TRUTH TELLER: Jessica
Dreams do come true, and I’m living proof of this. If I had told myself 10 years ago, even 2 years ago that I would be where I am doing what I am doing I wouldn’t have believed it. I am the first openly transgender woman to play in the CWHL. As most people know there aren’t many openly transgender athletes at the elite level, so coming out publicly was a decision that took a lot of thought. Although I expected to be on the receiving end of a lot of negativity, I knew with where I am in my life and along with my support systems that I would be okay. It’s incredibly important for transgender people to be visible because without this visibility, others will not learn that it’s okay to be your authentic self. Growing up it’s something I never knew was possible.
To give you more context, I will tell you about myself. I grew up in Brights Grove, Ontario, just outside of Sarnia. I am the youngest of three kids and sports have always been an integral part of my life. I started skating when I was about 3 or 4 on an ice rink my family and our neighbours built in one of our neighbour’s yard. I began to play hockey shortly after. One of my earliest memories is being on the ice rink. I played rep hockey for Sarnia all throughout my young life and it was great. I loved playing and hockey brought me happiness.
However, my issues began when I started getting older. People start changing -- attitudes and interests evolve as we develop. I started to notice that there was something different about me. Hockey had always been great and brought me happiness, but off the ice something was wrong. I didn’t feel like I fit in with the typical masculine atmosphere that was developing within the team that I played with. I had always been a quiet kid, but I began to get even quieter. I couldn’t give up hockey though, because while I was playing everything else melted away. When I was playing hockey everything was easy for me. I had a singular focus and that was playing, the negative thoughts stayed out of my head. I started to wear a ‘mask’ around people because I knew what was expected of me, how other kids my age were looking and acting, and I tried my best to fit that mold.
This period wasn’t a good time in my life. Suppressing the feelings I had and not being able to express who I truly was took a toll on me. I would keep myself busy in attempt to distract myself; I was in numerous bands in high school, multiple hockey teams, worked part time, played volleyball, and did as much as I could. I was so scared of disappointing people, my family especially, that I isolated myself from them. When I was at home I spent a lot of time alone on the computer. I did a lot of research in this time to try and figure out what I needed to do. I knew that something was different about me, but I had no idea what it was, I had no idea being transgender was even possible until my later high school years. Even then every time I saw trans* people portrayed in the media, in movies, or on TV they were always a punchline and seen as people to make fun of. Because of this, I tried as hard as I could to be anything or anyone else. I didn’t want to be someone everyone makes fun of or hates on. So, I tried my best to fit in as long as I could and suppress those feelings. When the time came, this made quitting hockey easier. Not having to pretend to be someone else in that atmosphere was freeing. I spent a lot of time on self-discovery the next few years.
I went to university, met amazing people and found what I needed to do to make myself happy. I made that my goal, to be happy. Transitioning medically was terrifying but exciting. I felt like I was finally able to be myself by transitioning so it was 100% worth it to me. I set myself small goals to reach my final objective and fulfilling each of those goals motivated me to keep pushing forward. It wasn’t easy at first, but day-by-day it got easier to look myself in the mirror. I had a lot of setbacks, unwanted comments and opinions from people, body dysphoria and mental health issues, but I leaned on my supports and they kept me going. My friends and my roommates in university especially kept me going and I wouldn’t be where I am without them. A lot of people don’t realize how much a seemingly small comment or misgendering a person can (un)intentionally harm someone. When they’re done, their actions can be felt as malicious and it hurts. I tried my best to be as patient and understanding as I could to those in my life that were adjusting, because I wanted them in my life still. But I want everyone to know how much it can hurt a transgender person. I’d compare it to a cut -- one hurts, but you’re ok and it will heal. Hundreds or thousands of cuts, well that could kill you. It can be hard to handle, and a good support system helps more than I will ever be able to explain through words because transitioning is not easy. It takes confidence and more courage than you ever thought you had.
A few years into my transition I was approved for surgery (and no, it is not okay to ask if someone has had the surgery. Don't ask about someone's genitals). I was working a job teaching kids how to skate and play hockey. I realized how much I missed hockey. I started dreaming about playing again, literally. One goal at a time was always my plan. I had surgery and although everyone’s healing is different, it took me 6 months to walk completely normally again. To give you an idea of what I went through, I ran a full Duathlon one month prior to surgery, and after I was winded walking up a flight of stairs. Once I could walk, I started running again, slowly building up strength and stamina. I finally felt total happiness in my life, which inspired me to pursue other goals of mine. I wanted to take care of myself and do things that would make me happy. After a month or so of running and trying to regain my strength, I decided I wanted to play hockey and found a recreational women’s league in Sarnia. I finally felt comfortable being in a locker room type situation, so I thought I would give it a shot and see if I could still play. When I got on the ice it felt great. Week by week I got better and better so I decided to look up other leagues I could play in. I found the CWHL as well as some other senior level teams, but I decided to go for it and try to play the best hockey I could. It was just a shot, I had no idea how I would fare. I got on the ice as much as I could and dedicated myself to working out and preparing. I found motivation to be the best I could be and actually take care of myself so my work ethic was unlike it had ever been before. I made the extended roster team in my first year and had the opportunity to play four games with the Toronto Furies. Having had that experience, I knew what I was capable of, and with all of my time and my effort I was determined to make the Furies team full-time for the next year.
I was so nervous at training camp, but I had a better idea of what to expect this year and I was ready. Training camp went well and I made the team and I officially achieved that dream as well. I showed myself that I could do it. It doesn’t come easy, but hard work pays off. I couldn’t have been happier. I was able to live my authentic life, and I was able to play the game I loved at a professional level. I have a great support system, I am happy with my life, I have an incredible partner, I am able to play the game I love, and I am able to be my true self. I want to show others that it is possible, that there is a future out there for them. There was a time in my life I would have never believed that, and couldn’t see a future for myself, but I’ve found more happiness than I ever thought possible. There are a lot of people out there who think they can simply identify as a woman and play in a women’s league and think they will dominate the competition.
There are rules in place to stop this. Hormone replacement therapy essentially evens the playing field. I lost strength and speed which is very difficult on an athlete. I have things I could do previously that I can’t do anymore. I am where I am because I have some talent, I was always a good player before but lacked the motivation to train and really excel. Most of all I made it because of how hard I work to train, practice, and be the best I can. I get on the ice as much as I can, train at home, and go to the gym, bike, run, or have some activity going on almost every day. This misconception that trans-women have an inherent advantage comes from the problematic idea that people born male are going to be better than women at everything.
I’ve always been the type of person who would do anything to help others. I think it’s because I needed a lot of help from those close to me, I know what it’s like so I want to make things easier for others. I hope I can be a voice for those who need it. Really listen to your friends, and respect their wishes when they tell you about what’s going on in their lives. Being ignored and disrespected is so hard, even harder when it comes from people important to you. I want people to see the importance of being true to yourself; it will change your life in ways you can’t imagine.
If I told a past version of myself I would be this happy, playing professional hockey, be able to help people AND be in an incredible relationship, I would have laughed at myself. I’m here now, though. It wasn’t a short process and it sure as heck wasn’t easy, but I knew I couldn’t pretend to be someone I wasn’t anymore. So, be you. It can make all the difference.