Schuyler Bailar, the first transgender athlete on an NCAA Division I men’s team, spoke to students Wednesday evening in the Freeman Auditorium.
The event was a part of Penn State’s “Love Your Body Week,” which features programs dedicated to “promoting healthy body image through education, awareness, reflection, and self-love.”
Bailar, who is an educator, author, and advocate, spoke on topics of body image, eating disorders, and gender and body dysmorphia within the LBGTQ+ community.
Growing up in McLean, Virginia, Bailar began his swimming career when he was four years old and competed on two club teams. He won multiple awards in club and high school swimming, which includes being a part of the record-breaking 400-yard medley relay at the 2013 swimming AT&T National Championships and swimming with legends Katie Ledecky, Janet Hu, and Kylie Jordan.
Starting off the presentation, Bailar dove into his childhood, explaining that he has always felt different than the other kids in his class. The photos in the presentation showed Bailar as a child wearing big t-shirts, long cargo shorts, and shaggy short hair.
Although Bailar says that he was privileged to grow up with supportive parents who would buy him the clothes he wanted, he found that his experience at school was not as supportive.
“The girls never thought I was girly enough, and the boys never thought I was boy enough,” Bailar said.
Fast forward to high school, Bailar said the struggle to fit in with his peers increased and became much more challenging to ignore. Because Bailar found himself dressing and presenting himself as more masculine than the other women around him, he struggled with choosing what bathroom to use.
“The bathroom was the most stressful time for me,” he said.
People would tell Bailar to get out of the restroom because they thought he was a boy.
Bailar eventually decided he would use the adults-only bathroom to escape any negative comments, even if that meant getting in trouble for doing so. But choosing which bathroom to use ended up not being Bailar’s only struggle in high school, as he began suffering from depression, self-harm, and eventually developing an eating disorder.
“For most of high school, I was miserable, I felt so sad, so disconnected from myself…and I thought to myself, ‘maybe if I looked like the woman that everyone says I am, I will be okay,’” Bailar said.
Bailar said he began seeing a therapist around his sophomore year of high school but unfortunately, it didn’t help his situation. Because of his lack of prioritization for his mental health, by the time he finished his high school career, he was still struggling.
“I had never been taught to prioritize my mental health — not by my parents, not by my teammates, and not by my coaches,” he explained.
It was this mindset that led him to take a gap year before starting college and admitting himself to a treatment center in Miami, Florida, for five months. During this time, Bailar had the opportunity to think critically about who he was and who he wanted to be, which resulted in his coming out as transgender later down the road.
Bailar had already been recruited to Harvard’s women’s swim team and now struggled with what his future was going to look like. After beginning to “socially transition” himself, Bailar communicated with the women’s coach about what his next moves should be. It was only then that the men’s coach invited him to swim on the men’s team and to uphold his identity in every aspect of his life. Bailar initially rejected the offer, saying that he was too scared. But after talking with his family and friends, he accepted.
“I was so afraid of what it meant to be on the men’s team… I had never interacted with 40+ guys before,” Bailar said.
Because he would be the first transgender collegiate athlete, there was also a sense of loneliness. He asked himself, “Was I going to take the risk for my happiness?“
And that he did.
Bailar went on to complete his college career by posting the third-fastest time for the 100-yard breaststroke for the Harvard team in the 2018–2019 season and winning his third Ivy League Championship.
Throughout the presentation, Bailar continuously emphasized the importance of receiving support for one’s mental health, saying there are resources out there to help people with these issues and that there’s never a need to suffer alone. His specific experience as an athlete showed him the lack of mental health or emotional support for athletes.