‘I’m just a person right now’: Sports help transgender teen make his journey

Posted May 29, 2015, at 10:41 a.m.
Last modified May 29, 2015, at 3:42 p.m.

TOPSHAM, Maine — Fourteen-year-old Leo Eichfeld smiles when he recalls going out for Mt. Ararat High School’s tennis team in March.

Last year’s Class A finalists are 11-1 this year, with the top-ranked player in the state. The only racquet Eichfeld had ever held was in phys ed class — and not often at that.

“I’ve been playing for like two months,” he said recently, sitting at his family’s kitchen table in a “Mr. Spock” T-shirt. “I suck. And I hate to compete.”

Earlier this year, Eichfeld also joined the school’s swim team, despite his fear of swimming under water.

But swimming and tennis offer the freshman a way to “get the energy out.” Athletics also helped ease Eichfeld’s transition when, determined to swim on the Mt. Ararat team, the teen came out as a transgender boy to Assistant Principal Don Gray late last fall.

Once Eichfeld was approved by the Maine Principals’ Association under a new policy allowing transgender athletes to play on the team consistent with their gender identity, he tightened a special “binder” around his chest, donned a special swimsuit that covers him from shoulders to knee, and jumped in. By the end of the season, he was swimming the 50-yard freestyle and the 100 backstroke — and had cut about five seconds off his time for each.

“It was a pretty bold move, being a transgender student and getting in the water,” Mt. Ararat High School swim coach Tracy Doviak said of Eichfeld’s decision to join the team. “It wasn’t like he joined the debate team.”

But Eichfeld, she said, “fit right in. He came a long way this year.”

Six months after the meeting with Gray, family, friends, coaches and teammates use the correct pronoun when referring to Eichfeld. Coming out, he said, has been “relatively easy” compared with the experiences of other transgender kids he knows.

“Honestly, when this whole thing came about, it was like, ‘Leo’s going to be here. Leo’s going to be on the boys team.’ And our kids were like, ‘Oh, OK,’ and they went about their business,” Doviak said. “It’s a non-issue.”

Garrett Gelwick, a 17-year-old senior who swam on the team with Eichfeld, didn’t know Eichfeld before he joined the team. Gelwick swam the 50-yard relay with Eichfeld several times and said he worked hard.

“I really didn’t know he was transgender until it was announced,” Gelwick said Friday. “Everyone I know has been very accepting of him. I really haven’t seen any problems.”

In April, ESPN profiled Eichfeld and 15-year-old Shay Sullivan, a transgender girl from Montana, on an episode of “Outside the Lines” that examined policies governing transgender athletes.

‘Something felt off’

From the time he was a small child, when the family lived in Seattle, Eichfeld never felt “forced to act” as if he were a particular gender, he said. But he recalled, “Something felt off and uncomfortable all the time.”

“We had an argument in Target when he was 3,” Leo’s mother, Bridget McAlonan, recalled. “He said, ‘I want to get the pink boots. And my skirts are going to “spin out.”’ … He would wear everything — but that was kind of normal for Seattle.”

By the time the family moved to Topsham, Leo said, “It was awkward for me to wear feminine clothes.” In sixth grade, he dressed “more as a boy,” and in seventh grade, he wondered if he was gay.

“When I talked to some friends, they were like, ‘Yeah, we are too,’” he said. “But in eighth grade, I thought I was trans — I didn’t know what it was until then — and they were like, ‘Ohh kayy … I don’t really know what that is.’”

Eichfeld recalled wearing a dress to school one day and being asked by another student, “So, are you feeling more girly today?”

“I was like, ‘Noooo …’” he said.

“And that dress didn’t go back on again,” McAlonan recalled.

Eichfeld remembers he wasn’t angry.

“No,” McAlonan said. “You were just really sad.”

“I was identifying on the non-binary spectrum — not male or female,” Eichfeld said. “I was like, ‘I’m just a person right now.’”

But McAlonan recalls “traumatic” battles before school, starting in sixth grade.

“In middle school, I had been hearing rumors that people were bigoted and, ‘It’s not safe to be out at the high school,’” Eichfeld said. “So I thought, ‘OK, I have to stay closeted so I can stay safe.’”

‘Crisis situation’

When he started high school in September, Eichfeld “kinda gave people hints,” asked them to call him Leo and to use the pronoun “he.” One close friend overheard him explaining the change to another person and, without question, has called him Leo ever since.

But as swim season began, and Eichfeld donned a girls’ swimsuit, “a crisis situation erupted,” McAlonan said. “There were so many mornings we had eruptions.”

“It was like being in a constant panic attack,” Eichfeld said of wearing the girls’ suit.

McAlonan urged him to come out — to tell people he was transgender — but Eichfeld still wasn’t ready.

“I would say, ‘Leo, why don’t you tell the school?’ It got to the point where I was like, ‘This is so ridiculous.’ I was done with it … I went to the school and told Leo to come to the office,” McAlonan said of the late-fall meeting with Gray. “Leo was kind of slumped over in a chair. I said, ‘He is male. You will start identifying him as a male, he will be on the boys swim team.’ Don was like, ‘OK.’”

“It’s really about supporting kids and allowing them to access every opportunity they can,” Gray said Thursday. While confidentiality prevented him from speaking about any particular student, Gray said the school follows the Maine Principals’ Association process carefully. “I think from a school standpoint, we’ve been very supportive, and that’s really what it’s about in the end.”

“It was kind of a relief,” Eichfeld said of the meeting. “When that happened, it was like, ‘OK. It will be OK.’”

Community acceptance

And overwhelmingly, it has been. Eichfeld’s teammates pay no more attention to him than they would any other underclassman, according to Mt. Ararat boys tennis coach Don Foley, who retired from teaching English at Mt. Ararat High School after 25 years and has coached tennis at the school for eight years.

Doviak thinks that acceptance resulted in part from the makeup of the Mt. Ararat community itself. While the high school is located in Topsham, students from the fishing community of Harpswell and the inland farming towns of Bowdoin and Bowdoinham all attend Mt. Ararat.

“And from what I hear of other high schools — the bullying and the cliques — obviously there’s some of that at any high school, but here it’s different,” she added.

Gia Drew, program coordinator for EqualityMaine, said she has seen a wide array of reactions from parents but that the support Eichfeld experienced “is really not the norm.”

While some families are supportive, she said, others struggle to accept their child privately but are not publicly supportive. A third group, Drew said, “Just really say, ‘No way.’” She’s even heard them say, “How dare you?”

“Parents can be pretty wonderful, but they can also be pretty hurtful — sometimes not intentionally, but sometimes they are,” said Drew, a transgender woman and president of the board of directors of Maine TransNet, a nonprofit organization that provides support for the transgender community and raises awareness about gender identity and expression.

Eichfeld met Drew when he participated in EqualityMaine’s New Leaders Project, a leadership and community-building program for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens. During the sessions, Eichfeld met students whose parents were less supportive.

“One kid who lives more up in northern Maine had ‘fag’ written on their locker,” Eichfeld said. “They’d be bullied. It made me realize how lucky I am to be in the place I’m at. Other people are getting bullied and beaten down for who they are.”

Parents’ perspective

McAlonan and her husband knew they had to support their son — particularly given ominous statistics such as that 41 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming people report having attempted suicide.

“My husband and I were like, ‘What do we need to do?’” McAlonan said. “We could continue to call him by his birth name, we could continue to use the wrong pronoun, and we could potentially prevent ourselves from having our child. But ultimately we want to have our child.”

“It was kind of hard at first,” Eichfeld’s father, Timothy Eichfeld, said. “But it was really just a matter of understanding everything that was going on, and really just talking to Leo. I just want to make sure he’s OK and happy with who he is … if that were me, what would I need? I wouldn’t want anyone to question me.”

Despite the support, the restrictive binder that cuts into Leo Eichfeld’s stomach when he swims isn’t the only obstacle he has faced since beginning his transition. Although Eichfeld asked his teachers not to call him by his birth name, one teacher still refused to identify him as Leo Eichfeld in a publication, he said.

“I asked [the teacher] to call me Leo, and everyone did except [the teacher],” Eichfeld said. “[The teacher] even used one girl’s nickname, but refused to use my name. [The] teacher used my birth name. [The teacher] never even tried. And it’s not even my nickname — Leo is my name.”

And the parent of one swim teammate questioned why a person they knew as female was changing in a stall in the boys locker room at a YMCA.

But awareness of the rights of transgender students has been heightened since Nicole Maines sued the Orono school district in 2007 to allow the transgender teen to use the girls bathroom.

Eichfeld, who does not remember Maines’ years-long court battle, nevertheless knows her story. In January 2014 the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the school officials violated Maines’ Human Rights Act when they refused to allow Maines to use a girls bathroom. The decision marked the first time any court in the nation ruled it unlawful to force a transgender child to use the school bathroom for the sex he or she was born with rather than the one with which the child identifies.

“They sued the school, and that kind of brought attention to the whole issue, and kind of made people realize it’s not OK to oppress these kids,” Eichfeld said.

McAlonan said that when she heard of the complaint, she demanded that Eichfeld have options for changing.

“I said, ‘I’m afraid for his safety,’” she said. “I know the rates of sexual assault among transgender kids. I said, ‘I want my kid to have another place to change.’”

As the tennis team navigates the first round of playoffs this season, Eichfeld is clearly part of the team.

“If anybody goes down, he’s up,” Foley said. “I told him, ‘We need you every single step of the way now.’”

McAlonan smiled as she recalled telling her father before his visit in December that Eichfeld was transgender, identified as a boy and would be on the swim team and featured in an ESPN program.

“He stopped for a minute and said, ‘What?’” McAlonan said. “Then he said, ‘Oh, my grandson’s a jock? Cool.’”

This summer, Eichfeld will attend a two-week journalism seminar in Boston. For the first time, he’ll interact with people who never knew him by any other name. While he’ll have a roommate, he hopes to navigate the program with similar ease.

“I’ll just wear the binder the whole time,” he told his mother at the kitchen table.

“No, Leo — it hurts your ribs,” she replied, even as he protested, “It doesn’t hurt that much.”

Binder or not, Eichfeld is clear about who he is.

“Ultimately, gender is a construct,” he said. “You don’t think, or know. You just feel. When I present as a boy, I’m comfortable, therefore I am a boy.”

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