The Glow Up
by Emet Marwell, Transgender activist, former field hockey player, and Policy & Programs Manager at Athlete Ally
Transitioning was one of the toughest choices I ever had to make for myself. Really, the choice was not about being trans. There is no question about that: I am trans and nothing will ever change that. The choice was: do I give up field hockey to save my own life? My mental health was rapidly deteriorating. If I did not transition, I would not be here today. You can read about that choice here. This story is not about that. This is Part II: The Glow Up.
Back in college, one of my field hockey coaches said to me that “sport is about achieving more than you thought you could.” I do not think either of us knew the extent to which that would hold true for me. Throughout my journey exploring my queer and trans identity, field hockey was the one constant. There were more days than I can count when I dreaded going to practice because, like with so many other things in my life, I felt like an imposter. I felt like I did not belong there. But the thing is, even when they didn’t understand what I was experiencing, my coaches and teammates were always there for me. I am lucky in that. Many queer and trans folks do not have that same support.
Support does not have to be a complete overhaul of worldwide trans sport policy (though that would be wonderful). Most of it is small daily interactions. When I first started going by “Emet” I was very hesitant to correct people when they used my former name. One day in the locker room, a teammate asked me, “What do you want to be called three years from now?” to which I responded without hesitation, “Emet.” She smiled and said, “Well then it only makes sense for me to call you Emet from now on.” Getting used to calling me he/him took time and effort too, which was made easier by teammates and coaches alike correcting each other when they messed up. Another time, my head coach faced off with someone about trans athlete inclusion through Facebook comments. I have no idea if she knows I read those comments, but I thought it was pretty great of her. You have to be really brave to willingly enter into an argument in social media comments!
Even with the good intentions of my coaches, teammates and athletic department, there were times when I still felt like an outsider simply because I had no one like me in the field hockey world to look up to. Honestly, it would be difficult to find someone who is a Chinese-American adoptee raised by a single mother in a Jewish family, who has Bipolar II disorder, who is a queer trans man, who was recruited to play field hockey in college and who was forced to quit field hockey in order to simply be himself and prioritize his own mental health. It is obviously not a competition, but sometimes I feel like I won the “how many marginalized identities can you check off” tournament. So finding a role model who relates to all the aspects of my identity has been tricky. It means I spend a lot of time feeling out of place even as those around me work hard to include me. It also means I spent an enormous amount of time trying to fit in.
For years, it was lights, camera, action: get in character and play the part. The character I performed changed depending on where I was and who I was with. For the majority of my life, it meant playing the part of a girl. I wore dresses and make-up, gossiped with my friends about boys, and let people call me she/her. I started playing field hockey my first year of high school, which felt too late in life to truly be a part of the field hockey community. Going to field hockey skills clinics, summer camps and club practices meant learning how to act like a competitive field hockey player. For me, that was an extension of playing the part of a girl combined with a high level of feigned confidence in my playing ability and a buffer of nonchalance when I messed up. Later in high school, the character was an out proud gay girl: sporty, butch and constantly talking about girls I found attractive. When I finally transitioned, I thought the charade was over and I was finally leaving the act behind. Wow, was I wrong about that! As I navigated this new way of being, I felt like I had to prove my manliness by displaying traits of toxic masculinity, as I later learned they were called. I would paint my nails “as a joke,” talk about “manning up,” and attempt to love beer. I thought I had to hide my trans identity around new people to be seen as a “real man.” Sometimes, that meant hiding my involvement with and love of field hockey because people in the United States see it as solely a women’s sport. I was so desperate to “be one of the guys” that I pushed away the field hockey community I once feared I would lose, the people whose support never wavered.
Luckily for me, my team stuck with me until I realized how much I had lost myself while trying to be someone else. Now, I am working to break free of those roles and learning to just be Emet, who happens to be a queer trans man. I will admit there are still plenty of days when I wish I was not trans, was not queer, was not a person of color, was not… But of course, as my therapist always reminds me, if I was not trans or queer or whatever aspect of my identity I am wishing away, I would not be me. I would not be the person my teammates, coaches, family and friends all know and love.
This Pride Month, I am proud to be myself, or trying to be proud at least. It has been a long journey to get here. I know there is still a long way to go, but that is exactly what is so beautiful: I am not stopping here. I am proud of how far I have come and I have most definitely achieved more than I thought was possible. I am proud that each day I am learning to be myself, free from the expectations of others.
Learning to love myself is an ongoing process. To those reading this who are also learning to love their queer and trans selves: you are doing great. Thank you for being here. You are valued and important. And I hope you are proud of yourself, too. That is the glow up we have been waiting for: “Giving Love to Oneself With Uninterrupted Persistence.” Happy Pride!
Follow Emet tomorrow on the U.S. Women's National Team's Q&A: Pass the Mic on @emet_marwell. 🏳️🌈