My PE Experience as a Trans Student; Swim Class, Changing Rooms and Sometimes Ignorant Adults

(A guest post from Ash Whipple an Oakland public school student who uses the pronouns they/them, they are a First Robotics Competition Captain and an Energy Convertor)

Being transgender and trying to comfortably take a PE class is nearly impossible. So much of it revolves around gender, whether it be the changing rooms, teams, or simply passing the class.

During the last few weeks of summer before my junior year, I felt sick just thinking about PE. I couldn’t walk into the girls’ changing room, walking in there would tell everyone I was a girl no matter what I said. Then again, I couldn’t go into the boys locker room, that would make me just as uncomfortable if not more. I was stuck and had no idea what I would do. I had to change for PE.

Coming Out to your Teachers Is Hard

Once the year started, on the second or third day of class, I nervously approached my teacher to tell him my situation. The conversation went okay and he was very accommodating, though I don’t think he really understood what I was saying.

He let me use the coaches’ locker room to change, which was better than anything I could have hoped for. That locker room requires a key and only one person could go in at a time.

PE went really well for the most part for the rest of the semester. Thankfully my coach didn’t grade based off gender. Often, if you’re male or female, your grade is based off a set of running times compared to your gender and age, which makes me feel sick to think about. My coach just gave us all the same amount of time, which was relieving and so much more satisfying (as one of the fastest people in the class).

My favorite week was our self defense week. Trainers from outside the school taught us some basic self defense, which is one of my favorite things to learn. They ended up splitting us up into two groups, boys and girls. I went with the boys, all of whom looked confused for the first few minutes then just shrugged off my presence. The instructors were nice too, they didn’t question why I was in the boys group.

Second Semester, Things Turned to Total Shit

Second semester, things turned to total shit. My PE class entered our swim unit, which I thankfully got out of. Instead of swimming with my class, I joined the class of another PE coach. He is one of the most ignorant, unchecked, rude, and unlikable people I have ever met.

I’m not sure how many people know about the fitness test all high schoolers in public schools have to take, but it is one of the most horrible tests I have ever done. The grading is based solely off your gender and your physical capability to complete certain exercises.

Before I continue I would like to point out that I did not immediately come out to this teacher because a) I felt unsafe doing so and had a strong feeling he would not respect me; b) it is not my responsibility to come out to every single person, especially if I don’t feel safe doing so; and c) it is exhausting trying to laugh off the awkwardness and pain that follows.

When Your Teacher Laughs and Calls You “It”

The day the tests started, I spent my first period mentally preparing myself to come out to him. As soon as PE started I marched into the gym and came out to him. The conversation was awkward and I don’t remember all the details, but I distinctly remember him laughing and calling me ‘it.’

I don’t have the words to describe how I felt when I heard that word come out of his mouth, but I’ll try my best.

I felt hollow, like all my energy had been sucked out by that one word and that laugh. It was like missing a step. A teacher was laughing like he’d said nothing wrong, not recognizing his power and authority over me. I don’t know what happened after, the next thing I knew I was in tears and storming out of the gym.

I went to my counselor’s office, I didn’t have anywhere else to go. She did nothing, my counselor just looked at me uncomfortably when I tried to tell her what had happened.

Nothing was done.

I Shouldn’t Have to Pick a Side

The next day I went back to class and avoided the coach as much as possible. Weeks went by and we took the fitness tests, all of which I could pass for the male grade except the push-ups. At the end of it, that coach told me he didn’t know how to grade me and told me it must be nice that I got to pick how I was graded. Reacting in the moment, I sort of laughed it off. Now I wished I’d stood up to him then. I would love not to have to pick a side or whatever he said. I don’t think I should have had to pick a side, it was obvious I was strong and healthy, this was just a game to him.

Fortunately, those six weeks passed and I was back with my original coach. Class went fine until we played field games with the other class. During ultimate frisbee the other coach decided that a female had to touch the frisbee in order for a goal to count. Suddenly everyone who wasn’t male who was playing the game was just an obstacle, a game piece. The coaches didn’t seem to realize how the boys focused on the rest of us, what they saw was normal.

Near the end of the year, my class started swimming again and I was back with the other PE coach. Again he called me ‘it’ and laughed me off when I tried to speak up to him. I was numb and in shock and there was nothing I could do. I emailed my counselor and the principal about the incident and was told they’d talked to him about it. I also told my original PE coach, and he told me that I couldn’t get mad at the other PE coach because I hadn’t immediately gone up to him and come out to him BOTH times.

The Questions Dancing in My Head

“How am I supposed to come out to someone who will laugh at me?

How am I supposed to come out when I feel unsafe?

There was clearly nothing I could say to make him understand.

I’ve heard other stories from my transgender friends and their experiences with their PE classes, especially with the coach who called me ‘it.’ He’s singled them out and been all around

This coach’s actions were always excused with the usual excuses.

He’s old.

He’s stuck in his ways.

He won’t understand.

Why is a coach like that allowed to be around students?”

These were all thoughts that danced around my head but I think we need to retrain educators and adults that will be around youth. I want to work with school leaders to build an up to date training that makes students like me feel safe and comfortable. Instead of waiting for things to change, I want to start the change.

What do you think?

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