Sarah Knight, a senior, was chosen to give a speech as the Student-Athlete Speaker during the 2013 Athletic Awards Banquet on Wednesday, April 10. Knight’s personal story of struggle and perseverance was met with a standing ovation by their fellow peers and other members of the Mills community.
The longer version of their speech has been republished with their permission.
Hi, my name is Sarah, and I’m a four-year tennis player.
I’m also a non-binary student athlete, and that’s what I’ll be talking about. I am Transgender. Basically, I don’t identify as having a gender. I use the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them.” This is something that I didn’t know, ironically, until I entered Mills. Actually, I probably wouldn’t have been a lot of things had I not come to Mills; year one was counteracting the sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia that I and most of my fellow first-years had been taught in our youth. I recognized almost immediately that I wasn’t a woman, not because (and this part’s important) I couldn’t relate to the women around me, but because Mills gave me the space to explore, without pressure, my options beyond the gender binary. Even now, I feel a certain level of comfort talking about my experiences, not only because I know there are people that share my experience, but also because I know that one of the most important things about this school is redefining inclusivity. So, this is the story of how I defined inclusivity for myself, through my experience being a student-athlete. As kind of a disclaimer, this is just my experience. I know a lot of people with varied experiences at Mills, some strongly positive, and some extremely negative. I’m not saying that my experience is one or the other, but these are my positive reflections on my experience at Mills.
In particular, discussing my experience as a transgender student-athlete at Mills is timely since Mills has recently had campus-wide discussions about current and prospective transgender and gender-fluid students. It’s also important for higher education institutions to think about, especially after Smith college, a women’s college as well, denied at transwoman admission without first requiring her to undergo sex reassignment surgery, which would render her infertile.
A lot of people will tell you that tennis is a solitary, mental game. No matter how skilled your opponent, every match is a contest between your own determination and self-confidence. For the first three years of being on the Mills tennis team, I struggled with that contest. I didn’t believe in myself enough to admit that I deserved to be there. First, it was about my ability to play tennis. Then, it became about my gender-identity, and my sense of belonging in a women-oriented team. Even now, it’s about my mental illness and how to defeat that on the court. I know now that tennis is a problem-solving sport for me; I bring my problems onto the court and I work through them until they make sense. I bring myself every day onto the courts to practice my footwork, swing, etcetera. But I’m also bringing out the things in my life I need to make sense of to move forward. And that can be messy, and a lot of people will tell you to check your baggage at the door. I don’t believe in that at all. Bringing my baggage onto the court, unpacking it, repacking it, throwing it away, tearing it up, setting it on fire (this is still a metaphor, please don’t be concerned!) and deciding if I needed baggage at all, was the act that helped me embrace myself.
For two of my four years in tennis, I was kind of terrified of myself. I never had a healthy relationship with my body, even before realizing I was transgender. I actually chose to ignore my body for many years, which was a talent I’d perfected until waking up for 6am practices made me far too aware of my body, how tired and sore it was, how hungry I was, how I chafed in places I didn’t know made friction. I had never, ever considered the relationship between my body, my gender, and my participation in athletics before Mills. For two years, I struggled to place myself as a member of a women’s team. I mean, I was comfortable being on a women’s team, and I was comfortable being trans, but I wasn’t comfortable combining the two. I began to question if my body was valid enough to be at this school at all. Was the fact that I wasn’t proud and accepting of my body’s appearance going to invalidate me as a student at Mills? As an athlete on a women’s team? If I said that I hated my body for non-aesthetic reasons, would I be kicked out? I had no idea.
I also struggled constantly with the awkward dance between my physical ability and stereotypical views of how my body was supposed to look and perform because of my gender identity. You know, labels like “butch,” and “masculine,” aren’t usually things that people think of when they 1) play tennis, or 2) look at me. I don’t even want to be those things necessarily, I just didn’t think my identity was valid unless I made a physical change that denoted some form of “transness,” like I saw reflected and discussed in articles, mainstream media, even among my genderqueer friends. Sure, I had quite a few things to work on on the court (like actual tennis), but I knew I wasn’t going to become a more talented player until I won my internal struggle with transphobia and dysphoria. I’ve struggled with being horribly uncomfortable with every second that my body wasn’t physically representing my gender identity Athletics has a way of revealing insecurities, and helped me personally understand where they were coming from, and that they were valid.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), like I mentioned, tennis is a mental game. But, so is every sport. And fortunately, there are things like teams, and understanding coaches and teammates to help me through it. I don’t know why I didn’t tell my coach I was trans* sooner, I think I just refused to see it as someone else’s problem. I realized that being trans wasn’t something that I wanted to hide from the people I saw every day, so I emailed my coach, Loke, telling her about it. When Loke called me into her office for a meeting, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be on the team anymore. Instead, she handed me a magazine with an article on transgender athletes in the NCAA. She admitted that she wasn’t completely sure how to breach the subject of gender identity in sports, but was willing to learn with me about it. That’s when I knew that I’d found an ally, and I’d really like to thank her right now for making me so much more positive that being on the team was the right decision.
Tennis becomes less of a mental game when I realized that my teammates have the capacity to understand me, no matter how much I alienate myself. I was so, so opposed to being on a team when I first started playing tennis. I had the “I play tennis for ME” mentality. I still do, but I now play tennis for me, so I can improve and push my team forward. And without the complete support of my friends on and off the court, it would have been so much harder to see where I wanted to go. I admire my teammates and former teammates for their talent as tennis players, and as compassionate humans who have earned my trust. The people in the athletics department have been some of the most accepting people I’ve found on campus. They correct themselves on pronouns, don’t assume physical or mental ability of anyone, and are more respectful of my identity than most people I know. The support I’ve received after coming out as trans has, at times, been the sole reason that I continued my education at Mills. In fact, I considered dropping out at the start of this school year, my senior year, after personal difficulties forced me to reconsider my ability to pursue my education. But, I woke up after one of the worst weeks of my life knowing that I wanted to fulfill my commitment to the team. Being healthy for a reason other than just myself is the reason I’ve been able to reach out and ask for help; I owe it to the people who want to see me succeed.
I wanted to give this speech to put it out there just how important it is for someone struggling with their identity to have a safe space. There are people who don’t know, and might never know, how much they’ve helped me. I’d like very much to thank them, but I’d also like to urge you to be that person for your friend, teammate, classmate, colleague, or neighbor, your family. I’m not exaggerating one bit when I say that it can save lives. The team mentality that helped me overcome my doubts about my gender could be something that will help future student-athletes. If you’re not sure about your role on a team, in a group, or in the classroom, speak out about it. There is really no shame in asking for validation. Eventually, you may be able to validate yourself, but it’s really hard to see your own self worth without the unclouded eye of your friends.
I’d like to give a special thanks to Loke Davis , our coach, who has been coaching me for all four years I’ve been on the team, and has watched my best and worst moments with a non-judgmental eye. When I was a grumpy, self-obsessed sophomore on the courts, she made ridiculously goofy faces at me and danced around until I’d smile. Granted, I don’t think I won a match that year, but it really made my experience of losing a lot better.
I know that *I* am still making an awkward journey towards being able to validate myself as the non-binary, semi-athletic, mentally-ill person that I am. I can’t actually voice how much being a student athlete at Mills has impacted my perception of myself, because there are just too many words, and I’m not very good with them. All I can say is that I would love to see Mills become a safe space for non-normative students, and it’s making good steps towards getting there. I’d love for more people to recognize the effect that athletics has on self-understanding, and use that to bring together a community of support for people who need it. I wasn’t quite sure how to end this speech, so I’ll end it by urging everyone to create and find safe spaces for yourselves, at Mills and everywhere else, and you will end up knowing some of the best people there are to know, yourself included.
Check out the photo highlights of the 2013 Athletic Awards Banquet . Watch the video of the Mills cheer squad’s first ever performance  during the banquet.