Eureka Moment

Written by Jay Pulitano ’15, Photo by Dana Maxson

Eureka

I like to think I’ve changed a bit since starting college. During my first semester at Sarah Lawrence, I was too afraid to tell my roommate and her friends that my pronoun was “he” and not “she.” Internally, my gender identity was a mess. Was I genderqueer—neither male nor female? Was I just too scared to accept I was a guy? Or was I somehow making this all up and really just a masculine woman?

My lack of confidence with my gender was a challenge I’d struggled with long before college. From my first day on campus, however, I experienced a culture much more accepting and safe than I ever had in the past. When the Green Team helped me move into MacCracken, one of the volunteers warmly approached me and expressed his concerns that the nametag on my door didn’t match my preferred name. He even offered to talk to my RA for me.

Some of the first people I met at Sarah Lawrence were on the swim team, and most of them referred to me as “he” without even having to ask. They were a hodgepodge of amateur athletes and longtime swimmers who understood my passion for the debatably masochistic sport. They were always there to goof around with and to support me.

In addition to my teammates, there were other aspects of swimming that made the commitment well worth it. The serenity of submerging myself in water and the release of endorphins that followed a stress-burning (as well as muscle-burning) workout had gotten me through years of teen angst and depression revolving around my sexuality and gender. Swimming at Sarah Lawrence was no different and still served as a central form of self-care.

“I felt myself moving toward a decision I had been consumed with since middle school … and doing nothing wasn’t changing anything.”

Fast forward to the spring of my junior year, when I was studying abroad in Madurai, India. I felt myself moving toward a decision I had been consumed with since middle school: whether or not to start testosterone (aka T). Multiple factors were propelling me forward, and three were especially clear.

First, I had simply been agonizing over the decision for so long, and doing nothing wasn’t changing anything.

Second, college had provided an environment that cultivated a greater understanding of gender identity.

I explored transgender issues in multiple conference projects, attaining a more nuanced understanding of the contradictory aspects of gender, innate yet socially constructed, and I examined the trans experience in non-Western cultures and in various historical periods. During my semester in India, I conducted an ethnography study on the transfeminine thirunangai of the southeast state Tamil Nadu. Along with other lessons, one basic takeaway from these projects was simply that transgender people have always existed, around the globe and throughout history, no matter the name.

Third, I had finally treated my depression effectively that year. In retrospect, I believe my depression had caused me to get stuck in the “what ifs.” Obsessing over the fear of somehow getting it all wrong had kept me from making progress. After starting antidepressants, though, I was a lot calmer internally, able to just feel excited at the thought of starting T. I finally felt the pure sense of it being right—and that was really amazing.

The following summer while lifeguarding at Sarah Lawrence, I was preparing to ask my swim coach if we could somehow appeal the NCAA’s policy defining testosterone as “performance enhancement.” I had been planning to start T after my senior swim season—even though it was sad to have to wait that long after finally feeling at peace with my decision—because finishing my last season in a sport that made me so happy made it worth waiting. To my surprise, my coach told me the NCAA’s policies had recently changed: I could start T right away.

Since starting testosterone, I’ve gained a lot more confidence about correcting people on my pronouns and about coming out. While I believe this largely has to do with my having internalized society’s assumptions that trans people are only “legitimate” if they medically transition (I was just as much of a guy before starting T), the support I’ve received has had a big impact.

While I was a little nervous to compete on the men’s team, the support of my teammates and the staff at the sports center actually made it a pretty uneventful change. (Although I have to admit it was pretty neat when I had my name on both the men’s and women’s sides of the record board for a brief time.) And to my surprise, I never received any comments from people on other teams.

A couple of months ago, well past graduation, some folks from NPR contacted me, wanting to do a piece on me as the first openly trans swimmer in the NCAA. My first-year self would have been terrified at the thought of an hour-long interview with a complete stranger about being trans, and then having the piece plastered all over Facebook for all my high school peers to see. I was definitely a bit nervous, but I felt confident and ready to do it. Afterward, I received overwhelming support.

Since graduating, I’ve volunteered at a psychosocial support space for people who are LGBTQ and have a mental illness, and I’m excited to be starting my first full-time job at an LGBTQ-inclusive health clinic. While I’ve focused on psychology lately, I’m still exploring. Like most Sarah Lawrence students, my problem is having too many interests. But wherever I end up, I hope to give back to the trans community and help those with less access to the support structures I’ve been privileged to have.