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Former NCAA swimmer Schuyler Bailar discusses attacks on transgender Americans' civil liberties

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Schuyler Bailar, the first transgender NCAA D1 men’s athlete, joined CBSN to discuss the attacks on transgender Americans' civil liberties as more states pursue of anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Video Transcript


ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Civil liberties for the transgender community in the US are under attack as some states in the country continue to roll out bills that target LGBTQ people. A record-shattering 24 bills are already signed into law so far this year alone, including 13 that directly impact the transgender community.

According to The Trevor Project, more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth in the US seriously consider suicide each year. But those numbers are much lower for those who have access to spaces that affirm their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Schuyler Bailar is the first transgender NCAA Division I men's athlete and joins us now to talk more about this. He's also an author, advocate, and life coach. Thank you so much for joining us. Schuyler, listen, I want to get into the whole importance of representation.

But I will confess I find you to be a very fascinating human, and I think that your journey-- that there are lessons to be drawn from your journey for everyone, not just people who are members of the trans community, from coming out to your Korean conservative grandmother-- and Vlad I can understand what it's like to come from an immigrant family, and that pressure-- to getting over an eating disorder, to body issues that are not related to being trans, just the same stuff that we all deal with.

And I think people need to understand that when you chose-- which is six years ago, and I read your post on Instagram00 to start taking testosterone, you were literally diving into the unknown. You were one of the top high school swimmers in the country. And when you chose to take testosterone, it meant you could no longer compete with women. You were going to compete with men. And so you were running the risk of throwing everything away because swimming was everything for you.

So before we get into the politics, can you just talk to me about that decision and how it sort of-- not changed you-- obviously it changed you physically-- but changed you?

SCHUYLER BAILAR: Yeah, absolutely. Well, first, thank you so much for having me here. It's a pleasure to share my voice, and I'm glad to be here.

For me, that decision was built on risk, like you said. And before I decided to take testosterone and transition, I was risking my happiness constantly by not being myself, by not being authentic. And when I chose to take testosterone, I decided to throw away, like you said, all these things I could have been competing as female to say, I'm going to be myself instead. And that threw away and closed the door to all these potential gold medals, glories, winning titles that I wanted to and was seeded to win competing as a female, to instead gain the glory of being myself.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Wow. So as the first transgender athlete to compete on Harvard's swim team, help us understand the importance and the power of inclusion.

SCHUYLER BAILAR: I think the power of inclusion is life-saving. Before I transitioned, before I got the acceptance from my coaches and my teammates, I was afraid that being transgender was going to cost me everything that I loved in the world. And I went through a very dark period when I realized that I was transgender, not because I thought there was something wrong with being transgender, but rather because other people and the world thinks that there is something wrong with being transgender.

And that fear of what other people would think of me-- and less, actually, of their judgment but rather what they would do-- was I going to be kicked out of my sport? Was I going to be kicked out of school, of my team? Were my friends going to love me? Were my parents and sort of immediate family? Was I going to receive love and belonging from people? That was really, I think, the terrifying part of coming out.

And when my coaches said, you know what, we're going to figure this out. We actually don't know a whole lot about trans people, but we're going to figure this out together. I think that was so key because it let me be open. It let me feel safe. And then let me figure out how I wanted to move forward in my transition, in my process, without losing the thing that I love the most in the world, which is swimming.

So in 2019, you were actually awarded a very prestigious Harvard Athletic Directors award. In your acceptance speech, you said something that is very timely now with the number of anti-trans sports bands that are popping up across the country. I want to play some of what you said.


- This inclusion is so important because little kids are people that are interacting in sports and trying to figure out if they have a place in this world. And I sit here today as somebody who really felt like I didn't have a place in this world at some point, especially as a little kid, especially in swimming, especially in sports.

And this is proof that I do. This is proof that we all do. And I think that's the most incredible proof that there can be.


ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So what do you want lawmakers to know when they're debating these bills and passing these bills in some of these state legislatures, bills that quite frankly, I don't know how many people are really clamoring for. Often the bills are not actually based on any sort of science.

And so I'm not sure if they understand the outlet that sports and other environments can give kids to sort of support them through what could be a very difficult journey. What do you want these lawmakers to know, when they're passing these laws, what they're really doing?

SCHUYLER BAILAR: Absolutely. Yeah. So the primary thing about these bills that I want to start with is that the bills are targeting children. And a lot of people, when they talk about these bills, they run around-- like you said the word clamor. That's a good word. They sort of clamor, and they fearmonger about professional level sports and say, oh, you know, these people winning the Olympics and these people in professional sports, yada yada yada.

State legislators don't have any mandate over the Olympics, over the NCAA, even to not even college athletics, no elite level sports. They are not talking about elite level sports. They are talking about children. And children are just trying to gain social interaction and learn about their bodies and how they interact with other people through sports. And it's a very normal developmental thing that people engage in as kids.

And when you take that away from trans kids because of their transness, that is absolutely directly discriminatory. And I think that it's really important to recognize that these are children that we're talking about, and we can't fear-monger and kind of distract from that by talking about professional sports, which a lot of people do.

And the thing that I think is key about this-- and you said what is the impact on these kids-- is being told by the government that we don't belong, that transgender kids don't belong in sports is akin to saying we don't belong, period. Trans kids already experience a plethora of discrimination around the country in many different spaces, whether that be in school, in the doctor's office-- a lot of these bills are about health care as well-- from their parents at home, from their friends.

And to add that level institutionally to sports is another message to trans kids that they don't belong. And I want to add a little message to this as well, which is that the government is wrong. So if you are a trans kid watching this, please know that the government is absolutely wrong. These laws are not built on fact. They are not based in science. They're based in transphobia.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: It's an excellent point. And this is also sort of in line with what you're just talking about, Schuyler. While you were competing on Harvard's swim team, you outperformed 85% of other swimmers in the country. But in the beginning, you faced some challenges. I want you to talk to our audience about what you told "60 Minutes". Let me just play a bit of that.


- I know I made the right decision. But I think sometimes, I'm like, oh, I really wish I could compete as a girl because I want to win that race. It's fun to win, and it's something that I worked really hard for. And you know, I work the same amount, but now I'm working the same amount for 16th place, you know.

- And that's OK.

- And that's OK. It's the way it is. And it's also a lot of fun, and there's other kinds of glory in it.

- Different kind of glory.

- Definitely a different kind. It's glory that fills me inside.


VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Something interesting that you said, Schuyler, when you were talking to Lesley Stahl there, you said you wanted to compete as a girl. In other words, did you mean because if you were competing with girls, that you would be top ranked? And now that you are competing with boys, that your rank has fallen? Or just unwrap that for me a little bit.

SCHUYLER BAILAR: Yeah, totally. So when I was competing as a female, competing on the women's side against women, I was really good. I was one of the top recruits for my event. I was the top recruit for my class at Harvard, for my stroke. And when I switched to compete as a man, I was behind.

And if you think about it from a physiological standpoint, I hadn't started taking testosterone at that point, and so I was just barely getting my medical transition, which is akin to just barely beginning puberty. And if you put a boy who's just barely begun puberty against somebody who's 20, 21, or 22, there's a clear difference in ability in that sense.

And so I think there was a lot that I was just kind of waiting for my body to catch up with. And I was able to do that over time. But when I was first on Harvard men's swim and dive, and I was able to watch the girls swim as well, because we often watched each other's meets, there was a bit of grief that I experienced because I was like, gosh, I could have garnered all these first place medals, potentially, competing on the women's team.

And I always like to say, though, that grief does not preclude joy. I was also experiencing this massive joy, as I said in the "60 Minutes" piece that filled me inside, that made me feel whole, that made me feel like myself. And that is far more meaningful than any first place medal.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: So can I ask you, Schuyler, because one of the things that people who are struggling to understand your journey and the journey of so many others, is-- the reason I wanted to ask that is because I wonder if, when someone says, well, you know, if somebody transgenders to a girl who was a boy, now is competing against girls, they may be stronger or faster.

And you talked about the science. So help our audience understand if that is rooted in scientific fact or not, and if parents who have children competing in some of these sports should be concerned that somebody who has now transitioned to a boy will just be stronger and faster and more capable than female athletes.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Unfair advantage.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Yeah, an unfair advantage is, I guess, what some people would talk about.

SCHUYLER BAILAR: Let's look at some language first. So the first thing is that I want to make it really, really clear that when somebody transitions, or when somebody is a trans person, they are no less boy or girl. So I'm no less of a boy. I'm a transgender boy, but that doesn't make me any less of a man.

And similarly, a transgender girl is no less of a girl. So when a trans girl competes on a girls' team, there are still no boys on that team. And I think the language there is really important. I noticed that you said transgendered, and the word there would be transitioned, just to sort of know the language.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Thank you very much. It's important to know these things.

SCHUYLER BAILAR: Absolutely, yeah. And so a trans girl-- a lot of people, like you said, are nervous about trans girls competing on girls teams, and they talk about fairness often. And there's a couple of points I want to make about this.

The first thing is that at all elite levels of sports-- so in the Olympics, in the Paralympics, international swimming, in all college athletics-- in order for a trans girl or a trans woman to compete on a women's team, they must undergo hormone regulations. They cannot just waltz onto a women's team and say, here I am, if they are assigned male at birth. So I say assigned male at birth instead of born a boy because they're truly not boys. They were assigned male at birth.

If somebody is assigned male at birth, they cannot compete on a women's team until they've been on one documented year of hormone suppressants. And that's the same for the Olympics and other elite level sports.

So we already have those rules at elite level sports. These bills are not talking about elite level sports. They are talking about children. And before the age of 13, there are no biological differences-- right around 13-- Tanner stage 2 of puberty, when puberty actually makes a difference in their hormones, there are no biological differences.

So for most of childhood there are no biological differences except for the absence or presence of a penis. And to be very clear with you, nobody plays sports with that body part. So it does not matter.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: It's important to note. Good reminder.

SCHUYLER BAILAR: And beyond that, from the ages of 13 to 18, when there might be some hormonal differences, it still does not matter unless you are at elite level. And guess what? At elite levels, they're already the hormone regulations.

So when people get all lost in this conversation about fairness, they're first missing a lot of the science of it, the biology of puberty. And second, they're running around with all these complications as if every child is going to be an Olympic athlete, which is false. Most kids don't even compete to win. Most kids are competing and just being in sports because it's fun, and because it's a massively important part of one's development.

And I think that what the sort of fear mongering that's happening is what we're talking about, is it's distracting away from what people are actually using sports for to look at the Olympics, which is totally irrelevant. We're talking about state legislatures because the state legislatures have literally no jurisdiction in the Olympics or professional sports.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Yeah. It's an important point did you make, too. And I know Anne-Marie wants to jump in here, but it does strike me that we're talking about the reasons we play sports. I mean, I played sports growing up. I was a benchwarmer in every single sport I ever played. Like it was ridiculous. I could never get on the field in anything. That's how lame I was. And it didn't stop me from playing sports. I mean, in other words, playing-- I should say practicing. It was for fun and it was to hang out with my friends.

So no one ever expected that I would go any further than the bench. My sister was a very-- almost world class athlete in high school and in college. But you know, it's such a good point that you make that we're all out there, especially when we're not competing at the elite level, just to have a good time. Sorry, Anne-Marie.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Yeah, I agree. No, I think that's a good point. And Schuyler, your response to Vlad's question, I think, brings up another really good point because I heard Vlad's question and I thought, language sounds good to me. So it was really good that you kind of clarified the language. And I think it brings us to this idea of how to be a good ally.

You know, during last summer when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening, often some of my friends, who were not Black, would sort of email me and say, what can I do? And I would even struggle with what was the appropriate behavior for somebody who wasn't Black?

And so now I find myself in that position, saying, what can I do? How can we show good allyship, if that is it?

For the transgender community in the US are under attack as some states in the country continue to roll out bills that target LGBTQ people. A record-shattering 24 bills are already signed into law so far this year alone, including 13 that directly impact the transgender community.

According to The Trevor Project, more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth in the US seriously consider suicide each year. But those numbers are much lower for those who have access to spaces that affirm their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Schuyler Bailar is the first transgender NCAA Division I men's athlete and joins us now to talk more about this. He's also an author, advocate, and life coach. Thank you so much for joining us

Schuyler, listen, I want to get into the whole importance of representation. But I will confess I find you to be a very fascinating human, and I think that your journey-- that there are lessons to be drawn from your journey.

SCHUYLER BAILAR: --on Instagram or on Twitter or wherever you find your social media. It's a great way to have small doses and little bits of education about people that you might not understand without that.

And then beyond that-- and this is sort of a primary, I think, easy and very, very impactful thing to do, always call trans people by the right name and right pronouns. I say always again because that's so important. Always. My name is Schuyler. I use he/him pronouns, and you're going to always call me Schuyler and always use he/him pronouns to refer to me. And that's the same with other trans people, their name and their pronouns. That is the most easy and impactful way to be respectful to trans people.

And then the sort of level two ally that comes from that is correct other people when they get it wrong, even when we are not in the room. And that includes talking about celebrities, so calling Caitlyn, Caitlyn. And if somebody calls her the wrong name, reminding them that her name is Caitlyn. Same with Laverne Cox. Same with anybody else who's out there in the media. You have to protect us always. And that includes in the depths of language.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: It's such an important point, Schuyler. And I just wonder, who wouldn't call you Schuyler? I mean, have you encountered people who refuse to call you Schuyler? You know, Caitlyn Jenner-- it would just strike me weird that somebody would refuse to call you by your name, by your name.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: I think it's more about the pronouns that people might struggle with, I suppose, perhaps if they--

SCHUYLER BAILAR: There's both. Sorry, I don't mean to interrupt you. But I think it happens in both places. So for me, my name is Schuyler, and it actually has always been. I didn't change my name. So people don't usually call me a different name because there isn't another name to be offered.

But I do encounter quite a bit of hatred online. And every once in a while, in a speech that I give, that's one of my primary jobs these days is I provide DEI education through speaking. And I do get people who will call me a woman, call me an abomination, a sinner. Somebody gave a really terrible comment the other day that alluded to gas chambers for trans people.

So there's a lot of really awful hatred that I've experienced out there. To be honest with you, these days it rolls off my back because I'm so used to it, which is both a sad and empowering statement at the same time. And I think that when I think about allyship, especially for folks who are not transgender, for folks who are like me who are transgender, it's about responding to those sentiments when you are able to.

So if you are here listening, it might be that you are already an ally, and that's great. But allyship starts when you meet somebody who is not an ally. Allyship starts when you encounter somebody who is resistant to the topic, and that's where the real work starts.

And I do that work all the time when I'm speaking. But I want the people I speak to to be allies to other allies, allies to budding allies. And that's, I think, where the cascade of change comes.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: This has been a remarkable conversation, Schuyler. Thank you so much for spending some time with us. Thank you so much for educating us and providing that same education to our audience and our viewers. We really appreciate it. Thank you.

SCHUYLER BAILAR: Thank you so much for having me.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: And if you are struggling, or you are concerned about someone you know who is struggling, call the number on your screen. The toll free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.