Amazing how the sound of bouncing basketballs echoing from the rafters of a gym can bring me back to that traumatic day. Today, they’re just sounds, vibrating sound waves through the air, but on that day, nearly five years ago, they were the menacing tick of a clock. Every toom of the ball thundering against the polished floor was one more second of my senior year draining away without the game I loved.
My senior year.
The only one I’ll get.
High school offers you one senior year to show your athletic prowess to college scouts who judge whether you belong at the next level. Without it, you’re relegated to evening and weekend leagues at the YMCA where the “crowd” consists of those family members who can take an hour or two out of their schedules. But if you’re judged worthy, you have that chance to play in front of the crowds, to wear the emblem of your school, and champion it against the best its rivals have to offer.
Only one senior year to a customer, and mine was about to be stolen from me. I was sitting in the stands, the back row to be exact (the reason for that placement will be clear later). I was watching the sleek, fit, healthy bodies of those who should have been my teammates race back and forth for the opening game of the season.
Toom, toom, toom. Tick, tock, tick, tock. The season that should have been mine, slipping away second by second.
No, there is nothing wrong with my health. My body is just as fit as always, just as ready to dribble the ball down the court, just as ready to make a quick move to evade a defender, just as ready to fire a jump shot swishing through the net before the opposing team can react. I have every skill that won me the team’s most valuable player last season, and took us deep into our regional playoffs.
That was Before.
This is After.
Basketball was wonderful. Basketball was my reason for living. Basketball was what kept me going last year, and when we lost in the semifinals, by one point thanks to a three-pointer at the buzzer, its absence cast a pall on my mood. This was no normal funk. I couldn’t get out of bed for days. The season was over and I was forced to go back to my unbearably drab life. I was forced to confront a reality I had run from for years: I couldn’t stand to be me.
There was nothing wrong with my life. I had two great parents who supported me in whatever I did. I had a nice house, terrific friends, and a head for facts and figures that ensured I never had to worry about my high school grades.
But it wasn’t right. I’d look at the girls in my classes with the certain knowledge that I should have been one of them. My body should be female shaped, and I should be living one of their lives. I couldn’t explain it. It’s not that I liked playing with dolls or wearing skirts. Neither one of those activities particularly appealed to me. I was happy with my BB gun and my skateboard. And it wasn’t that I was attracted to boys. I’d had three girlfriends last year and two the year before. It seems there is a strong market for moody, brooding jocks. No, it wasn’t about what I wanted to do. It was about what I wanted to be. A girl.
It started when I was eleven. I saw my body changing, and watched the bodies of the girls around me change as well. I wanted the body they had, not my own. I started playing this mental game: What would I give to switch bodies with this girl or that? The answer always came back: Everything. I would give up everything if I could just be one of them.
These feelings came to an agonizing head the week we were knocked out of last year’s playoffs. My family dragged me to a therapist. “Danny,” he asked, “if your life could be any way you wanted, what would you change?” An astute question. It had an easy answer. I’d be a girl. To my surprise, he didn’t laugh. Within a week I was referred out to a gender therapist. A month after that I was taking estradiol and T-blockers. By summer I had B-cup breasts, was shaving my legs and pits, and had started the process of having my name legally changed to Danielle. And I was loving every minute. I had gone from gloomy Gus to perky Pollyanna in less than a semester.
But what about basketball? Naive me, I assumed it would be simple. I would show up when the girls’ varsity team had tryouts. I would wow them with my talent, make the team, and tear up the court as usual.
You can probably guess the rest. Inquiries were made. The school system athletic director consulted with the superintendent. The board of education was brought in. Laws, rules, policies, and precedents were discussed, dissected, and debated. Finally a decision was made. At 6’1”, I would have an unfair advantage, being the tallest girl on any team in the county by a good two inches. Two inches on a basketball court was as good as a mile, or so conventional wisdom went. If I wanted to play, I had to play with the boys. Of course I’d have to change separately, since we couldn’t have teenage boys see bare breasts, so I’d dress in a separate room and meet the team in the gym.
To their credit, my parents fought. They appealed, they begged, they practically camped outside the athletic director’s office, but to no avail. He was used to parents objecting when their kid is left off a team, usually one for whom their dear son or daughter did not have the talent they claimed. He was steadfast. The boy’s team or no basketball.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Fresh in my mind were the dark days immediately before I began my transition. I couldn’t go back. I had already made the leap from boy to girl in my mind, and practicing with smelly raucous boys seemed as alien as serving in a foreign army. I wrote letters to the superintendent, and even the governor of our state. Our coach went to the superintendent to plead my case. Precious days ticked on. I don’t know why, but I assumed that people would understand in the end, and see the error of their ways. I started practicing with the team. The coach was still optimistic (and salivating at the idea of a 6’1” forward), and treated me like all the other girls. I truly believed I would be permitted to play until that first game of the season, when I found myself in the stands.
I knew what I had to do. My heart was pounding as I wondered for the hundredth time whether I would have the courage to go through with it, and what sort of fallout would result. I reached into my purse and felt the cold metal object I had placed there before the game. Would I have the nerve to use it? I watched the minutes count down until the half, willing the time to go slower, knowing that once I carried out my plan, life would never be the same. When the half came, I stalled and dawdled, but in the end, I knew there was no other way.
I moved along the back of the stands until I was directly beneath the supports that suspended the basket over the end of the court. I jumped and grabbed the beam, hoisted myself up, and began working my way forward toward the backboard.
I knew eyes must be upon me, but I ignored the crowd. I kept pushing myself forward until I was directly above the backboard. I sat so I straddled the beam and my body was nestled between two supports, suspended many feet above the court. I wrapped my arm around the support to my right and then took the handcuffs I had removed from my purse, quickly snapping them onto my wrists. I was stuck there.
Now the normal din in the gym had dimmed to a murmur. They couldn’t see that I had chained myself to the basket, but they knew I didn’t belong there. A security guard positioned himself under me and yelled at me to come down. I began yelling myself, how I was a human being, and deserved to be able to play with my team.
In the end, I caused an hour and ten minute delay. The police were called, and they discussed what should be done, positioned beneath me, lest I decide to jump. A ladder was located and erected and an officer climbed to talk to me. I could make it easy on myself. I already was in trouble, but if I came down willingly, etc. etc. I ignored him and kept shouting periodically about how I deserved to be treated like a person. I don’t think it occurred to him that I couldn’t get down if I wanted. I was chained in place.
Finally some sort of cherry picking device was wheeled into the gym. Three officers manhandled me to get at my handcuffs and cut the chain with a large yellow bolt cutter. Ironically, they replaced them with their own pair. They were not gentle when they dragged me out of the cherry picker. I think I heard one of the officers growl “f***ing pervert” under his breath, but I couldn’t be sure. I sat overnight in the county lockup before being arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, for which completing community service would eventually tie up all my weekends for the rest of the school year. Those hours sitting in the cell, waiting, were the longest in my life. I was alone, and the place smelled faintly like someone’s vomit, but worse than that, I had a sense that it had all been for nothing. I’d disrupted everyone’s fun, gotten myself in more trouble than I knew how to get out of, and nothing had really changed.
I didn’t know then that a cell phone video taken at the game would end up on sports shows across the country. I didn’t know that local LGBT support organizations and Gay/Straight alliances from schools all over the state would picket the school board demanding I be allowed to play on the team appropriate for my gender. I didn’t know that media outlets across the region would debate my case, and the school board, fed up with all the publicity and distractions, would give in and that I would play in all but four games. I didn’t know that I would win a basketball scholarship at the University of Maryland where we would make the NCAA tournament sweet sixteen all four years, the elite eight twice, and the final four my last year there.
And I didn’t know that I would be here. At tryouts for the Chicago Sky of the WNBA. I’m far from a shoe-in. I’m competing against strong, quick, agile women from around the country, all of whom were stars on their respective college teams. True, my height gives me an advantage (though I’m by no means the tallest woman here), but I’m going to need to earn my spot.
Having my body develop as male for my first sixteen years is only an issue for those who look at women’s basketball as some sort of B-league created to allow girls to play who would have trouble holding their own physically on the boys’ court. I disagree. I see it as a way women can compete and challenge each other to show the world the best we have to offer.