"Call Me Matt"—Life As a Transgender High School Athlete
Matt Dawkins is finding out what it means to be a transgender athlete in the tumultuous world of high school.
Photo by Polina Yamshchikov
(Editor's note: For more on Matt's story check out our photo gallery)
On a recent Wednesday afternoon in Marlton, N.J., Cherokee High School runner Matt Dawkins realized it was time for his weekly testosterone shot.
With close-cropped dark hair, a cherubic smile, a hint of facial fuzz and clad in a black T-shirt reading "#BETRUE" in rainbow letters, Dawkins, 17, opened an orange Nike shoebox. He sorted through its contents: vials, syringes and bottles with CVS prescription labels. He asked his older brother, Micah, if he would be willing to administer the shot, squeamish about doing it himself. Matt examined his two thighs.
"Should I do the right or the left leg?" Matt asked.
"Doesn't matter," his brother replied.
"I still get a little shaky," Matt said. On two different occasions the needle had hit the wrong spot, creating a small geyser of blood.
He paused. "I'm feeling left."
The needle went in and out smoothly, with minimal pain. Afterward, his girlfriend Liani Ortiz took a photo of Matt smiling, which she posted to her Tumblr. "To mark his fourth month on T," she said.
Dawkins, a rising high school senior, just finished his first full school year in which he competed on the boys' track team as a sprinter. But during his freshman and sophomore years, he ran as Maya Dawkins with the girls.
Overall, tremendous strides have been made in transgender acceptance in sports, notably Olympic gold medalist and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner detailing her transition from man to woman in the pages of Vanity Fair.
But Dawkins is finding out what it means to be a transgender athlete in a world that is devoid of the support of millions of Twitter followers, vast personal fortunes and teams of publicists, doctors and handlers: high school.
Transgender athletes who are under the age of 18, like Dawkins, have to navigate an even more complicated web of regulations and stigmas. At least six states (Idaho, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and New Hampshire) have rules that require school-age transgender athletes to have an altered birth certificate or sexual-reassignment surgery in order to participate, according to TransAthlete.com, policies that the organization has deemed discriminatory. An additional 13 states have no policy at all, and 13 states have policies that need modification, according to the group.
The resulting legal ambiguity is part of what keeps many transgender athletes from participating at all, said Helen Carroll, a former collegiate athletic director and basketball coach who works with the National Center for Lesbian Rights on legal matters involving transgender athletes. She said she is currently working on eight cases involving individual athletes and high school policies that could impact several hundred of their peers.
"If you require a birth certificate or sex reassignment surgery, some kids can't afford that," Carroll said. "They should have the same opportunities to participate and get a scholarship as anyone else."
Some opponents of transgender inclusion have raised moral objections as well as some rooted in safety. Officials have expressed concern at the idea of, say, a 6-foot-2-inch high school senior competing on a woman's team to rack up points or clobber other players. Logistics surrounding the locker room, too, can make implementation of policies tricky.
"But we're just not seeing that happen in reality," Chris Mosier, a transgender athlete and founder of TransAthlete.com, said of the potential physical advantage. "Some boys are taller, some girls are taller. Do they have a physical advantage, too?"
In some states, like Minnesota, groups opposing transgender student competition have taken out full-page ads with slogans like "A male wants to shower beside your 14-year-old daughter. Are YOU ok with that?" In California, a religious coalition, Privacy for All Students, said it submitted more than 600,000 signatures to the governor's office to challenge a bill that Gov. Brown signed into law that allowed for transgender inclusion on sports teams.
Elite leagues have grappled with this for decades. In 1977, Renee Richards successfully sued the United States Tennis Association to be allowed to compete as a female. (Richards was born a male and underwent a sex reassignment surgery.) The NCAA has its own lengthy policy. Even the International Quidditch Association states in its rules that it promotes gender inclusion by allowing players to self-identify. (This all seems like a far cry from the days of "Ladybugs.")
However, in New Jersey, where Dawkins competes, neither hormone therapy, surgery or birth certificate alteration are required to participate in high school sports, which Dawkins and his family said helped ease his transition on the track.
"That's the funny thing," Dawkins said. "For the most part, other kids were cool with it. It's the adults that were weird."
From a very early age, Nigel and Tammi knew their daughter Maya wasn't going to be "a normal girl." In sharp contrast to her twin sister, Jada, "a girly girl," Maya drifted toward "more stereotypically boy things like trucks and planes," Tammi Dawkins said. A framed photo of Maya and Jada as toddlers with pigtails stood nearby in their home.
"When they were little, we looked at Maya and thought, 'Hmmm, sporty girl? Lesbian?' That was completely talked about out loud," Tammi, a counseling psychologist, said. "The answer was 'Let's just wait and see what happens.'"
Always an active child who loved the outdoors, Dawkins played recreational soccer during elementary school before becoming interested in track. While accepting at home, his parents worried more about their tomboy daughter being teased at school. He wore boy shirts, shorts, shoes and underwear. Sometimes mistaken for a boy, he would be reprimanded by teachers for being in the wrong bathroom line at school.
"They were night and day," Nigel, a veteran of the Marines who now works as a truck driver, said of the twins. "From an early age, Jada was into dressing up, putting up makeup, wearing mom's high heels. Matt wasn't into that at all. Skateboarding, bicycling, collecting rocks, photography, tons of sports, that was Matt's thing. As a father, it's hard not to be protective."
As a high school freshman, Matt competed as Maya on the girl's team, preferring shorter distances, the 100-, 200- and 400-meters. And, as Maya, he began to win races, generating chatter about scholarship opportunities and whether or not he would compete in college.
"I think that helped trigger the breakdown," Tammi said.
During his sophomore year, Dawkins vomited before competitions and slumped to and from school every day, depressed in his demeanor. He said he wasn't sure whether or not he was attracted to girls. But once he came to terms with the fact that he was, he said he still didn't feel right.
"Everything was going horribly," Tammi Dawkins said. "I knew something that was really wrong when you had a kid who was otherwise never nervous needing to throw up before races. I couldn't take it. And once coaches started talking about college running for Maya Dawkins, at some point, I realized it wasn't the running. It was the idea of Maya Dawkins running."
"I looked 50 years into the future and I didn't know what was happening," Matt Dawkins said. "That was part of the motivation for coming out. I thought I just can't wait that long."
John McMichael, the boys track coach and a guidance counselor at Cherokee High, said he had observed Matt competing and succeeding as a girl. But he supported him making the transition to the boys team, even if it meant fewer first-place finishes.
"As the coaching staff, we had been thinking 'If this girl keeps it up, two more years of training and she could be really good in the state of New Jersey,'" he said. "She could get a college scholarship and the whole nine yards. I think that's been scaled back a bit now with so many physical changes going on with his body. But it's a tradeoff. Matt seems like a happier person than Maya. He seems to be becoming the person he always was on the inside. That has to be gratifying."
McMichael said he also worried about the potential reaction among teammates and classmates. "It was almost like having a freshman or a transfer student," McMichael said. "Like any other new student, you want them to adjust well."
On his own, Dawkins began seek out information online, mostly on YouTube, of what it meant to be transgender.
"I was researching this 24/7," he said. "And I didn't have a girlfriend, so obviously when you don't have a girlfriend you just sit at home all day and look at stuff online. I looked up everything I could, LBGT, Trans. I watched things over and over."
At first, he kept quiet about his feelings, not telling his friends or family about his inclination that he didn't feel at home in his body as Maya.
"But the first time I remember learning about being trans was a video that talked about one year on T," Dawkins said. "At first I thought they were talking about herbal tea. And I thought, 'Why are they drinking tea for a whole year and talking about it?' Then I found out it was testosterone. And I thought, 'Oh! That makes more sense!'"
Winter of his sophomore year, he decided to tell Liani Ortiz, a longtime friend who had also come out as a lesbian herself, that he wanted to transition from being a girl to being a boy. Ortiz said she bonded with Dawkins in navigating the process of her own coming out to friends and family. For Ortiz, who describes herself as shy, coming out was particularly challenging, and she said that being able to talk about it and share the process with Dawkins had strengthened their friendship.
"When he called me, he sounded really upset," Ortiz said. "At this point, we were really good friends. I had told him a lot of things and he had told me a lot of things and when he finally told me what it was, I wasn't sad. I wasn't happy. I was okay with it. I said, 'You can be yourself.'"
Then, it was time to tell his family.
Nigel Dawkins said he wasn't surprised when Matt first announced his sexual orientation. But he was taken aback when his wife called him with the news that Maya wanted to become Matt.
"I was used to gay people," Nigel Dawkins said. "And I was used to lesbians. But I wasn't used to transgender people. I haven't really interacted with any. It was totally new to me."
Tammi Dawkins said she wasn't surprised by her son's news, yet still felt overwhelmed. "It felt like being pushed out of an airplane," she said. "You didn't think it was going to happen, then you have to pull out your parachute. This is happening now."
They went through a checklist. A name change? An altered birth certificate? Who to tell at school? Could he compete as a he? Or, would he still technically be considered a female?
"Everything seems harder when you haven't had to face it before," Tammi Dawkins said. "You have to figure out things as you go."
Soon Matt connected with a therapist focused on young people and gender issues. He found a community in other transgender nonprofit groups focused on young people and athletes. At his large high school, he received help from a guidance counselor who helped him change his name on class rosters and provided emotional support.
"I knew as understanding as I could be," Tammi Dawkins said, "There's a very natural instinct to want to protect your child from all of the misunderstandings of the world."
Aside from a few skirmishes with pronouns, many of Dawkins classmates shrugged.
Danny Weiss, a rising junior, who is a friend of Dawkins and runs with him as a sprinter at Cherokee High, said that he had heard about his transition before they formally met as teammates, but it "wasn't a priority." Soon Dawkins was an effortless part of the training group, often buffered by his sense of humor and easygoing demeanor.
"People were cool with it," Weiss said. "Matt is really funny. We hang out as friends, we crack jokes, we like the same stuff. We're friends."
Dawkins' sister, Jada, a cheerleader on the Cherokee High School squad said that given his years of tomboyish behavior, few were surprised by Dawkins' news. Further, she was able to help ameliorate some of the potentially awkward conversations at school.
"I remember he told us, 'You don't know how it feels to wake up everyday in a body that doesn't feel like yours,'" Jada Dawkins said. "And I think that's when it really hit us."
Jada said that she was approached by other students who may have not felt comfortable asking Matt Dawkins directly about what it meant to be transgender, including some of the more stereotypically "popular" students.
"They asked me and I didn't answer 'Oh! It's so weird!'" she said. "I gave them the information they needed and I was calm. They'd say 'Oh, that's cool.' He was pretty boyish before anyway."
But the psychology at home at times was complex.
"There's a sense of loss there," Tammi Dawkins said. "As a therapist, you can talk intellectually about these issues all day long. But from a mom perspective, I never could have understood what it means to grieve the loss of someone who is still there. It's a very surreal thing. It was a feeling of being ripped away from Maya. It was irrational, but I think it's real for a lot of parents like me. Your head gets connected to this idea that you have two daughters and suddenly, it's like 'no, you don't.' You have to change everything in your mind."
Every time Tammi felt overwhelmed, she said she put on Maya's running shoes (no longer in use) and went for a jog. "It calmed me down a lot," she said. "And I thought 'This kid is growing you.'"
Throughout the rest of his sophomore year, Matt continued to come out as transgender to friends, teachers and other people he encountered. A friend Dawkins met through YouTube suggested that Matt make a statement by insisting on being called by male pronouns.
"I had read about other kids having problems," Tammi Dawkins said. "I get it. Kids are committing suicide over this because they don't have support at home or in their communities. I can't begin to express my overwhelming gratitude for my kid. It could go this well for everyone, but it often doesn't. I feel like we won the lottery."
Depression and suicide rates for transgender adolescents are higher than those of their peers. While 1.6 percent of the general population will attempt suicide at least once during their lives, with the risk of suicide going up with age, 45 percent of transgender young adults will try and take their own lives, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. The survey also found that 78 percent of school-age transgender or non-conforming students experienced harassment, and 35 percent experienced physical assault.
But Matt's story showed it didn't have to be that way. With proper support, the transition can be made easier for everyone involved.
By his junior year, Matt said he was out and felt comfortable at school. A social butterfly by nature, he had successfully navigated the transition in the halls of his high school and on the track. "I couldn't imagine being in a cage that long," he said.
At first, Matt's father asked if he thought it would be better to wait until after high school or college to transition. Matt said no.
"I figured, let the kid be happy now," Nigel Dawkins said. "I went on board and my support is there. He's my child and I love him to death, whatever it's going to take to make him happy and fulfill his life dreams and goals."
The response was heartening. But Matt still wondered: what to do with his female body?
Male or female, puberty is still among the most difficult of major life transitions, inherently awkward and at times biologically unhinged. Matt Dawkins—who after consulting with his family and doctors decided to start taking testosterone in March—is in the unusual position of having experienced elements of it from two genders.
"I wanted my outer to match my inner," Dawkins said. "I just wanted to be a boy as quickly as possible."
Everyone reacts to testosterone injections at a different pace, but Dawkins said that within weeks, he already noticed results. Recently at a concert, he found that while singing along with the music, his voice's pitch was sliding down in octaves.
"The voice was definitely the first thing," Liani Ortiz said. "It started cracking!"
"It's good surprising," Dawkins said.
Wearing shorts, he pointed to his knees and thighs.
"I never had hair here!" he said. "And if you look closely, I have beard hair! I'm waiting for more. But my older brother still cannot grow a full beard. It may not be there till I'm 30."
In August, when Dawkins returns from summer camp, he will undergo top surgery, a process he said he is counting down the days for, and will make his chest more like that of a male.
"To know it's going to happen now, that feeling," he said. "It's a feeling that everything is coming together. I wish I had it right away so I could go to the beach and tan. I'm not going to wear a shirt. I might as well throw them all out now!"
In middle school, Dawkins and his friends began to draw on his walls with Sharpies, creating a giant montage of song lyrics (John Mayer), quotes from plays (Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream") and stray words of enthusiasm. Matt owns a guitar, a working typewriter and has a penchant for Polaroids, one of Ortiz on display. Several medals and certificates he's won on the track—including some that say "Maya Dawkins"—hang on a wall near his bed, next to letters from friends from camp.
"People ask if it bothers me that my wall says 'Maya,'" Dawkins said, perched on his bed. "And I'm like, 'Well, it happened. I'm not going to change it. You want me to go back in time?'"
Doctors told him it will still be several months before he fully feels the effects of testosterone, but Dawkins said that he's pleased with the results thus far. He headed downstairs and evaluated his senior portraits with his mother. They stood looking at a dozen Matt faces, smiling up from the dining room table wearing a collared shirt and tie, evaluating which looks best.
"They're all so great!" his mother said. "This is only a few months into T and I think 'You're doing it!' His outside is really starting to match his inside reality."
"He looks like Jim from 'The Office' in this one," Ortiz said, pointing to a rolled-up, white sleeved option.
"My top goal was to walk down the street and have people see me as a guy," Dawkins said. "And it's happening now. It's so cool. People say, 'Can I help you with that, sir?' And I say, 'Yes! Sure!'"
On a recent spring afternoon, Dawkins and his girlfriend Liani Ortiz walked the two Dawkins dogs around their neighborhood. Holding each other's hands and the two leashes, they debated their post-high school options.
Like most rising high school seniors, Matt is weighing where he wants to go to college and what he wants to study. He loves the mountains and is eying colleges in the Pacific Northwest, but hasn't ruled out nearby urban campuses like Temple University in Philadelphia. His sister, Jada, is interested in schools in Florida, to pursue therapy or sports medicine.
"It doesn't seem real," he said. "I feel like I just finished freshman year a little while ago and now I'm picking college. It's weird how fast it goes."
Liani, a softball player with curly hair tied up in a bun and headband, said she may keep playing after high school. But she also took the opportunity to tease Dawkins for saying "playing catch" instead of her preferred jargon, "throwing catch." Ortiz wore a gray cotton T-shirt, shorts and a knee brace to help heal a torn ACL injury. Dawkins, in turn, helped tie her shoelace for her.
The two have been dating for a year and two months, a courtship that formally commenced after several multi-hour FaceTime sessions, conversations at the school cafeteria tables and Dawkins wooing Ortiz with McDonald's chicken fingers.
"And strawberries," Ortiz said. "That was high class."
"I burnt the chocolate," Dawkins said. "So I just brought the strawberries."
"I asked if she would be my Demi," he said, referencing singer and songwriter Demi Lovato.
"I thought you were going to kill me because you blindfolded me!" she said.
Soon, it was time to head back to Dawkins' home. Dawkins walked a few steps ahead with one of the dogs, as Ortiz watched him turn onto his block.
"I like that he's trying to make himself happy," Ortiz said. "He's trying to make himself better. I really like him for him."