There is a love Quinn feels on the soccer pitch every day, a joy discovered as a child playing for North Toronto Soccer Club that has endured through an ongoing professional and international career.
Sport is an avenue of expression for Quinn. It’s a place to just have fun. It can also be a contrasting space that is difficult to navigate for the 25-year-old Canadian defender and midfielder, who came out publicly as a transgender person in a social media post earlier this month.
Soccer for Quinn, who uses they/them pronouns and no longer goes by their deadname Rebecca, can be an outlet. But sport’s rigid binary when it comes to gender — the traditional setup siloing sport into men’s and women’s sides — falls well short of inclusivity for trans and nonbinary people.
“I think that, for me, (soccer) has been so great to have in this process, but as well it is such a gendered space … and I don’t think it’s completely necessary,” Quinn said this week from Sweden, where they are competing for Swedish club Vittsjio GIK in the country’s top women’s league, while on a three-month loan from OL Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League, where they recently signed a new contract.
Growing up, Quinn had no queer figures in their life. Despite going to a high school that tried to discuss gender identity and sexuality on a broader scale in health classes, it took time to meet people in the queer community and learn the language necessary to express how they were feeling, in order to come to terms with their own queerness.
At Duke University, where they played in parts of five seasons with the women’s soccer team and earned a semifinalist nod for the Mac Hermann Trophy in 2017, taking women and gender studies classes and getting involved in advocacy spaces such as Athlete Ally taught them the language to use in terms of trans identity.
It isn’t a language the general population learns, Quinn said, which is frustrating.
“People have feelings, those aren’t new,” they said. “I think I can identify a lot of feelings I had as a child but I couldn’t verbalize them, I couldn’t understand what space I fit into.
“I’m not saying that it was completely linear for me, I think every day I was still exploring how I express myself in terms of how I perform gender but I think language is so significant and being able to pinpoint it can bring so much comfort to people and to entire communities.”
Quinn has lived openly with their loved one for many years and called coming out to teammates on the Canadian women’s national squad a positive experience. They try to avoid labels, but said they fall into a more nonbinary gender queer category. It’s liberating, they said.
Coming out is something Quinn unfortunately expects they’ll have to do over and over again for the rest of their lives. They always wondered when they would come out publicly. The complexity of their story doesn’t fit into however many characters are allowed in an Instagram post, but they hope they are now visible to other queer people who don’t see themselves in their daily lives or on social media.
Seeing other trans people, like other former athletes at Duke, or Harrison Browne, the first publicly transgender professional hockey player in history, “saved my life years ago,” Quinn wrote in their Instagram post.
“Just in general, I was having a really difficult time doing day-to-day things, going to the washroom, whatever else,” they said this week. “You’re ridiculed and humiliated on a consistent basis, unfortunately, and so I think for me … they really did give me hope during that difficult time in my life. I wanted to be able to give that to other people who were confused … their own hope for the future.”
It’s crucial to have more trans representation in the public eye, and not just in the sports realm, Quinn said. Quinn usually calls the United States home. According to tracking by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy and political lobbying organization in America, at least 26 transgender or gender nonconforming people have been fatally shot or killed by other violent means in the U.S. in 2020. In 2019, according to HRC’s website, advocates tracked at least 27 deaths of transgender or gender nonconforming people in the U.S. due to violence, the majority of whom were Black transgender women. Many such stories go unreported or misreported, said the HRC.
“We have trans women of colour, specifically Black trans women, that are being murdered,” Quinn said. “It’s a pandemic. I think that’s something that’s often brushed to the back of our conversations, it’s not in our headlines and I think it’s something that really should be because it’s something that needs to change. I thought that being out there would help contribute to that.”
In their post, Quinn shared tangible ways cisgender, meaning a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth, people can be allies to trans and nonbinary people. Allyship, the act of unlearning and re-evaluating, starts with making a conscious effort to educate, Quinn said. A cisgender person putting their preferred pronouns in their bios on social media, for example, normalizes the experience so trans people won’t have to go through an often difficult experience of coming out.
“It would be practice for everyone to not assume,” Quinn said. “I think that’s one of the problems in our society, that we’re consistently assuming stuff about other people and so I think a simple thing like that, it’s a comfortable thing for cis people to do.”
Practicing terminology and language is also important. They/them pronouns, for example, may feel unusual at first but can be learned quickly, Quinn said.
“They might hate that I’m saying this, but my parents are 60 years old now and they didn’t grow up using that form of language and it’s something that they’ve been able to adopt perfectly,” they said. “It actually isn’t as daunting as it may seem, it just takes a little bit of practice.”
In sport, Quinn sees simple changes that can be implemented to make trans, nonbinary and cisgender athletes more comfortable. Educate. Make different uniform options available. Hire staff members who create safe spaces for everyone, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
And then there are larger issues to explore and advocate for, Quinn said, like the inclusion of trans women in sport. Some argue it is unfair to allow women who transitioned to compete with physical advantages from being born male. While some transgender people access medical care like hormones and surgeries as part of their transition to align their physical bodies with their gender identity, a transgender person’s gender identity is not dependant on medical procedures or their physicality.
The International Olympic Committee announced in March it would wait until after the since-postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where at least three trans women could have competed, to deliver new guidelines on transgender athletes. Previous guidelines from 2015 set a permitted level of testosterone in serum at below 10 nanomoles per litre for one year. That had seemed likely to be halved.
The IOC’s guidelines were expected to help individual sport governing bodies decide their own rules.
Those IOC-led talks were separate from South African track star Caster Semenya’s legal case challenging track and field’s rules on naturally high testosterone in female runners with “differences in sex development (DSD).” Semenya, whose testosterone levels are above a “standard female range” because of a rare genetic condition, had her appeal to defend her 800-metre title in Tokyo next year denied by the Swiss Supreme Court earlier this month.
“We have such rigidity in terms of our gender and we’re excluding trans women, we’re excluding cis women, like in terms of Caster Semenya, because they don’t fulfil this white, colonial idea of what it is to be a woman,” Quinn said. “When we get back to why we’re all here and why we’re all playing sports, it’s to celebrate physical excellence.”
Quinn will continue doing just that with Vittsjio GIK, after what has been an overwhelming couple of weeks following their public coming out.
“It’s so bizarre how this is, in some senses, a big deal,” Quinn said. “I’m just living my life, I’m who I always was. I’m just being open about it with a larger audience … I have to remind myself that yeah, it is kind of a new thing to be out and visible. I just see myself as the same old quirky person.”