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In the fall of 2015, I became the first transgender athlete to compete for a men’s team in any NCAA Division 1 sport. At our first meet, I stood alongside my new (male) teammates, our names blasted over the PA system. I remember feeling so overwhelmed with nervousness. As the National Anthem played, I reached for my swimsuit shoulder strap—a pre-meet ritual I’d done before every single competition for years. Of course, men’s speedos do not have shoulder straps. So, finding only my bare shoulder, tears stung my eyes.
This is me, I thought to myself, looking out at the pool—my first true home.
This is all of me.
The echoey natatorium and crowd faded away in that moment. I heard my heartbeat in my ears, my cap holding in the sounds like little drums. Memories began to flash by—
I’m six years old, sporting my favorite full-body wetsuit because I am too uncomfortable wearing a girls’ suit.
I’m eight years old, wearing big mask-like goggles because the normal ones hurt my eyes. (At the end of that season, I receive a snorkel as a gag-gift from the coaches making fun of my irregular swim attire.)
I’m nine years old, and the girls on the team don’t talk to me because I’m not girly enough.
I’m eleven, and the boys won’t pick me for football at recess because I’m not a “real” boy enough.
I’m thirteen, and I’ve retreated from most friendships. I only feel like myself when I’m swimming.
I’m sixteen, at Nationals, struggling through my eating disorder and depression and barely making it through swim practice.
I’m eighteen, taking a gap year to go to a residential center for my eating disorder.
I’m eighteen, finally learning I am transgender.
I’m eighteen, spending most nights googling, “Transgender swimmer,” and, finding nothing, concluding I must choose between my identity, myself, and the thing I loved the most, swimming.
The National Anthem had ended, bringing me back to the college meet. I took a deep breath. I am swimming for Harvard on the men’s team. Though I did not let the tears flow, I felt a strange combination of joy and grief. I wanted to give little me a hug and tell him he didn’t have to be who they told him to be. I wanted to tell him he will grow up to be exactly who he always dreamed of being. I wanted to tell him he was right: I am a boy.
A few weeks after that meet ended, I googled “Transgender swimmer.” My own face appeared, and I began to sob.
More than five years have passed since then, and I am now a full-time activist and educator. I travel around the country (now virtually, of course) sharing my story as a transgender athlete and have given over 300 speeches to date.
In 2019, I was at a small college outsider Portland, Oregon. Following the speech, a rather long line formed of people who wanted to meet me individually. The final person very shyly approached me. They had bleached blonde hair and wore an oversized Black ACDC shirt.
“Hello, what’s your name?” I said warmly. They stuttered in response and began to cry.
“Can I give you a hug?” I asked, gently. I held out my arms as they nodded. When they caught their breath, they whispered, “You saved my life.”
It turns out that this person was also transgender. Also a swimmer. They’d never seen anyone like them in their life until googling, “transgender swimmer,” and, finding me, finally felt hope.
It doesn’t matter how many times I get messages like this. I cry every time single time. Because when a child googles, “Transgender swimmer” or “Korean transgender person” or anything similar, what they are truly asking is, “Do I belong? Am I enough?”
I want my existence as an openly transgender queer Korean American man and swimmer to be a resounding ‘yes.’ I want Obie Is Man Enough to be a resounding ‘yes.’ Yes, we do belong. Yes, we are enough.
In the past year, the U.S. has seen a record-breaking number of anti-transgender legislation around state legislatures, focused on sports and healthcare. Trans children athletes are targeted like never before, vilifying us and our joy.
Transgender children not only need but deserve stories like Obie’s—because trans people are absolutely man enough, woman enough, and nonbinary enough. That is, we are always enough, we always belong. And I hope that Obie will help prove that to you.
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