For 16 Transgender Hockey Players, a Groundbreaking Weekend

For 16 Transgender Hockey Players, a Groundbreaking Weekend

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Brynn Toohey paced alongside the ice at the Simoni Skating Rink, playfully pushing a golf ball back and forth with her stick. “I want to score a bunch of goals,” she said.

From the time she could walk, Toohey, 29, had played hockey. Her grandmother used to steal traffic cones off the street so Toohey could do drills. But after college, she stepped away from the sport, trying to figure out who she was. She drank too much. Publicly, she still lived as a man.

“I was trying to drink it away,” Toohey said. “Oh yeah, I’ll just deal with this later.”

About a year ago, she decided she couldn’t live that way anymore. On New Year’s Eve, she came out for the first time as a transgender woman.

Two months ago, she picked up a hockey stick again, for the first time in seven years.

“If I didn’t have an outlet, the transition would be a little bit too much for me,” she said. “Now I’m dealing with it. I’m having fun. I’m finding my place in the world.”

Toohey is a forward for Team Trans, a group of transgender and nonbinary hockey players. They assembled for the first time last Friday for a practice in Cambridge. Less than 24 hours later they returned to the ice for the first of two games against Boston Pride, an L.G.B.T.Q. hockey team that has been around since the early 1990s.

Team Trans is believed to be the first entirely transgender sports team in the United States. There is at least one other in the world — a transgender men’s soccer team in Brazil.

Trans women, trans men and nonbinary people are all welcome on the team, regardless of where they are in their transition. Some have undergone hormone treatment and surgeries. Most, but not all, have come out publicly. One still uses his female birth name at work.

This one weekend could not change the world outside the Simoni rink, or make it easier for members of Team Trans to be welcomed by squads near their homes and to compete regularly. But for two games, they could feel unequivocally accepted, without any question that they belonged.

They did not have to explain themselves. They did not have to worry about which locker room to use, which is often a source of contention. They all used the same one.

“As soon as you put the jersey on, nothing underneath it matters,” said Alexander LeFebvre, 25, the goalie for Team Trans. “You are just a hockey player.”

The plans for the team took shape seven months ago at a bar in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. Boston Pride was visiting for a game with the New York City Gay Hockey Association, and afterward the players went out for drinks. Greg Sargent, the president of Boston Pride, noticed a member of the New York team, Aidan Cleary, sitting alone in a corner.

The two got to talking, and Cleary told him about a Facebook group that he belonged to — “all the trans hockey players.” The members were trying to put together their own team, Cleary explained. Many are on L.G.B.T.Q. teams, but most had never had a transgender teammate. Even playing alongside other athletes who are often treated as outsiders, they felt isolated.

As a gay man, Sargent understood what Cleary and his Facebook group were seeking. He offered Boston Pride’s help. “It took me forever to try and find that atmosphere, and once I did it was so amazing,” he said.

Erin Buzuvis, a law professor at Western New England University who specializes in L.G.B.T.Q. sports issues, said the traditional divisions into boys’ and girls’ leagues don’t make sense early on.

“Those are tiny bodies; they are the same,” she said. “This is just unnecessary segregation.”

Hockey is the rare team sport that has had openly transgender professional players, though very few of them. Team Trans has the two best-known players: Harrison Browne, who came out in 2016 and played in the National Women’s Hockey League, and Jessica Platt, who announced that she was transgender in 2018 and played in the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Both are seen as celebrities in the transgender community.

Cleary said that knowing about Browne and Platt meant a lot to him and other transgender players. “We realized we weren’t isolated,” he said.

Thirteen of the 16 Team Trans players had to travel to the Boston area, some from as far away as San Francisco and Wisconsin. They arrived on Friday night for their only practice, lugging oversize equipment bags. Each player received a jersey that was pink, white and blue — the colors in the transgender flag — and matching socks. Boston Pride paid for the ice time and the uniforms.

It was the first time Team Trans was all in one place. Many had been through a lot. Platt had fought back against critics who said a transgender woman had an unfair physical advantage in a women’s league. It didn’t matter to them that she had stepped away from the game for years and medically transitioned before she returned.

“Something like this is really important to bring trans athletes into the conversation,” Platt said of Team Trans, “because a lot of hatred is being spread around about trans women and sports.”

She has played against some of the best female players in the world, but was still nervous about the weekend. “You never know what it’s going to be like meeting new people,” she said.

As they waited together for their turn on the ice, the players were quiet. When the doors opened, Platt skated out first.

For a while the only noise was the sound of pucks slapping against the boards and skates cutting through the ice.

They had just 50 minutes to practice before their first game Saturday, and it was proving to be more difficult to play as a team than anyone had anticipated. Even something as basic as dividing themselves into two practice squads for scrimmaging was a problem.

They were all different skill levels. Some were professionals, some didn’t know how to skate backward.

With no practice jerseys, the two squads couldn’t tell each other apart. Then, about 30 minutes in, someone came up with the idea of having half the team flip their jerseys inside out.

For the first time, laughter filled the arena. The next drill went smoothly. The ice had been broken.

Browne had missed the Friday night practice. He walked into Sargent’s house on Saturday for a team lunch, and suddenly everything stopped.

To most of them, Harrison Browne was larger than life.

“He was like, ‘I’m Harrison,’” said Jack Henderson, 28. “I was like: ‘I know who you are. I follow you on Tumblr.’”

“Following his story and his experience,” Henderson added, “has been really cool to see something that mirrors my experience.”

In 2017, when Browne was ready to undergo hormone treatment and surgery, he was required to stop playing in a women’s professional hockey league. He rarely steps onto the ice anymore as he pursues a new career as an actor, but he said he couldn’t miss out on the chance to be a part of Team Trans.

“When I was growing up, had I seen someone playing hockey or had I seen a trans athlete playing a sport and being themselves I think I would have felt a lot less alone,” Browne said. “The fact that people are saying I helped them, I’m glad that I was able to be someone that I needed at that time.”

During the lunch, a group stood in the kitchen eating deli sandwiches and sharing stories of their transitions. Platt asked others how physical changes affected their hockey.

Some discussed the problems of playing on other teams, even those classified as L.G.B.T.Q. William Frahm-Gilles said another player had outed him to his teammates before he was ready.

“It’s not a big deal to me that I identify as trans, but I don’t operate with it as a big part of my life,” Frahm-Gilles said. “It removed the ability of me to control who knew that and who didn’t.”

Boston Pride players had a pregame meeting in which Henderson — one of three Team Trans members who also play for Boston Pride — reviewed a few dos and don’ts for interacting with Team Trans. Don’t ask about past names. Always ask what pronoun to use, and when in doubt just use the person’s name. In the end it all boiled down to one thing: Be respectful.

The games were held in a public rink tucked into a strip mall. The crowd was modest, several dozen people in all. Family, friends, fans of Browne and Platt and a scattering of local residents.

Team Trans’s pregame cheer consisted of the three words doctors use to characterize a person who is prepared to transition: “Insistent! Persistent! Consistent!” they shouted.

Team Trans lost both games, but they were closer than expected. Pride won by 4-3 on Saturday and by 8-3 on Sunday.

After the final buzzer, the teams lined up to shake hands. The Boston Pride players tapped their sticks on the ice in tribute. Spectators stamped their feet in the bleachers.

Many of the players lingered on the ice until the Zamboni driver kicked them off. Team Trans expects to play again, although nothing has been scheduled.

Sitting a few rows behind the bench was a transgender boy from the Boston area who plays youth hockey. His mother asked not to identify either of them by name, because children at his school pick on him.

As the team walked off the ice, she and her son were waiting by the exit. One of the players handed the boy a signed puck and promised to send a jersey in the mail. They said they looked forward to the day when he would join them on Team Trans.

“That would be so cool,” the boy said.

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