Meet Schuyler Bailar, a new member of the men’s swimming team at Harvard University. What makes Bailar different from all the other men on the nearly 40-man squad is that he was originally recruited to Harvard in 2013 as a female to swim on the women’s team, before he went through a gender transition. This makes Bailar the first openly transgender swimmer in NCAA history.
You can read here about Bailar’s story: Born physically as a girl but always feeling psychologically like a boy, Bailar dreamed of growing up to be a dad, never a mom. He dressed like a boy, acted like a boy, hung out with boys — except during a period in high school when he tried to fit in as a girl. It only made him more desperate.
Now 19, Bailar, grew up in McLean, Va., fighting bouts of depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders, but he wants to send a message to young people that it doesn’t have to be that way. He rejects the glorification of suffering, saying, “You don’t have to have all this pain to be successful or to be who you are.”
After graduating from the private Georgetown Day School in the District, Bailar was scheduled to start as a freshman at Harvard in fall 2014. But he took a gap year to to get eating disorder treatment. During this time, he finally came to terms with his identity and how he wants to spend the rest of his life. He knows he wants to live as “normal” a life as possible given his circumstances, but he also wants to help other young people who feel as if they don’t belong in the body they got at birth. So, he said, if it means being public, that’s what he’ll do.
“I don’t want to always be known first as ‘that kid,’ or ‘the transgender swimmer,’ but I do want to do what I can to help other young people struggling with this,” he said.
Bailar’s story is likely to be more relatable to many young people than that of the 65-year-old Caitlyn Jenner, whose very public transition helped propel the conversation about sex and gender into the mainstream. In an effort to help others understand the process of transition, Bailar has been open, with blog posts and pictures on the Internet. One college swim coach already has reached out to Bailar, asking if he would talk to a swimmer with body dysmorphia.
Bailar got lucky in some very important ways. When he admitted to himself that he was transgender last year and told his parents, Terry Hong and Gregor Bailar, they immediately accepted the change, as did all four of his grandparents, including his religious Korean grandmother, whom Bailar was concerned would not understand. When he told her, she said: “Well, I knew that. Now I have two grandsons from your mother.” His father’s dad was a minister in a very liberal church in Miami who marched for gay rights decades ago.
The importance of having parental support cannot be overstated, Bailar said. “When your parents are your first bullies, it can be impossible,” he said. Gregor Bailar recalled going with Schuyler for his breast removal surgery in March 2015 and seeing in the recovery center other transgender people who were going through the operation without their parents’ knowledge, or after being ostracized from their family. One patient was there with his mother; his father had disowned him, he said.
“Our bottom line is we just want a happy, healthy, contented, safe kid, whatever form that takes,” said Bailar’s mother, Terry Hong. “We adjust our normalities, whatever that means, so that we can provide an environment where the kids feel they can tell us anything and they can be as true to themselves, authentic to themselves, as possible.”
Bailar also got lucky with Harvard’s swimming coaches. Stephanie Morawski, the women’s coach who recruited Bailar for the women’s team, came to realize even before Bailar’s surgery that his authentic self was male. She asked men’s coach Kevin Tyrrell if Bailar could swim on the men’s team. As it turned out, Tyrrell had already taken a course about transgender people and understood Bailar’s journey. It was Morawski who suggested the change to Bailar. Not a single member of the male swim team objected when Tyrrell told them a transgender swimmer might join the team. Bailar now has friends on the women’s and men’s teams.
Women swimmers are not as fast as men, and Bailar was concerned that some of the men on the Harvard team would be concerned about his speed. “I’m not sure I can beat any of them right now,” he said.
Morawski said Bailar is such a hard worker with a fierce competitive streak that she would not be surprised if Bailar exceeds his own expectations. Tyrrell said each member of the team has something different to offer.
Christian Yeager, co-captain of the men’s swim team, said: “Schuyler spoke to us with the same concern. We know if he approaches practices with the tenacity that we know he will, he will be fine. He may not necessarily be leading the lane, but we are sure he will definitely contribute something more meaningful to the team.”
Bailar and his parents know that even with the level of acceptance he has received from family, friends and Harvard’s swim community, the path ahead will be challenging. Not only will Bailar face bigotry and thoughtlessness, he also has to construct a new life and male role for himself after passing for most of his life as female.
But he knows who he doesn’t want to be: “When I passed as a female, I got hooted on the street by guys. I was sexualized. There is a ‘male role’ that many guys play that I don’t want any part of.”
His parents worry about his safety. Said Gregor Bailar: “This is a world where hate or discomfort with certain groups is still prevalent. We want the best for our child and the best for anybody. We look at transgender violence and see it is high. So right now, that’s something Terry and I will spend some time researching and being advocates around.”
You can read more about Schuyler Bailar here.