The A Plus Interview

How Billie Jean King Inspired This Transgender Athlete To Stand Up For LGBTQ Rights

"I, like everyone else, just want to compete and have fun while doing so."

How Billie Jean King Inspired This Transgender Athlete To Stand Up For LGBTQ Rights

The A Plus Interview reimagines the celebrity interview by inviting artists, athletes and others to answer a short series of brief, poignant, and meaningful questions. Visit the series page to read the latest installment.

For Shawn Gatewood, a transgender rugby player based in North Carolina, it's not only important for transgender athletes to get the respect they deserve while playing sports, it's important that all transgender people be free to live their lives without the threat of violence or discrimination.

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During recent years we've seen more and more athletes come out as transgender — be they a Vietnamese bodybuilder named Kendy or a high school wrestler named Mack — and Gatewood is in that group. He plays for the Raleigh Venom D1 Women's Rugby team in Raleigh and, despite facing transphobic violence and hate speech for simply playing the sport he loves, he's determined to make a difference. Gatewood's focus on transgender issues reaches beyond the sporting world, especially given the statistics about how many transgender people of color die each and every year.

For all that he has done for the transgender community both on and off the field, Gatewood is being honored by Athlete Ally this weekend at its fifth annual Action Awards, where he will be featured alongside LGBTQ tennis legend Billie Jean King and sports journalist-activist Jemele Hill. We spoke to Gatewood about what it means to be an LGBTQ athlete, LGBTQ acceptance in sports versus outside of sports, the impact King has had in sports, what he thinks the biggest issue in sports is today, and what he hopes is in store for transgender athletes in the future.

What does it mean to you to be an LGBTQ athlete?

For me, being an LGBTQ person in sports means being able to normalize the stigma of being LGBTQ — knowing that I'm just like everyone else when it comes to the game and that my identity has no bearing on my ability to perform. I'm just like every other athlete on the field. I want people to know that it doesn't matter who you are or how you identify, that on any given day it's just about showing up to play the game. I, like everyone else, just want to compete and have fun while doing so.

You have fought for others in your respective career. Who is one person — or group of people — who fought for you that you can point out?

Raleigh Rugby Club has been a very big advocate for me, and how I'm treated on and off the field. It has been a relief to be welcomed into a community where people care more about my character than how I define myself. The length to which Raleigh Rugby Club has gone to make me feel part of their family and accepted within the rugby community makes me realized how blessed I truly am to be apart of this club. My coaches and teammates have all stood beside me in my journey to be treated equally within the game of rugby. 

Specifically, I would like to recognize my coach, Mike Streicker, who had only known me as a player for 10 months before the issue of my transgender identity was brought up. He not only defended my ability to play for his team, but also respected my decisions on how I wanted to approach the team with my identity and outside players who questioned my right to play. He has been incredibly supportive of me on and off the field, and I don't know if I'd still be playing if it weren't for his support and the support of my teammates.

It seems LGBTQ acceptance is higher in the non-sports world. Why do you think the sports world is slower to get there?

I would like to answer this in two parts. First about LGBTQ acceptance outside the sports world versus in it, and then between the genders within sports. 

I believe that the LGBTQ acceptance is higher in non-sports areas because of the lack of intimate personal interaction and communication versus in the sports arena. Think about it this way: if you are LGBTQ, it doesn't necessarily affect your job because your co-workers and boss don't have to know how you identify in your personal life. However, in the sports world, it's harder to be LGBTQ because you are working out, changing, and socializing with each other constantly. In most workplaces, you will never be in a locker room situation with your co-workers or boss, whereas with your teammates, this is an every weekend experience. In rugby alone, for rucks and scrums, we are in such close proximity and interacting with our teammates and opposing teams that it's not hard to notice different identities. 

Within the sports area, I think there's also a clear divide between genders as far as LGBTQ acceptance. Speaking from experience, I think it's easier to be an LGBTQ female in women's sports. Typically, women are more accepting of their peers no matter what their background or identity is, and compete alongside each other based on skill level alone. I think there's less of a social stigma within women's sports about being an LGBTQ female. However, in men's sports, I believe there's less acceptance because you're fighting against social norms. It seems that if you identify as LGBTQ you're deemed to be less of a man, which goes against social norms and stereotypes in a prospective sport where you're supposed to be the typical hypermasculine male. Look at the media in the past few years in regards to gay athletes who've come out — several NFL players hid their identity for years due to fear of backlash from teammates and fear of not being signed by teams. Yet in women's sports like soccer and tennis, many athletes have announced their sexual and/or gender identity, and in most cases, they've been met with acceptance. There's still a huge divide in the treatment of athletes based on gender within the sports community on various levels.

Billie Jean King is being honored alongside you. It’s interesting that we’re still fighting for similar issues that she fought for decades ago and throughout her career. What about King inspires you the most?

Billie Jean King has inspired me in several ways, but I really appreciate the fact that she did it her own way. She didn't allow for people to pressure her into making the decisions they wanted her to make. She used the injustices she faced to incite change within the game and then society. She fought for what she believed in no matter how it looked to other people. In this world, it's so easy to get caught up in appeasing everyone that to go against the grain is inspiring. She used her fame and recognition as an athlete to drive social change within the sports community. To be able to take her life and athleticism and turn it into a platform for gender equality, social equality, and the LGBTQ community is paramount to shortening the disparity within athletics, society, and genders.

In your opinion, what is the biggest problem facing sports today? Where do you think we can start when it comes to fixing that problem?

I believe the biggest problem is that athletes are expected to perform in their sport and nothing else. By that, I mean that it seems like having personal opinions outside of their sport is frowned upon. Take LeBron James, for example, who was told to "shut up and dribble" when he gave his political opinion on issues facing America. Even President Obama spoke out about it in 2014 when he said there was a mentality in pro athletics to "just be quiet and get your endorsements and don't make waves." As if being an athlete and being paid for playing a sport decreases your personal opinion. I think we can change this by encouraging athletes, like Billie Jean King did, to utilize the platform they have to address social and political concerns as any other person has the right to do.

What is your hope for the future of trans athletes in the sports world?

My hope for other trans athletes is that we are given the opportunity to play the sports we love without fear — fear of backlash, fear of exclusion, or fear of being demoralized or shamed with derogatory language. I hope that all athletes will learn to accept their peers in a friendly competition that doesn't extend to personal attacks or threats just because someone doesn't identify in the same way as you. I hope that trans athletes can begin to be treated as equals and are accepted like everyone else because at the end of the day, we just want to play. Lastly, I hope that individuals and organizations, like Athlete Ally, continue to pursue equality and inclusion within the sports world to create a cultural paradigm shift so that all athletes are treated fairly and equally.

The 5th Annual Athlete Ally Action Awards honoring Billie Jean King, Jemele Hill, and Shawn Gatewood will take place on October 6 in New York City. For more information, visit here.

Cover image: Mark Brockner

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