By LEAH WILLINGHAM
By the time he was 4 years old, Alex Dannehl knew two things: He was an athlete – he absolutely loved to play soccer, lacrosse, anything physical – and he was not an average girl.
When he was old enough to use a computer, Alex, then Alexandra, began researching the word “transgender.”
“I used to lay awake in bed at night wishing I could find a genie and a lamp that could turn me into a boy and take care of all my problems,” said Dannehl, now 23. “But that’s not how life works.”
Instead, Dannehl kept his feelings to himself and continued to live as a young woman.
He played on his high school girls’ soccer team and became the only openly gay student at his high school in Pennsylvania. When he was accepted to the University of New Hampshire in 2011, he joined the women’s club rugby team and soon elevated to the status of captain.
But the feelings Dannehl had tried to bury for years could no longer be ignored. During the summer after his junior year, he decided to start the transition to live as a man.
“I realized I can’t stop thinking about this forever – the feeling was never going to go away,” he said.
His decision was an affirmation of his identity and who he had always felt he was – Alex.
Dannehl hoped to be recognized as a man in all aspects of his life – sports included. But he soon found out that switching from women’s athletics to men’s teams wasn’t so simple.
Dannehl wanted to take hormones for at least a year before joining the men’s rugby team so he could amass muscle. So he decided to keep playing on the women’s team, after encouragement from his coach and teammates – but doing so proved harder than he had imagined.
“I was struggling with being on a women’s team and definitely not being a woman,” he said. “My conclusion was to not be as ingrained in the team as I was the first few years.”
He felt uncomfortable using the women’s locker room after coming out, and he felt out of place in the men’s locker room.
That winter, Dannehl legally changed his name, started taking hormones and had his breasts removed. By the time he graduated UNH in the spring of 2015, he was “a totally new person.”
But his choice came at a cost – he was forced to sacrifice a part of his identity as an athlete to finally become a man.
Dannehl’s struggle is becoming more common as more athletes identify as transgender.
And gender identity in athletics has risen to the highest level of sports. The International Olympic Committee passed new rules this year that allow transgender athletes to participate in Olympic sports without undergoing reassignment surgery, and transgender men are allowed to participate without any form of hormone therapy.
Transgender women, however, are still required to have estrogen levels below a certain cut-off point for one year before competition.
The use of hormones, which are typically a banned substance for athletes, can be a complex issue for transgender athletes.
In the NCAA, strict rules govern when a student can compete again after transitioning genders, both for safety reasons and to prevent a competitive advantage.
The NCAA requires that athletes transitioning from male to female take estrogen for one year before they are able to play on women’s sports teams. Athletes transitioning from female to male can continue to play on women’s teams unless they start taking testosterone, then they can start playing on the men’s team at any time.
Some club sports have their own governing associations that set up unique rules.
Rory Wilson, a transgender man and a junior at UNH, spent the first two years of his college career competing on the women’s fencing club, until coming out to his coach last year.
Fencing at the collegiate level is typically split into squads of four men and four women.
Last year, Wilson was the co-captain of his squad and the lead female fencer, but Wilson has now been cleared by his coach to compete on the men’s section of the squad starting this fall.
Still, even with his team’s approval, Wilson worries about what might happen when he travels to other schools for matches.
The United States Fencing Association has not put out an official policy for transgender athletes. Instead, the association defaults to the most recent version of the Olympic policy.
Wilson said the policy can be difficult to find – it’s not posted on the association’s website, nor are there clear guidelines.
“It’s not very clear or easy to navigate,” he said. “It can be very hard to always be the ones having to advocate for ourselves.”
In addition to policy barriers, Wilson also has logistical barriers to confront.
Wilson said he doesn’t feel right changing in either the men’s or women’s locker rooms, especially at matches at other colleges, since he has not physically transitioned to male.
Female fencers also typically wear breast plates under their uniform for protection.
“I definitely don’t want to be using that while working with the men’s team,” Wilson said.
Navigating this system is nearly impossible for non-binary athletes, individuals who don’t identify as male or female, Wilson said
“We don’t realize how many spaces are gendered until suddenly you don’t have a place to go,” he said.
Support from within
Groups at UNH have started to create more opportunities for transgender students, including athletes.
Cayden “Casey” O’Dea has worked with Trans UNH since he came out a few years ago.
O’Dea feels supported by his equestrian teammates, but there are times when his athletic career seems to take a backseat to his gender identity.
“The biggest struggle is getting people to see us as athletes with skills and accomplishments first rather than that we’re transgender,” he said.
O’Dea said UNH has a “preferred name policy,” which allows students to change their name on school documents without legally changing it. O’Dea hopes to start using his chosen name, “Cayden,” at equestrian competitions starting next year.
O’Dea said transgender students have seen support and recognition from the university, like the preferred name policy, but more work remains to be done.
“We would like to see more action taking place, rather than just a statement that says, ‘Sure, we accept trans students here,’ ” he said.
Some of this action could involve more gender-inclusive bathrooms in academic buildings and residence halls, or college insurance policies that are more inclusive of the needs of transgender students, O’Dea said.
For many athletes, the road after transition can be unclear.
Dannehl said he is unsure how sports will fit into his future life.
“When I was playing with women, I was pretty good. It was easy to be competitive and be one of the better players,” he said. “But now, as a man, I’m on the smaller size – like 5-7, and I’m not so sure.”
This is a difficult decision for those who have identified as athletes their whole life.
“It’s something I’m still working on,” he said.