"I Wanted to Take the Mask Off": Harrison Browne on Coming Out as a Transgender Man in the NWHL
On Friday, Buffalo Beauts forward Harrison Browne became the first openly transgender athlete in U.S. team sports. In this VICE Sports Q&A, he talks about his decision to come out, the support he has received, and what comes next.
Photo by Kaitlin S. Cimini
On Friday, as the National Women's Hockey League prepared to begin its second season, Buffalo Beauts forward Harrison Browne made sports history with the announcement that he was a transgender man, becoming the first openly transgender athlete to play a professional team sport in the U.S. Browne, who helped the Beauts reach the Isobel Cup Finals last season, spoke with VICE Sports via phone earlier in the day about coming out, his teammates and support network, and the next steps as he moves forward in becoming what he calls his "authentic self."
Author's note: Browne has partnered with You Can Play, an organization dedicated to LGBTQ issues in sports. The author worked as an outreach coordinator for You Can Play in 2015 and 2016, and currently sits on the organization's regional board. She did not work with Harrison or You Can Play regarding his announcement.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE Sports: Let's start from the beginning. How long have you known that you were a trans man?
Harrison Browne: It's just basically when you kind of realize whatever you would realize if you were a girl. I went to an all-girls school, so I probably was delayed with that. I didn't really realize anything was different because I'd never been around boys. I was just always myself around an all-girls school.
It was mostly when I switched to a co-ed school when I was in Grade 8, I believe. That was when it kind of really hit me that that was not what I wanted. I didn't want to play the gender role that I was put into.
So you know you're a trans man and after college, you're looking at the NWHL, which is billing itself as a professional women's league. What made you say, OK, I can join this? Was there any disconnect?
Well, I've been playing women's sports my whole life. Obviously, growing up I played women's hockey. I went to the University of Maine after I transferred from Mercyhurst and I'd just been in the women's loop. It didn't really bother me, per se, because when you're playing hockey or you're playing a sport you don't really think about gender roles or anything. All that really matters is your sport.
The thing that just started to wear on me was when I got more coverage. It started to get a little tiresome when I kept reading my name as "Hailey" and I kept seeing "she graduated with this degree," or "she scored this many goals in her junior career."
I was very proud of where I came from and how I was able to play in the States. It's a dream for most young women hockey players growing up, and I was very proud of that. But it did kind of take away from it, a little bit. I started to come out my second year of university with my teammates. It was tough to kind of live a double life by going as "he" in the dressing room, but then in the public eye I was known as "she." It just came to this point, this year, where I wanted to take the mask off and I wanted to align my personal life with my public life.
How did you initially come out to your teammates in college?
Basically person by person. So, some people knew firsthand and it would just trickle down to the team. I didn't have a team meeting or anything like that. Overall, my team was amazing. My coaching staff was great, too. They were very supportive. I was just Brownie, right? The only thing I was changing was, I just wanted to be called "he" instead of "she." It was great.
Was it the same kind of process with the NWHL, coming out person by person?
It actually was a little bit easier because we all played against each other or with each other in college, or growing up playing Juniors. Most people had already known either firsthand or secondhand, so I never had to hold a press conference or anything. [Laughing] It was just common knowledge that I wanted to be known as "he." The new girls that came on the team this year were enlightened by previous players. I didn't have to tell anyone, I just always am myself around the team. I'm open about it and if they didn't hear from someone they would have heard from me.
What has the league done to help you prep for this? I'm sure I'm the first of about 85 interviews that are going to be requested now.
[Laughing] Yeah. [They've given me] p.r. help, and I talked to Chris Mosier, too. He, obviously, has gone through a lot of interviews, being the first transitioned trans man to play for Team USA. [Mosier is an elite triathlete who ran his first race as a man in 2010 and made the national team last summer. He's also the founder of TransAthlete and the vice-president of outreach and communications for You Can Play.]
He gave me a lot of guidance on how to answer some tough questions and basically just told me to be myself, and everything will go smoothly.
The partnership with You Can Play also made me feel like I could come out this year. I reached out to Emily Pfalzer, our You Can Play rep for our team, and told her I wanted to come out this year, which ultimately led me to Chris Mosier [who works as vice-president of outreach and communications for You Can Play].
What made you realize this was the time to come out?
Well, along with the everyday things of seeing my name wrong on rosters, online, articles, things like that. I always felt a little uncomfortable. But then I saw the Body Issue [by ESPN].
[Laughing] I keep name-dropping Chris Mosier but he really did help me this summer.
I remember I was just perusing online and I came across the Body Issue and I saw him and an article—actually it was an in-person interview with him. In it, he said that you don't have to change who you are to play the sport you love. You can still be your authentic self and play the sport you love, and that really did click with me.
I thought, 'I really want to do that. I really want to feel like he does right now.' He was just so free.
He mentioned that you can play your best when you're thinking about other things. Once you get that off your mind, you can play at your optimal level. I thought that was also insightful. I want to play my best and feel my best and being called by the right name and gender pronoun is one stepping-stone to being the best player I can be.
Obviously, this is very much about you, but it's also about everybody else who might be looking in the Body Issue at you ten years from now. Looking forward, what do you hope to achieve by coming out as a trans man?
Well, there are a lot of role models for transitioned trans men, like Chris Mosier, Aydian Dowling, that are on YouTube, and kids struggling are watching that. But they're stuck in the body that they were born in, for whatever reason, could be financial, could be because of family issues—anything along those lines. I'm here to show those kids that it's OK if you're stuck right now.
We're in kind of a limbo stage, and I'm here to support the people—athletes, any type of person. To say, hey, you can still be a man [without transitioning]. You don't have to go through a rigorous physical transition, you don't have to go through all of those things. You can still be happy and still be your authentic self. You just have to learn to be comfortable. I just want to give those kids somebody to look up to, see that I'm comfortable and I'm OK with this.
Going back to talking about being comfortable in your body. Are you taking T (testosterone) at the moment, or do you plan on taking T in the near future? [The NWHL follows the World Anti-Doping Agency's guidelines for prohibited substances, which includes testosterone.]
As far as it goes with the physical transition, I will not be undergoing that until after my hockey career. So, whenever I'm done, then I will look into physically transitioning. I won't do that until after I'm done with the NWHL.
Have you thought about what the league should be referred to as, now that it's not limited to only women players?
I can't speak for everybody, but as for now, I don't see any problem with calling it a women's league. I don't think there needs to be any changes done with the name, or anything like that. I'm comfortable, I'm fine. I can only speak on behalf of myself. I don't know what will happen down the line but for now I don't think that's necessary.
Are you worried at all about potential backlash? It's a very big step and it opens up your private life to speculation by people you don't even know.
Is backlash going to happen? Absolutely. Do I care? No.
If my coming out can help anybody that is struggling, that totally takes away from any person who takes the time to write a bad article. It doesn't bother me at all. I have a bigger picture in mind.
Everyone's been excited for me. This is a step for me to be my authentic self and everyone's genuinely happy for me and excited for the next few steps.
What do you see your next step as?
Just coming out publicly. Just seeing the articles and seeing the attention—not that I'm getting but that the trans community is getting as a whole. That's the next step for me: to see that, and to see the growth.
Well, if you get a guest spot on Orange is the New Black I'm DVRing it.
[Laughing] I hope so! That would be awesome.
Note: This article was updated to clarify that the question about T was posed specifically with regard to how Browne would deal with the NWHL's anti-doping policy, and was something Browne had agreed to address. It is typically considered invasive to ask about a transgender person's medical procedures, and the author apologizes for having created any impression otherwise
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