Quinn: Canada’s transgender footballer on being ‘visible’ and playing at the Olympics
Throughout this article Quinn is referred to as they / their to respect their wishes around use of pronouns. Quinn has also dispensed with what they call their “dead” former first name.
Quinn doesn’t like living in the spotlight. Yet as a professional athlete, it often comes with the territory.
But little provides a greater platform than sport, and despite being a self-proclaimed introvert, Quinn recognised the power of using that platform and of “being visible”.
And so, in September 2020, Quinn, a defender for Canada’s women’s football team, publicly came out as transgender.
“It’s really difficult when you don’t see people like yourself in the media or even around you or in your profession. I was operating in the space of being a professional footballer and I wasn’t seeing people like me,” Quinn said.
Quinn, who has five goals and 59 caps for Canada, won Olympic bronze at Rio 2016 and played at the 2019 World Cup.
The 25-year-old remains eligible to compete in women’s sport despite identifying as transgender because gender identity differs from a person’s sex – their physical biology.
Most people, unless they’re non-binary, have a gender identity of male or female.
Quinn was assigned female at birth but after many years of questioning themselves, realised their own gender identity did not match their sex.
In an interview with BBC Sport, Quinn tells how there are still “spaces of ignorance” in women’s football, their Olympic ambitions, and their concern as sporting governing bodies start to weigh up transgender policies.
‘More learning to be done’ in women’s football
“I really didn’t like feeling like I had a disconnect between different parts of my life, being a public figure, and so I wanted to live authentically,” they say.
“I think being visible is huge and it’s something that helped me when I was trying to figure out my identity.
I wanted to pass that along and then hopefully other people will come out as well if they feel safe to do so and I can create a safer space for them.”
Quinn had their first interactions with transgender people at college and it was at that point, they say, that they “really understood that was who I was”.
“I couldn’t verbalise what I was feeling before and I didn’t have the right language to articulate how I was feeling before that.
We live in a world that is so binary and I have been receiving messages ever since I was a young child about how I should act, how I should portray myself and how I should be and anything that deviated from that was essentially wrong.
I wanted to live my authentic self, dress the way I wanted to, present the way I wanted to, and that wasn’t always seen as positive, so that was really hard to digest.”
Those in Quinn’s personal circle have known their identity for some time, and the reaction from Canada team-mates, who they told in an email, was “overwhelmingly positive”.
For “the most part”, women’s football is a supportive space, adds Quinn – who is currently on loan at Swedish club Vittsjo GIK from the American National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) side OL Reign – but there are still “spaces of ignorance”.
“It’s been a really long ride with [Canada team-mates] and they are people who I consider some of my best friends,” Quinn says. “A lot of those players have been my concrete supports going through this process.
I think when looking at the larger realm of women’s football there still are spaces of ignorance and there is a little bit of push back, so those are definitely opinions that I want to see change over a period of time and to create a completely safe space for me, because quite honestly I don’t think sport is there yet and women’s football is there yet.”
Despite their team-mates’ acceptance and support, Quinn admits there is “still a lot of learning to be done”.
“I’m really open for my team-mates wanting to talk to me,” Quinn says. “I wasn’t taught throughout the course of my life what it meant to be trans, all the language around it. I think that’s something that’s new for a lot of people.
Once I started living more authentically in my life, whether that’s just how I present myself or coming out to them as trans, I think they’ve all said to me it’s really incredible to see me just live my authentic self and how I’ve exuded a different level of confidence, and how it just fits with who I am as a person.”
Being ‘openly trans’ at an Olympics
“That was one of the reasons why I came out publicly, it’s because I want to be visible and I think the Olympics is a massive platform to have that visibility,” Quinn adds.
“It’s my hope that I might be the first and that’s really exciting, but it’s also my hope that there are other people following in my footsteps and so I hope that it opens the door to other trans athletes being represented at the Olympics.”
Since 2004, transgender athletes have been allowed to compete at the Olympics.
Those who have transitioned from female to male are allowed to do so without restriction. However, current International Olympic Committee guidelines, issued in November 2015, state that transgender women (those who have transitioned from male to female) must suppress testosterone levels for at least 12 months before competition.
And specifically in athletics, the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s most recent ruling permitted the restriction of testosterone levels in female runners to protect “the integrity of female athletics” – but raised concerns about how those rules would be applied.
Explicit IOC guidelines do not exist for non-binary athletes – those whose gender identity falls outside the categories of man or woman.
The IOC says it is trying to strike the right balance of fair and equal competition, while not excluding trans athletes from the opportunity to participate.
These rules will be in place for Tokyo 2020 but a consultation process is ongoing.
Critics of the IOC’s current position argue people born biologically male who transition after puberty retain a physical advantage over their competitors, with former Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies saying women’s sport should not be used as a “live experiment” on the issue of transgender athletes.
Quinn’s announcement also comes at a time when various governing bodies are weighing up their own policies towards transgender athlete participation, with World Rugby proposing to ban trans women from contact rugby.
“I think it is really concerning,” Quinn says.
“I think that we need to focus on why we’re in sports in the first place and the celebration of the excellence of our bodies.”
I’m just another person doing the thing that I love to do and I get the privilege do that every day on the pitch.”
National Coming Out Day: People from sport share stories
In sport, as in life, the decision of when to come out is a deeply personal one.
People may choose to be out to some, but not to others – or, for any number of reasons, not come out at all.
It’s a decision that takes courage and strength, which causes reactions you can’t always predict, and there’s nothing wrong in deciding you’re not ready or able to do it.
As part of National Coming Out Day (11 October), people from across the world of sport have shared their stories, and there’s no doubt that they feel happier, stronger and more confident as a result of being open and honest about who they are.
‘I wasn’t going to hide who I am any more’
Liz Carmouche made UFC history in 2013 when she took on Ronda Rousey in the first women’s fight.
She was also the first out lesbian to compete for the organisation, and wore a rainbow mouthpiece to the octagon for her bout with Rousey at UFC 157.
But reaching a point where she felt comfortable doing that was a journey in itself.
Before her mixed martial arts career, Liz served in the US Marine Corps at a time LGBT people would be discharged for talking openly about their sexuality, under a policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell”.
“I was 22 when I came out, and by ‘came out’ I mean come to the realisation of what my sexuality was,” says Liz.
“That was while I was in the Marine Corps, so I had to hide it for four years. I was worried that I was going to be outed and kicked out, so I was constantly looking over my back. I wasn’t going to hide who I am any more.”
Liz admits concealing her sexuality took a toll on her mental health, and she was scared she might face violence from some of the people she served with if they found out she was gay.
“That was such a difficult, trying and depressing time – and that wasn’t going to be something that I was going to go through again when I left the Marine Corps,” she says.
“I certainly don’t want to throw it anyone’s face, but I’m not going to hide away in the dark and deny who I am. Wearing my rainbow mouthpiece was a reminder of what I’d overcome to be where I was at, and a reminder that I could do anything.”
‘He was sorry I’d had to go through it on my own’
Like Liz Carmouche, rugby league player Keegan Hirst took a long time to accept his sexuality.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I probably realised I was gay when I was 14 or 15,” he says.
“But the only gay people I knew were George Michael and Elton John, and I wasn’t like them so I figured I couldn’t be gay – or that’s what I told myself.”
Keegan, by his own admission, became very good at hiding it.
He got married and had children and it was only when the stress of maintaining his double life became too much that he decided to open up to his then wife about his sexuality.
“I think it became unbearable for her to live with me,” says Keegan.
After telling her and the rest of his family, Keegan had to come out to his team-mates at Batley Bulldogs.
“I was dreading telling the lads, but after telling my family, that was the easiest bit,” he says.
“A couple of my closest team-mates had come round to my house after one game and we’d had a couple of beers.
“I’d been venturing into Leeds and gone to a couple of gay bars, so there must have been some rumours flying round.
“And one of the lads said: ‘What about these rumours? Are you gay? Is it true?'”
Keegan says he can still remember that moment, and the split-second calculation he made as he tried to decide whether this was the right time to tell them.
“It seemed to last for ages in my head, and I said: ‘Yeah, it’s true.’ And when I said that, one of the lads said that he’d always known – and, to be fair, he’d always made jokes about it, so maybe he had. One of the lads cried and he was a big tough guy. He was crying because he was sorry I’d had to go through it on my own and he couldn’t be there to help me.
And they asked me what they should do if any of the lads asked them? And I said it wasn’t a secret any more, so tell them.”
‘I told him I felt like I needed a hug’
One of the reasons Keegan Hirst struggled with his sexuality in the way he did was the fact that, for a long time, LGBTQ+ people seemed to be either unwelcome or largely invisible in the sporting world.
Initiatives such as Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign have helped bring about change and ice hockey’s first Pride weekend in the UK this year inspired one player to tell his story.
“I’d known for nine or 10 years, but I wasn’t willing to accept it to myself,” says Zach Sullivan of Manchester Storm.
“But in November, I’d had a really bad game and I messaged my best friend in Glasgow and said: ‘I need to tell you something. I like men and women.’
“And he was like: ‘Yeah, I know.’ And I was like: ‘Oh, OK!'”
Zach admits he was scared that opening up about his sexuality could cost him some of the relationships he had built over the years.
But the positive reaction from his friends and family persuaded him to share his story more widely, through a social media post timed to coincide with the start of the Pride weekend.
“I just remember coming to my room-mate after I put the message out,” Zach recalls.
“He asked me how I felt, and I told him I felt like I needed a hug. I don’t like the spotlight and I didn’t know the reaction would be as positive as it has been. It’s the first time in my life that I’m carrying a message (about inclusion) that I’m passionate about – so if I have to come out of my comfort zone to do that, I’m happy to.”
‘Eddie Howe asked what he could do to make things easier for me’
Coming out stories tend to focus on the lesbian, gay and bisexual community – but if you’re coming out as transgender, there’s an added layer of complexity.
“When you’re lesbian, gay or bisexual, you’re basically just telling people who you’re attracted to,” says Sophie Cook, the former club photographer at AFC Bournemouth.
“But when you’re trans, you feel that you’ve finally got to the place where you need to be, and you tell people who can then end up struggling with it and almost mourning for the person they knew and loved before.”
It’s never a simple process – but in Cook’s case, coming out was made easier by the reaction of the people around her.
“My last game as Steve was the match where we got promoted as champions,” she remembers.
“That summer I knew that I was trans, so I told the commercial manager and we all ended up meeting in the owner’s box overlooking the pitch. It’s me, the chairman and then manager Eddie Howe – who asks me what he could do to make things easier for me. And when you come out, not everyone understands right away, so if your boss can say something like that, it’s really all you can hope for.”
Once she’d come out to the management team, Sophie had to tell the players.
“I needed to meet them before a match day, because the first time I met them as Sophie couldn’t be as they were running down the tunnel,” she recalls.
“So they called the players together and the assistant manager said: ‘I suppose you’ve noticed our photographer has changed a bit since last season. I’d like you to meet Sophie.’ Our captain, Tommy Elphick, started clapping and the rest of the players joined in. And then Tommy said: ‘Right, let’s go and train.’ I was like: ‘Is that it?!'”
‘It just makes being LGBT feel everyday’
Perhaps no-one sums up the importance of coming out better than BBC Sport presenter Clare Balding.
“I realise the value of just being really comfortable and proud and happy,” she says.
“You don’t have to make grandiose statements; you don’t have to kiss in public. You just get on with it and that’s massively helpful to people because it just makes being LGBT feel everyday.”