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Schuyler Bailar, first trans athlete to compete on a NCAA Division 1 men's team, wants all trans athletes to feel represented

Groundbreaking athlete on transgender rights
Former NCAA swimmer Schuyler Bailar discusses attacks on transgender Americans' civil liberties 19:22

When Schuyler Bailar is in the water, he has an out-of-body experience. 

Bailar, a former award-winning swimmer at Harvard University, said this sharpens his attention and helps him focus solely on his end goal. This focus helped him become one of the top high school and college swimmers in the country. He said it also helped him find himself as an out and proud transgender man.

"When I'm swimming, I don't feel like I have to be a body or gender or really anything. I'm just the act of swimming," Bailar told CBS News. "There's this massive relief, this grounding combined with the weightlessness of being in water that's really beautiful."

In 2015, Bailar became the first transgender athlete to compete on an NCAA Division 1 men's team and finished his four years at Harvard in the top 13% of the breaststroke and top 15% of butterfly. Now, Bailar is using his platform to fight against legislation that seeks to ban trans athletes from sports teams.

"These bills are absolutely devastating," Bailar said. "It is stressful for me because I feel like I should be doing something. I had the privilege of competing, I already did my sport and lived my dream. But how many kids don't have that privilege who are going to be massively affected by these bills?" 

Lawmakers in at least 27 states have proposed legislation that would ban trans athletes from competing on sports teams that match their gender identity, claiming transgender women possess an unfair advantage over cisgender women. However, Bailar said sports associations already have intense regulations for transgender athletes to compete in elite sports and there is less of a biological difference between children before the age of 13. 

"When people get lost in this conversation about fairness, they are first missing a lot of the science of this — and puberty. Second, they are running around with all of these combinations as if every child is going to be an Olympic athlete — most kids do not compete to win," Bailar said on CBSN. "Most kids are just competing and being in sports because it is fun. This sort of fear-mongering is distracting from what people are actually using sports for." 

Schuyler Bailar
Schuyler Bailar in 2017. Monica Schipper/Getty

Bailar considers the bills life-threatening to young trans athletes and thinks back to the emotional, physical and mental health struggles he experienced while coming to terms with his own gender identity as a kid.

"I think that friendships were just really difficult for me because I was so afraid of meeting new people because I would then have to explain my gender to them," Bailar said. "People gendered me as male when they met me because I had short hair and dressed, quote-unquote, like a boy. And I felt like I had to tell people, 'No, I'm actually a girl,' because I didn't have other languages. So I felt like I was lying if I didn't explain I was a girl but also it didn't feel right to me." 

Instead, Bailar chose to portray himself as a tomboy, drawing him closer to his parents and further from people his own age. He then turned his focus on swimming, reaching an elite level by the time he was 10. He participated in the Potomac Valley Junior Olympics, winning first place for the 100-yard breaststroke two years in a row at multiple high school championships, and becoming a two-time All-American and USA Swimming Scholastic All-American swimmer.

Despite his success, he struggled in his personal life. When he was 18, he was recruited by Harvard's women's swimming team but was hospitalized over an eating disorder, which forced him to take a gap year between high school and college. He used this time to reflect and realized he felt uncomfortable presenting as a girl because he wasn't one — he was transgender.

"It was like finally finding the label or the puzzle piece or that you've been missing," Bailar said. "Like, oh, my God, that's what I was looking for."

But his realization also came with fear.

"I was so terrified that I was going to lose my support," Bailar said. "I was so afraid of the oppression and the systemic transphobia that I was sure to experience that I just was like, I don't know if I can handle this, " he explained. "I do wish that I was able to see another successful transgender athlete. That's what I missed at the time. I thought, 'I have to lose everything. I have to choose either transition and myself as a man or swimming and my success in athletics and I can't have both.' And that was devastating."

Bailar didn't have to choose between swimming and being himself. After initially wanting to stay on the women's team at Harvard, he committed to swimming for the men's team with the support of his parents and the school's coaching staff. But that decision didn't come without sacrifice. By switching teams, Bailar knew he was leaving behind years of records, achievements and the potential to go to the Olympics. 

"There was a lot of grief in that," he said. "I had really spent my whole life working to be good and do those things and I was so close to being able to achieve all those things. And I was like, I'm going to throw it away for what? To be happy. And yes, that's what I did. I threw it all away to be happy."

In 2019, Bailar graduated from Harvard with a degree in Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology. He has no plans to swim professionally but wants to help trans athletes feel represented. He now fills his time with activism, speeches on humanizing trans people, mentoring others and mental health advocacy. His end goal? Making his activism obsolete.

"I pray that I don't have to do this for the rest of my life," Bailar said. "It means either I'm not doing the job well or it's still needed. So I'm hoping, praying and fighting that the work I do is no longer necessary because that will mean that we, [the transgender community] are just people as opposed to a political debate." 

As for Pride Month? Bailar said he's happy to celebrate — as long as his followers and allies remember one important thing. 

"I want my cisgender allies and my straight allies to use Pride Month as a jumping-off point to learn and to get their butts moving for the rest of the year, to be active allies who are going to take action for us," Bailar said. "For me, as a queer trans person, I want pride to be a celebration of all the things that brought us here and grieving those that aren't here. It is honoring all the people, the queer women of color that brought us here so that we could keep rebelling. It's radical acceptance. "

"That's the primary reason [I do what I do]," Bailar explained. "It's to make sure that other kids like myself see that I exist. A transgender athlete who's out successful, doing his thing, thriving in his life. Because when that kid in the middle of nowhere is Googling 'transgender athlete,' the subtext of what they're really asking is, 'Can I exist in this world? Do I belong?'  I want that search return of somebody, not just me, popping up to be a resounding yes, absolutely. You belong and all trans kids do." 

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