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Trans swimmer: ‘Why fight them when you can lead them’

Natalie Fahey on thriving in the NCAA

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Natalie Fahey, gay news, Washington Blade
‘I had a lot of self-pride in the fact that I stuck through all the adversity and didn’t quit the sport that I love,’ said Natalie Fahey. (Photo courtesy Fahey)

Two weeks before the start of the 2018 Mid-American Conference Men’s Swimming & Diving Championships, Natalie Fahey began taking hormones. It was her junior year at Southern Illinois University, and she was cutting it close to the championships so it wouldn’t affect her performance on the men’s swim team.

“Overall I was pretty happy with the way I swam, but I had a moment at the end of the conference meet. I knew I would never swim that fast again. It was bittersweet,” says Fahey. “I began to feel trepidation because I didn’t know what was coming next.”

What ended up coming next was Fahey’s transition and her becoming the first male to female swimmer to compete on an NCAA Division 1 team. It was a process that was supported by her teammates and her coach, Rick Walker.

Growing up in Waukesha, Wisc., Fahey was active in football, soccer, baseball and swimming. In her freshman year of high school, she was a starting right guard on the football team and ended up joining the cross-country team to compliment her swimming.

She made the varsity swim team her sophomore year and podiumed every year at the state swimming championships. She also went to the state championships in cross country.

“I really thought I was hot shit in high school,” Fahey says.
In the middle of her sports accomplishments, little things were popping up – indicators that would evolve over the next few years.

“I identified as a cis guy and my outlook was that I was going to question it, but not explore. I didn’t know what was happening,” says Fahey. “There was ongoing depression, but swimming kept me busy. It was my coping mechanism.”

Fahey flourished in the men’s swimming program under Coach Walker in her freshman year and dropped eight seconds in her 500 freestyle.

“It is a fantastic program and I started to see the fruits of my labor,” Fahey says. “I was working on every aspect of swimming and I was totally in love with all of it.”

One constant that accompanied her achievements in the pool were thoughts of transitioning. By her sophomore year, she began researching the NCAA rules on transgender athletes.

“There were so many variables to think about. I wanted to keep swimming, but I struggled to accept that I would get slower if I started taking hormones. It was also going to be very public,” says Fahey. “My swimming career was incongruent with transitioning. I kept wondering where I could squeeze in a year.”

The summer before her junior year, she painted her toenails for the first time and began asking friends to use she/her/hers pronouns. That fall, she spent a weekend with her parents in St. Louis before college move-in day and had a big announcement for them after a few beers at a local brewery.

“The words just came out – I’m trans, I’m a girl,” Fahey says. “They didn’t disown me, but it was uncomfortable. I did not go about it in a healthy way.”

Back in the pool for her junior year, Fahey tweaked her shoulder at a home meet before Thanksgiving. The injury only allowed for kicking during her swim training. For the first time, she had serious thoughts of quitting so she could begin transitioning.

“I pushed those thoughts back to the dark recesses of my mind,” says Fahey. “By Christmas break I decided to tell my coach; I want to transition, and I want to keep swimming.”

Coach Rick Walker assured Fahey that she wasn’t recruited for her times but for who she is as a person. Her spot on the men’s team was confirmed for her senior year.

That summer before her final year of NCAA eligibility, she started an internship in Indianapolis as an RV technician at a dealership and began experimenting with presenting as female.

“An RV dealership in Indiana isn’t the most comfortable place to present as a trans woman. There were shouts from cars – ‘You’re still a dude’,” Fahey says. “I am pretty thick-skinned and didn’t let it hit me hard.”

Fahey showed up for her senior year on the men’s team after six months of estrogen. She was out of shape, overweight and had lost a lot of strength from the hormones. She was competing on the men’s team in a women’s suit because of breast development.

“I swam slow at our first swim meet and went home and cried. I battled all season with not comparing myself to my previous self,” says Fahey. “It was a tough pill to swallow knowing I was never going to improve again.”

Fahey began focusing on other small victories – that feeling after a great workout, the team atmosphere, community events with her teammates and mentoring the incoming class of swimmers. She was able to rediscover her love for the sport of swimming.

Throughout the regular season, Fahey was competing with the men. At 6’2” tall, in a women’s suit, she was still showing male traits. She says she didn’t hear anything but positive remarks from teammates or opposing teams.

There was still one thing on her mind that she wanted to achieve before she completed her collegiate career.

“I had a lot of self-pride in the fact that I stuck through all the adversity and didn’t quit the sport that I love,” Fahey says. “Competing in just one meet on the women’s team would be a personal victory.”

After many discussions with her coach, it was decided that Fahey would compete at the 2019 Missouri Valley Conference Swimming and Diving Championships on the women’s team. Even though it would have been legal for her to score points (she had completed 12 months of estrogen), Fahey was entered as an exhibition swimmer.

“We decided that doing it that way would be the best course. It would have been a fight and I would have been called a cheater. Why fight them when you can lead them,” says Fahey. “I feel like I did a good job of introducing the NCAA to trans female swimming.”

Fahey is still living in Carbondale and has one semester left at Southern Illinois University. She has switched her major from mechanical engineering to automotive technology. Her dream is to work at a major automaker in serviceability.

After 15 months of hormones, she is engrossed in the female lifestyle and out to everyone in her life. She wants to have as little surgery as possible and is having consultations while she is still a student. Her student insurance at Southern Illinois is comprehensive and will cover medical procedures.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have thought back to where I was five years ago. Where I am at right now is amazing. My friends, girlfriend and family are all fantastic. I have very few complaints,” Fahey says. “I have tried to be outspoken because I feel like I owe it to the community to be a proponent for trans rights.”

Recently Fahey became scuba certified. During her dives down to submerged shipwrecks, she has begun scrawling ‘Trans Rights’ on every structure.

“I’m just doing my small part,” she says laughing.

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High hurdler Trey Cunningham comes out as gay

Florida State University alum grew up in Ala.

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Trey Cunningham (Photo courtesy of Cunningham's Instagram page)

He didn’t get to punch his ticket to the Olympics this summer but Trey Cunningham, 26, one of the world’s best high hurdlers, is in the news for a far more personal reason: He publicly came out as gay. 

“We say our goals out loud,” Cunningham told the New York Times Monday, explaining a technique he has relied upon in his training as an elite athlete. “If there’s something we want to achieve, we say it. Putting something in words makes it real.”

His sexuality isn’t exactly a secret. Cunningham came out to his parents and friends by phone five years ago at age 20. 

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” he told the Times, recalling that he found himself dripping with sweat as he waited for the ringing to end and for the calls to be connected. 

Cunningham revealed to the newspaper that he got the sense that at least some of his friends were not at all surprised by this news, and had been “waiting for me,” he said. “I was really lucky to have a group of people who did not care.”

He was in college then, starting to “explore the idea” of his sexual attraction. 

“It took me awhile to know it felt right,” he said. 

His high school years in Winfield, Ala., were a time for friends and fun, dreaming of playing pro basketball with the Boston Celtics before discovering he enjoyed “flinging myself at solid objects at high speed,” he said. It was not a place conducive to dating other boys. 

Cunningham recalled his hometown as “rural, quite conservative, quite religious: The sort of place where you did not want to be the gay kid at school,” he told the paper. “So, I had certain expectations of what my life would look like, and it took me a little while to get my head around it, looking different to that.”

So, it was not a surprise that his parents gave him some “pushback” — in his words — when he called them with the news five years ago. 

“They had certain expectations for their little boy, for what his life would be like, and that’s OK,” he told the Times. “I gave them a 5-year grace period. I had to take my time. They could take theirs, too.” 

Cunningham drew a parallel between his own process and theirs. “What was true for me was also true for my parents,” said the world-class sprinter. 

And he is world-class, even if he’ll be watching the Summer Games instead of competing in them. As the Times reported, Cunningham is ranked 11th in the world. In 2022, he won the silver medal in high hurdles at the world championships in Eugene, Ore., and last month he placed ninth in the 110-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic trials. 

“If you do well in the U.S. trials, you know you have a good shot at a medal,” he said.

Following his disappointing finish in what he described as a “stacked field” of competitors, he is coming out as gay in an interview with a journalist now because everyone who he feels needs to know has known for some time, he said. Also, he recognizes that being out is still rare. 

“There are lots of people who are in this weird space,” said Cunningham. “They’re not out. But it is kind of understood.”

What he hopes is that both sports and the wider world will someday get to a place where “people do not have to ‘come out,” he said, where people can “just get on with being them.”

In addition to being an elite athlete, Cunningham has a Master of Science degree from Florida State University, a deal with Adidas and — with his scruffy square jaw and pouty lips — he is a sought-after Ford model.

He said in the interview that he realized coming out comes with practical and potentially financial considerations: Competing in countries where being gay is a crime, like Qatar. Although he doesn’t think hiding his sexuality inhibited his performance or that some great weight is now lifted, he believes being public about it has value.

There are times, Cunningham said, when it pays to say something out loud, to make things real. This is that time. 

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Transgender nonbinary runner Nikki Hiltz makes Team USA

‘Woke up an Olympian’

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(Screenshot)

They ran like the wind, broke the tape at the finish line, and clutched their chest with the broadest smile on their face. Then Nikki Hiltz collapsed to the track, having set a new record in the 1,500-meter race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials and earned a spot on Team USA. 

As the realization sank in that they would be representing the U.S. in Paris as an out transgender nonbinary athlete, what the Paris-bound Olympian did next was to scribble a message of LGBTQ representation on the last day of Pride Month, writing with a red marker upon the glass of the camera that records each athlete’s signature on a whiteboard: 

“I ❤️ the gays,” they wrote, and above it, they signed their first name. 

Hiltz, 29, finished the race on Sunday at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field in first-place with a final time of 3:55:33, breaking third-place finisher Elle St. Pierre’s 2021 record of 3:58:03. 

Hiltz credited St. Pierre, the top-finishing American and third-place finisher in the women’s 1,500 at the Tokyo Olympics, with motivated them and the other competitors to race faster. With a first lap time of 61 seconds, St. Pierre led the race for the majority of its duration. St. Pierre and Emily Mackay, who placed second, also both earned spots in the Paris Olympics.

“If someone would have told me this morning that 3:56 doesn’t make the team, I don’t want to know that. I’m just in the race to run it and race it and that’s what I did,” Hiltz said after the race. The Santa Cruz native who came out in 2021 as trans nonbinary told NBC Sports that the accomplishment is “bigger than just me.”

“I wanted to run this for my community,” Hiltz said, “All of the LGBT folks, yeah, you guys brought me home that last hundred. I could just feel the love and support.” 

On Monday, Hiltz reflected on the race and how they became an Olympian in a post on Instagram.

“Woke up an Olympian. 🥹 Yesterday afternoon in Eugene Oregon a childhood dream of mine came true. I’m not sure when this will fully sink in … All I know is today I’m waking up just so grateful for my people, overwhelmed by all the love and support, and filled with joy that I get to race people I deeply love and respect around a track for a living. 🙏”

Hiltz also shared a photo with their girlfriend, runner Emma Gee, and captioned it: “Remember in Inside Out 2 when Joy says “maybe this is what happens when you grow up … you feel less joy”? Yeah I actually have no idea what she’s talking about. 🎈🌈🤠🦅🥐🇫🇷”

They shared photos in their new Team USA garb, too. 

While they will be the first out trans nonbinary member of the U.S. track and field team, Hiltz will not be the first nonbinary Olympian. That honor goes to Quinn, who played soccer for Canada in Tokyo and holds the record as the only nonbinary athlete to have won a gold medal. So far. 

Many of the posts by Hiltz, Team USA and others have been trolled by bigots and ignoramuses who have mistaken them for a trans woman who was presumed to be male at birth and transitioned genders. Right-wing outlets and anti-trans activist Riley Gaines have commented on their victory and questioned their gender identity and decision to compete against cisgender women. 

But in the spirit of the late Marsha P. Johnson, who famously said the “P” stood for “pay no mind” to the haters, Hiltz shared a photo of a handwritten motivational note to themself, which ends: “I saw a quote online the other week that said, ‘respect everybody, fear nobody,’ and that’s exactly how I’m going to approach this final. I can do this.” 

And they did. 

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Every MLB team except this one celebrated Pride

Right-wingers react to ‘backlash’ against Rangers: ‘Bullying is unacceptable’

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Once again, the Texas Rangers opted not to celebrate Pride last month with a dedicated day or night on its 2024 promotion schedule. And once again, the American League West team is the only Major League operation to do so. 

This repeated omission by the reigning World Series champs has sparked what one conservative news site calls a “ridiculous backlash.” As the Washington Examiner’s Kimberly Ross wrote this week:

“There is no getting away from these ubiquitous celebrations. Instead of ‘to each his own,’ major league teams are nearly required to give in and perform in an effort to placate the loudest crowds. It’s not good enough to include everyone at all times. You must kowtow or else. This kind of bullying is unacceptable, and it’s worth pushing back against whether you’re a regular citizen or the 2023 World Series champion Texas Rangers.”

But the only evidence of the “backlash” was a balanced report by Schuyler Dixon of the Associated Press that appeared on the website of KSAT-TV in San Antonio, detailing the frustrations of local LGBTQ advocates and fans. His report was posted by the AP under the headline: “Why are the Texas Rangers the only MLB team without a Pride Night?” The virulently anti-trans British tabloid, the Daily Mail rehashed that same AP piece but added that LGBTQ groups were “FURIOUS” without substantiating that claim with a single quote. 

At most, DeeJay Johannessen, chief executive of the HELP Center, an LGBTQ organization based in Tarrant County, where the Rangers play, told the AP he felt “kind of embarrassed.” The Daily Mail headline writer was apparently “kind of” clickbaiting. 

“It’s kind of an embarrassment to the city of Arlington that their team is the only one that doesn’t have a Pride night,” Johannessen said. Local advocate Rafael McDonnell said, “It pains me that this remains an issue [after] all these years.”

How painful? McDonnell told the AP he considered not attending the championship parade with his boyfriend when the Rangers celebrated their first World Series championship last fall. Ultimately, he decided to go. So much for “FURIOUS.” 

McDonnell is the communications and advocacy manager for the Resource Center, which is an organization that grew out of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. He added that his group has worked with the Rangers, at their invitation, to help them develop a policy of inclusion, starting about five years ago.

The team has sent employees to volunteer for programs supporting its efforts in advocating for marriage equality and transgender rights.

Although McDonnell said members of the Rangers staff keep in contact with him, he told the AP he can’t recall any conversations with the team since its five-game victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in last year’s World Series. 

“For a long time, I’ve thought that it might be somebody very high up in the organization who is opposed to this for some reason that is not clearly articulated,” McDonnell said. “To say that the Rangers aren’t doing anything for the community, well, they have. But the hill that they are choosing to stake themselves out on is no Pride night.”

The Rangers did celebrate Mexican heritage during a game last month, and also host nights throughout the season dedicated to other groups as well as the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, first responders, teachers, and the military. The team also recognizes universities from around the Dallas-Fort Worth area and other parts of the Lone Star State. But not Pride. 

Why? The Rangers issued a statement, very similar to one from 2023. It lists various organizations the team has sponsored and steps it has taken internally to “create a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive environment for fans and employees.”

“Our longstanding commitment remains the same: To make everyone feel welcome and included in Rangers baseball — in our ballpark, at every game, and in all we do — for both our fans and our employees,” the team said. “We deliver on that promise across our many programs to have a positive impact across our entire community.”

“I think it’s a private organization,” said Rangers fan Will Davis. “And if they don’t want to have it, I don’t think they should be forced to have it.” Davis is from Marble Falls, about 200 miles southwest of the stadium in Central Texas and attended a recent game with his son’s youth baseball team.

“I think if it were something where MLB said, ‘We’re not participating in this,’ but the MLB does participate in it. And the Rangers have chosen not to,” said Rangers fan Misty Lockhart, who lives near told the ballpark. Lockhart told the AP she attends almost three dozen games every season. “I think that’s where I take the bigger issue, is they have actively chosen not to participate in it.”

While Lockhart says she doesn’t see Pride night as a political issue, she suggested there would be more pressure on the Rangers if their stadium was downtown, in the heart of Dallas County, where the majority of elected officials are Democrats. Tarrant County, home to Arlington, Fort Worth and Global Life Stadium, is generally more conservative, just like the governor, lieutenant governor, legislature, and fans like Will Davis. 

“In something like this, this is a way for people to go as a state,” Davis told the AP. “We don’t want the political stuff shoved down our throats one way or the other, left or right. We’re coming out here to have a good time with friends or family and let it be.”

Unfortunately, some Rangers fans decided they could not “let it be” the one time the team welcomed local LGBTQ groups to a game as part of a fundraising event, as it does for other groups. This was in September 2003, two years after the Chicago Cubs hosted what is considered the first-ever Pride game. At that time, Rangers fans raged about the invitation on a website, and showed up to protest outside the stadium before that game. 

The Rangers never extended that invitation again. 

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