be avoided at all costs. It was in college that I was finally able to acknowledge, or as I like to call it, "come to," my queer identities (an internal process of self realization), and then share it with the outside world (what most people refer to as “coming out”).
I was finally able to put my internal feelings into words when I started college. At Bowdoin, I was a top player on the women’s squash team (for my first 3 years before I switched to competing on the men’s team my senior year), and initially, I thought I fit right in. When I fell madly in love with a woman (who just so happened to be on my team) I was quickly forced to face my queerness head on — something that I had repressed deeply due to the negative messages and fears associated with it that I had been exposed to my entire life — I feared losing everything that I knew and loved, just because I wanted to be my true self. And there was no going back, no matter how scary this realization was--I knew that I was queer and now I was going to live as the authentic me for the first time. I felt relieved living as my true self--it wasn’t that I was a straight cisgender woman--I was a queer, masculine 'woman'… “But wait,” I thought, “why does “woman” still not feel right?"
It was during my first Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies course that the light bulb went off—just because I was assigned female at birth didn’t mean that I had to be a woman, or female, or feminine. Just because I was told by society — my educators, friends, family, media, medicine, etc — that I had to be female, had to be feminine, and had to be a woman, did not mean that that was my actual lived reality. I felt like I finally understood myself—I had always been a masculine person and identified as a Tomboy, but it took until that moment for it all to sink in. It was in the safety of knowing my family supported me as a queer person and in having the love and support of my partner at the time, that I allowed myself to start to question my gender identity. I started to consciously explore my gender expression (i.e., how I dressed, did my hair, expressed myself masculinely, femininely, and/or androgynously), but that wasn’t enough for me to feel fully myself. It was more than expression, it was deeper than just clothing or a haircut. So I started exploring my gender identity (i.e., identifying as a woman, man, non-binary, agender, etc.).
Lex Horwitz competing on the Bowdoin Squash TeamBefore my junior year, I came out as genderqueer and started using they/them pronouns. This was the most comfortable term for me to use given it’s vague/non-descriptive nature — all that I knew was that I was uncomfortable with folks assuming I was a woman and wanted to see if I felt more affirmed when folks used gender neutral language and pronouns for me. Identifying as genderqueer allowed me the space to simply explore my identity and figure out what it meant (I now use the terms queer, non-binary transmasculine because that language feels most at home). The first day back on campus I met with my co-captains and teammates on the women’s team and told them that my name was Lex and to use they/them pronouns.
Throughout my junior season as co-captain on the women’s team, I was stressed, and depressed due to constant misgendering, gendered language at practices and matches, the lack of respect from some of my teammates and especially my coach, and my discomfort in using the locker room. I started to feel as if I would never find comfort, support, or affirmation in athletics as an openly queer and trans athlete. It wasn’t until the end of my junior season that I started to contemplate the idea of joining the men’s team with the hopes of finding happiness again in the sport that I loved and cherished. However, I was warned by a friend on the men’s team that if I did, I would likely feel uncomfortable and even harassed by a few senior members until I “chose” to quit. It felt like a lose-lose situation.
My senior year, I was the captain of the women’s team and still playing at the top of the line up — but I was miserable. I’d come back from practice, sob, and tell my best friend that I felt like my insides were decaying. It was then that I faced the truth of the situation head on--being on the women's team was detrimental to my mental health. I decided to act. I looked up the NCAA rules on athletes assigned female at birth playing on a men’s sports team and found that I was eligible. I wrote a letter to the head of athletics outlining the regulations, my eligibility, and my desire to join the men’s team. Before going into my meeting with the athletic director, I knew there were only two potential endings to my story: (1) I play on the men’s team, or (2) transphobia wins and I have to stop playing the sport that I love. There was no “option 3” because I respected my mental health and happiness enough to know that playing on the women’s team was no longer an option.
Lucky for me, the athletic director gave me option 1. We had meetings to figure out what I needed to be physically and mentally comfortable on the men’s team, to plan how I would tell the coaches and individual teams, and to write letters to the teams that were visiting our school and the schools that we would be visiting so that they were aware of the need for inclusive facilities. The process started by telling the coaches, then the captains of both teams, then the women’s team and then, lastly, my new team–the men’s team. After the meeting, my new teammates came up to me, patted me on the back and welcomed me with open arms. They made no fuss, they were not upset, and they didn’t ask inappropriate questions. Yes, the team would be different given that I was the first out transgender athlete at Bowdoin (and in all of collegiate squash). Yes, we would have to navigate personal comfort in the locker room (something that every athlete already has to do, whether or not there is a transgender athlete present). But these were not reasons for me to be barred from competition — these were reasons for us to grow as individuals and teammates.
Looking back on my collegiate athletic career, I can confidently say that switching teams saved me and my love of athletics. I had never been happier playing on a team—for the first time since competing, I finally found my home, my family, and my rightful place. I am so grateful to be able to say that I love my sport and I love my team. I truly never thought that I’d be able to say these things, given my history of constant discomfort and experiences of invalidation and disrespect while playing on the women’s team.
In retrospect (and with my B.A. in Psychology and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies helping me to understand/psycho-analyze myself), I realized that walking into the “women’s” locker room and being called a “lady” or “girl” at least three times a practice broke me down, syllable by syllable, until there was nothing left for me to build myself back up with. Being on a team of “women” when I was not a woman resulted in debilitating psychological and physiological distress due to outsiders’ wrongful assumptions of my identities based on my teammates.
But when I was on the men’s team, these issues lessoned, and were no longer the staple of my athletic experience. I would walk into the “men’s” locker room and feel validated by the stick figure person who looked more like me than the stick figure wearing a dress on the “women’s” locker room sign. I was one of the bois and surrounded by individuals more similar to myself, and, yes, although I did experience misgendering and wrongful assumptions, even when I was actively a member of the men’s team, at least I was a part of a family that more closely reflected my identities than where I was before. For my final season at matches during the lineup, I was announced as a member of the MEN’S team. For my final collegiate season, for the first time since being out and playing as a trans athlete, I felt revitalized and empowered in the sport that I cherished.
I was happier than I could have ever imagined because I followed my heart. During my last season, I was my authentic self and found my affirming home in athletics. There is truly no feeling that compares to being affirmed, supported, and seen as the authentic individual that you are in the sport that you love — and this is why I am sharing my story. I want people to see me for the person that I am, not the person that society wants me to be. I want folks to understand one simple thing — there’s nothing scary about transgender athletes. What is scary are the mental health consequences (i.e., depression, anxiety, low self esteem, self-harm, suicide, etc.) that we as transgender athletes face when people choose not to support us.
We created our Strong Athletic Trans shirt in 2018 at the request of a group of trans athletes who are part of the Strong Athletic community. We donate 100% of the profits of the Strong Athletic Trans and Strong Athletic Nonbinary designs to Pull for Pride to help fund their "Share the Platform" grants. Find out more information about the grants here. $1 from every one of our LGBTQIA2S+ designs is also donated in advance to Pull for Pride.
Topics covered in this post: college squash, trans athletes, competing as a trans athlete, college athletics, playing sports in college, being inspired to play sports