Photo by MajorTrouble, Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
On a Friday in a little Cambridge, Massachusetts, ice arena, as a gaggle of middle schoolers lingered after a game and two men’s league teams were taking the ice, 17 hockey players were huddled in a corner, getting ready to make history.
Jessica Platt’s excitement shone in her eyes as her teammates on Team Trans, perhaps the first-ever all trans hockey team to play a game together, dug through a stack of blue and pink uniforms to find their own. Platt, a 30-year-old former CWHL player, said she had stopped playing hockey in her early 20s because she was uncomfortable with the overly masculine attitudes of the male players who surrounded her.
“I pretty much had to be careful how I presented myself,” she said. “I got really good at putting on the facade of who I thought I needed to be, and I tried to stick to that as closely as I could when I was in that area. I was a little bit more myself around my friends, but definitely not in the hockey scene.”
Platt traveled from Toronto to play with Team Trans, which was taking part in the 2019 Friendship Series tournament hosted in November of that year by Boston Pride Hockey, New England’s largest LGBT hockey association (not to be confused with the Boston Pride of the NWHL). About five years before, she finally felt comfortable enough with her transition to enter a women’s locker room and return to hockey. Though she had never met many of her new teammates, they bonded quickly around the familiar fear and anxiety they had felt to play a game they loved.
“Knowing that you’re the only one and no one else has the exact same experiences as you, makes it a little bit harder to, I guess, connect with them,” Platt said. “It’s a little lonely being the only [trans] person.”
That loneliness is why the team met in Boston. Transgender adults make up an estimated 0.6 percent of the general population. There are just 1.6 million trans people in the United States, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA. In Canada, as many as 1 in 200 adults (roughly 0.5 percent) are trans, according to the Trans Pulse Project. In any given town in North America, there likely isn’t enough athletes to form an entirely trans team.
A dozen players had to travel from outside Boston to fill the roster, from as far away as San Francisco, Chicago and Ottawa. The draw of playing on an all-trans team even attracted two professional players, with former NWHL defenseman Harrison Browne joining Platt. Each were the first openly trans players in their respective leagues.
Brynn Toohey, a 30-year-old speedy winger and transgender woman from southern New Hampshire, often makes the trek south to play for Boston Pride Hockey, but that weekend she suited up for Team Trans, too.
Toohey’s BPH teammates love to point out that she drives a bright red Porsche. Contrary to her flashy game and bold eye makeup, she is disarmingly reserved and soft-spoken. Growing up in New Hampshire provided Toohey plenty of opportunity for ice time.
“Hockey was my life,” Toohey said. “I also used it as a way to try and be more masculine, where if I was good enough, like being trans would go away.”
She played junior hockey until college, and bounced around several club teams before dropping out of the game entirely in her early 20s. Life got in the way of her passion the way it does for many young people. But Toohey also struggled with gender dysphoria, the clinical term for the distress caused by a disconnect between a person’s assigned sex and their internal sense of their own gender.
Toohey said that she fell on hard times after college, intermittently struggling with depression and substance abuse before beginning her transition early last year.
“I had to get sober,” Toohey said. “And really once I was like, ‘All right, I’m trans,’ I was like, ‘Well, now there’s a future for me.’ Everything opened up.”
Around that time, she heard about Boston Pride Hockey. “I normally don’t do any LGBT anything,” she said, but she felt the sport pulling her back and decided to give the league a try. She attended a skate around and found a welcoming environment where she could play without being judged by her identity.
“If you told me six months ago, before I started transitioning or anything, I’d be playing on an all-trans hockey team, I would be like, ‘Yeah, right,’” Toohey said. “‘That doesn’t exist. There’s not enough trans people that want to play hockey like me.’”
Like Toohey, no one on Team Trans had ever played hockey with more than a handful of other trans players, if any. Typically, trans athletes have to seek out welcoming but predominantly cisgender teams if they want to compete.
Browne, a 26-year-old former two-time NWHL champion, said he experienced dysphoria triggers throughout his women’s hockey experience, like hearing his deadname, the term used for the birth name of a trans person who now goes by a different name, over the PA whenever he scored. Or when someone would yell something like “Let’s go, ladies” to the team when he was on the ice.
“When somebody hasn’t gone through what you go through, they can sympathize, they can empathize as much as a person can and my teammates did a really, really good job of making me feel as included as they could,” Browne said. “But when somebody doesn’t understand your way of life or doesn’t understand your mindset, it’s difficult. And this room here, this dressing room that [Team Trans] are all in, it definitely was an environment that I had never seen.”
Shane Diamond, a defenseman from Maine, skated with a men’s beer league team for several weeks to prep for the Friendship Series. It was his first time skating with a team of men as a “passing” trans man — meaning, a trans person whose outward appearance doesn’t immediately out them as trans — and the experience was unsettling.
“I walked into the space and it was one of the most homophobic, transphobic locker rooms I’ve ever been in, and that’s including growing up [playing] with the boys,” Diamond said. Stories like his were common among Team Trans players. And while some players tried, or are trying, to play through their transitions, others, like Toohey, were only drawn back to sports once their bodies were more in line with their inner sense of their own gender.
Rather than risk exposing themselves to teams and spaces that don’t understand their identities, many trans athletes simply quit sports. Fortunately, more and more athletic associations and cisgender people have begun educating themselves on how to better treat and support trans people.
Unlike most of the players on Team Trans, William Frahm-Gilles, a 35-year-old trans man and defenseman, took up the game as an adult when he lived in Madison, Wisconsin, about nine years ago. “I always wanted to play hockey, but I just never had the opportunity growing up,” Frahm-Gilles said. He was enrolled in an intense veterinary educational program, and wanted a hobby to help him work out his aggression within an accepting community.
Frahm-Gilles became involved with the Madison Gay Hockey Association at a key point in his gender transition. “It was just this really bizarre flip from every other aspect of my life, where everyone assumed I was a really butch lesbian instead of assuming I was a straight woman,” he said. “But they were so encouraging about it that it was just like a really weird space to have to kind of come out in a totally different way. I’m actually super into dudes, not a butch lesbian.”
Frahm-Gilles was the first openly trans player in the MGHA, and he had to endure the league’s growing pains as it learned to accommodate him and his identity. In an effort to signal that the league was welcoming towards trans players, league officials and other players often went out of their way to tell new and potential trans players about Frahm-Gilles, even if he had never met them. That often put him in awkward positions, off the ice.
“A new player would join who was trans-identified and come up to me and start chatting transition talk,” Frahm-Gilles said. “That happened a number of times and there was just a lot of [league officials] not quite understanding how to actually be sensitive with that information about players.”
Life gradually became easier for Frahm-Gilles when other trans players started playing in the league. One of those players was K8 Walton, a 39-year-old nonbinary person who plays defense and joined Frahm-Gilles and Team Trans in Cambridge. Walton saw how the other trans players were being treated at the MGHA and set out to change the league to be more understanding.
“The driving thing was we needed to come in from the very get-go and teach people,” Walton said. The league needed to “make sure that everybody understands basic trans etiquette, like that you don’t out people or say, ‘Oh, you’re trans. Let me introduce you to my other friend who’s trans.’ And that you’re sharing a locker room with people who may have all sorts of feelings about their bodies, and that’s [whether they’re] cisgender or transgender.”
The MGHA has evolved in Frahm-Gilles’ time there. He has been happy to see more people like him on the teams he plays with and against. “I’m glad I fell so much in love with the sport,” he said, “because I don’t think I would have touched playing after the first couple of seasons.”
The night before the first game of the Friendship Series, Team Trans held its first and only practice. At one point, Platt deftly lifted the puck off the stick of an opposing player, weaved effortlessly through the defense and passed across the crease to a waiting teammate. An audible gasp followed by oohs and aahs sprang from the dozen-strong crowd.
Greg Sargent, president of Boston Pride Hockey, was among those watching. He would be suiting up and playing against Team Trans the following night. “She’s going to be tough to contain tomorrow,” he said. I leaned in and asked how his team would try to stop a line with Platt, Toohey and Browne, who wasn’t on the ice because his flight was coming in the following morning. “We won’t,” Sargent said. “But we still want to win.”
Like MGHA, BPH has recently gone out of its way to open up to trans players. BPH formed in 1989 as a space for gay hockey players to compete. Thirty years on, BPH is up to 45 members.
“Our number one goal is just to provide a great place to play hockey that you don’t worry about what the other person is thinking,” Sargent said. “When I grew up, it’s kind of like I was checking everybody out in the locker room but [was] never comfortable, never felt safe to say anything. It was the complete opposite. And so when I found BPH ... it was just amazing.”
Sargent’s experience in creating welcoming environments led him to help set up Team Trans. The organization regularly holds series with other gay hockey associations. After a tournament with the New York City Gay Hockey Association, Sargent spotted an opposing player who was nervously off to the side from the others.
“In Boston, we have a thing where if we notice anybody new not talking with anyone, our board is keyed into that and so we all take turns,” Sargent said. “We go and talk to them and make them feel welcome, introduce them to everybody.”
Sargent introduced himself to the player, and learned that the person was trans. After some discussion, the player told Sargent that there is a Facebook group full of trans hockey players, and that it was hoping to set up a game with an all-trans roster. The player, who ultimately couldn’t make it for the weekend series in Boston, explained to Sargent that while the NYCGHA was a safe place to play, it wasn’t specifically a trans locker room, so some trans athletes felt some lingering discomfort within the team.
Sargent wanted to help. “I said, ‘Let’s do this.’ So I told our board that and a lot of our older members were like, ‘That’s our story from 1989. We’re doing this, let’s make this happen.’”
The weekend didn’t quite go off without a hitch. Team Trans goaltender Alex Lefebvre said at one point after the first game, several of the team’s trans men had to wait in line to use the one stall in the men’s bathroom, which had run out of toilet paper. “Some of us were like, ‘I kind of just want to use the women’s room, but half of us have full beards.’” The incident was a stark reminder that many public spaces still aren’t designed with trans people in mind.
But Sargent took the event seriously, working with trans players from all over the continent to put together the team, and even ordering personalized Team Trans jerseys and socks with the players’ numbers on them, as well as commemorative pucks. The sweaters featured a pink and blue design with a diagonal split between the colors, inspired by the pink, white and blue trans pride flag. Several team members teared up when they first saw the design.
The atmosphere inside the Team Trans locker room before Game 1 was almost joyous. Players smiled without a hint of nerves. Hockey sticks lined the front wall, each taped in trans pride or rainbow colors. There was banter, of course. The team captain, who didn’t wish to be named, read out the lines, and mistakenly said one player’s name twice.
“I know there’s a bunch of trans guys in here, but you listed two Jacks and there’s only one Jack,” quipped one of the players, poking fun at the fact that “Jack” is a common name among trans masculine people.
Later, someone pointed out they needed a team chant, and Diamond immediately yelled out “T4T!” in reference to trans community lingo for when two trans people are dating each other. A unison of giggles followed; it was agreed.
Browne said after the game that he forgot to wear an undershirt and had been worried how his nipples would feel directly under his shoulder pads after top surgery. Several teammates understood his anxiety and offered personal experience to reassure him. To Browne, moments like that brought home what many on Team Trans had felt they’d been missing throughout their athletic careers.
“We’ve only been together for two days and I felt like there was a cohesive feel in there,” Browne said. “There was a comfort level that I’ve never really felt [before].”
Despite their fast bonding, Team Trans was up against a stiff challenge from a team that has been playing together for years. BPH put away two scrappy goals over the first two periods, and took a 2-0 lead into the third.
But Team Trans hadn’t yet put Platt, Toohey and Browne on the ice together. They wanted to spread their talent across multiple lines as best they could. After the second intermission, Team Trans held nothing back.
“When we score … we’re going to celebrate,” Toohey said in the team huddle. Her confidence felt brazen. They were still in a cisgender-dominated world where trans people have long had to be content with scraps of validation.
Team Trans won the faceoff to start the period, and Platt carried the puck over the blue line. She dished off to Browne, who quickly scanned the ice and spotted Toohey blazing down the slot, just to the left of the net. His pass found Toohey’s stick, and Toohey’s one-timer found the back of the net. The Team Trans bench and small crowd in attendance erupted together.
As she skated past the BPH bench, Toohey dropped to one knee and mimicked shooting a bow-and-arrow. “It was a great celebration between all three of us,” Toohey said. “Obviously I’d been playing for BPH so I had to give it to them with an arrow shot, and it was just great. It felt so good for us to get on the board and into the game.”
It was an unforgettable moment for Browne. “The look on her face when it went in, it was like ... It was really, really, really special to see that,” he said. When asked what it meant to assist perhaps the first all-trans goal in hockey history, Browne raised his eyebrows. “The first all-trans goal in history, in hockey history. That is wild. I think I’m just processing it as I’m saying it.”
Riding the momentum of Toohey’s goal, Team Trans score another a few minutes later and tied the game, 2-2. The teams traded goals again, but BPH notched the eventual game winner with roughly two minutes left and took Game 1, 4-3. Both teams shook hands, and Team Trans turned to the 50 or so people in the stands, many of them trans people and family, and tapped their sticks on the ice, chanting, “thank you.” As they stepped off the ice, Diamond remarked, “We just made history.”
Lefebvre played well in net despite the losing effort. His family traveled from Albany, New York, to watch him, and he stayed on the ice after the final whistle to take pictures and chat about the game. At one point, a player from a team that was taking the ice next approached and told him he played an amazing game between the pipes.
“That was cool,” Lefebvre said later. “I have no idea if those guys had any idea what the game was or not. I was kind of thinking of that, I was like, ‘Does he know? And he’s coming to say that because of that? Or just appreciating good hockey?’”
That night, Team Trans and BPH met up for a long night of drinking before gathering for Game 2 the next day. The score wasn’t nearly as close, with BPH winning handily. When the final whistle sounded, Team Trans once again thanked the fans, and many of the players lingered in the small space between the rink and locker room, not wanting the experience to end.
Throughout the weekend, players discussed continuing Team Trans into the future. There’s a tentative plan to enter Team Trans into several LGBTQ hockey tournaments around North America, and encourage trans players anywhere to join — a sort of rotating roster on a barnstorming team. Each player interviewed said they couldn’t wait to skate in the blue, pink and white again.
They were supposed to get another chance soon. Team Trans had arranged for a second Friendship Series, this time traveling to Wisconsin to face off with MGHA in April, but were forced to postpone the event due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the feelings from the first Friendship Series endure.
“Hockey isn’t my everyday thing anymore, but I still love it,” Browne said. “These past two games have definitely ignited that love and camaraderie ... This was bigger than hockey for me and it was more than just a game. I was able to meet people that played my sport that were like me.”
Platt hopes that continuing Team Trans will help trans hockey players maintain their connection with the game as they work through their gender identities. She recalled what a team like this would have meant to her when she was growing up. “Maybe,” Platt said, “if something like [Team Trans] existed, I wouldn’t have quit.”