Chris Mosier on Making History as First Trans Member of Team USA

"It's a very different experience when you put the person before the pronoun."

Chris Mosier, the first transgender athlete to compete for the United States Credit: Courtesy Philip Lee

As a kid growing up in Midwest America, there was always an equal playing field for Chris Mosier. He felt confident anywhere he could score a goal, cross a finish line or make a play. The minute he stepped up to compete, the only distinction between him and any other athlete was ability. "At any point in my life, regardless if I was confused about who I was or if I didn't know the language of what I felt, the one identifier that never changed was 'athlete,'" he says. No matter how his hair was cut, what clothes he wore or if people called him "he" or "she" – there was no confusion about his competitive edge.

But decades later, when he qualified for the 2016 Team USA roster at the sprint duathlon national championship and became the first out transgender man to make a U.S. National Team, the place where Chris Mosier's athletic prowess was valued over his personal pronoun – that equal playing field–changed. "Suddenly, the most gratifying area of my life became the most contentious area of my life," he says.

Locker rooms he'd been using for years were suddenly inaccessible. The pool where lap lengths had stretched into miles of training shorted him admission. At a Team USA qualifying race in North Carolina in June (which decides the 2017 roster), Mosier couldn't even use the restroom due to the currently standing HB2 law. He was the same person, the same athlete, but one sentence had changed everything. "I knew that the minute I said, 'I'm a trans athlete,' that I would never get away from it," he says. "But I asked myself, 'Why does it matter?' Well, it matters because there was no one else out there saying it."

It wasn't until after college that Mosier became a competitive triathlete and duathlete (the duathlon is a race that follows a run-bike-run format, while triathlon maintains the traditional swim-bike-run arrangement). During his time at Northern Michigan University, he edited the school newspaper, hosted a radio show, played rec sports, and performed as the school's mascot – Wildcat Willie. He did anything he could to stay busy, because busy felt safe. "I didn't have enough time for relationships, to put myself out there, or have people get to know me," he says. "I didn’t have to have these critical conversations about who I was."

And then he fell in love.

When Mosier met the woman who is now his wife, Zhen Heinemann, the conversations that used to end in confusion began to bring clarity. "I dated men all through college, and there I met the woman who is my wife," he explains. "At the time, I was trying to figure out my sexuality and what that meant. I didn’t know a lot of gay people – and I didn’t know any trans people. All I knew is that I would get furious if people said we were lesbian. I would think, 'That doesn't fit for me. That's not right because I’m not gay.' At that time it came onto my radar – I had never thought about my gender identity before." The term "gay" didn't fit for Mosier because he did not identify as a woman. Being gay would not be a problem, except for the fact that he didn't feel like a woman. Today, Mosier identifies as queer.

Suddenly, it made sense to Chris why walking up to the start line of women's races was uncomfortable and anxiety inducing. Sharing his results from top finishes in women's competition felt wrong because Mosier is perceived as a straight, white man. "Triathlon is a body-conscious sport," he says. "I was upset with breasts. I worked so hard to have my body look and compete the way I wanted it to. But I didn’t have the flat chest and a six-pack that I thought I would. My body didn't betray me — but my body did disappoint me."

In 2010, Mosier began his transition – taking testosterone, changing his gender designation on documents, and competing in men’s triathlons and duathlons.It wasn’t easy, but it finally felt right.

But as an athlete, Mosier knows that it's never easy to break a record, let alone break a barrier. His sports heroes have always been those who claimed championships and provoked social change. While everyone else in his hometown of Lake Zurich, Illinois, had been worshipping Michael Jordan as kids, Mosier was lauding Tommie Smith. "We all want to see something we desire to be," he explains. "But I didn't have that model to look at and say, 'That's me. I could be like that someday.' So I either had to give up on knowing that someone like me could be competing at a high level or I had to do it myself. That's what really drives me – being the athlete that young trans athletes can look at and see themselves in."

Because of recent regulatory changes from the International Olympic Commission (IOC), the World Anti-Doping Agency, USA Triathlon and other governing bodies of athletics, trans athletes who have undergone hormone therapy for one year and pass Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) tests are allowed to compete without restriction. By becoming the first trans athlete to compete at the highest level–the Team USA level–Mosier actualized his own version of Tommie Smith. But earning his spot on the Team USA roster wasn’t enough to break the barrier for all trans athletes.

Before the new IOC policy (and others that write trans athletes into the rulebook) became officially enacted in January 2016, Mosier and other trans athletes had to play a regulatory waiting game. For nearly six months–from June until January–trans athletes, regardless of team standings, were ineligible for international and national competition. 

When the IOC and other governing bodies solidified the current regulations on transgender athlete eligibility in January, the frustration, the inequality, and the fears Mosier had faced finally felt redeemed. "It's a relief that next barrier has been knocked down," he says. "It was initially frustrating, but more than frustrating it was disappointing to see the regulatory inequality and the issues that not only I faced, but so many trans athletes faced. Through the process it became so clear why so many trans people quit playing sports. But now those old rules aren't a reason to quit." 

That driven, competitive nature is what drove Mosier to persist in gaining recognition for trans athletes. "When I think back to growing up as an athlete, every positive thing that I learned about goals, dedication, leadership, and values I learned from playing sports – this was an area of my life where I felt the best about myself," he says. "That shouldn't change because a pronoun has changed. I took this on because I think all athletes and all people should have the opportunity to play sports and have a place where they can feel their best about themselves."

Mosier expressed that often, worrying about how other athletes, the public and organizations will react is what delays trans gender athletes when making the decision to come out. It's possible for transgender athletes can compete without making public announcements of transition. Knowing he had the option to privately navigate sports as a man, it took Mosier years to decide to come out publicly as a trans gender athlete. But he did so to set precedence. "It's like running the four-minute mile," he explains. "First people say it can't be done. Then someone does it. Then it's done again and again, faster and faster – just because the impossible was possible."

Mosier has done it, and he hopes the next trans athletes will do it better – possibly in Rio. The new IOC regulations opened the 2016 Summer Games to trans gender athletes, and according to IOC meeting records, two closeted transgender athletes will be competing in August. The nationalities of the transgender athletes were not revealed, but sources state that one will be competing for Team Great Britain.

And although Mosier has received a great deal of support from Team USA as an organization and from individual Team USA athletes across multisport platforms, he understands that this is just a small facet of approval in the worldwide scale of athletics. "Just because the rules allow it doesn't mean that everyone is ready to accept it," he explains. "Public opinion is the challenging piece."

Individual athletes and media outlets, from former Olympic judo competitor Ronda Rousey to The Australian (a weekly newspaper published in Australia) have spoken against the IOC's policy on allowing transgender athletes to compete, often stating that transgender women often have a competitive edge due to higher levels of testosterone. In one scathing statement, Rousey spoke against fellow MMA professional and transgender athlete Fallon Fox, saying, "She can try hormones, chop her pecker off, but it's still the same bone structure a man has. It's an advantage. I don't think it's fair."

But despite knee-jerk reactions and opinions, science provides a clear explanation for why, in many sports, transgender athletes don't maintain any athletic advantage. "The flash point for a lot of people is, 'You’re going to allow penises in women’s sports?'" Joanna Harper, chief medical physicist of radiation oncology at Providence Portland Medical Center and attendant of the IOC meeting regarding transgender regulation, said in a USA Today report . "It's not the anatomy that matters, it's the hormones." 

For transgender men, the practical target for hormone therapy is to increase testosterone levels to the normal male physiological range (300–1000 ng/dl) by administering testosterone. A practical hormonal target for transgender women through hormone therapy is to decrease testosterone levels to the normal female range (30–100 ng/dl) without supra-physiological levels of estradiol (<200 pg/ml) by administering an antiandrogen and estrogen. According to studies, as testosterone levels approach female norms, trans women see a decrease in muscle mass, bone density and the number of oxygen-carrying red cells in their blood. Estrogen boosts fat storage. Together, these changes lead to a loss of speed, strength and endurance – all key components to any athletic advantage. No one gets bigger, faster and stronger on estrogen. 

To abide by current IOC regulation, an athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage in women's competition).

For transgender men such as Mosier, lab tests, constant medical updates, and annual reports allow clearance so athletes can compete under Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) and avoid any accusations of using necessary testosterone as a performance-enhancing drug.

The processes transgender athletes must undergo to compete are not lenient by any means. Keep in mind that the IOC ruled that drinking too much coffee as an unfair competitive advantage for almost 20 years. Today, many common cough syrups, eye drops, cold medications, diet products, nasal sprays and allergy medications will result in a failed drug test and medical disqualification. Historically, the IOC does not approach matters of unfair advantage with a lack of caution.

Currently, no trans athlete has dominated a sport on the national or international level. Naataphon Wangyot, a transgender high school athlete in Alaska, recently earned All-State honors in track and field. Wangyot's victory was a positive stride, but public commentary proved that many are not ready to normalize transgender athletic participation. As Mosier puts it, "the comments people made about this high school girl were outrageous, so at the most elite level, regardless of how well they do, trans athletes are targets for this sort of commentary."

He believes this is what’s keeping the two trans athletes at Rio from coming out publicly. "We are still a long way from normalizing the participation and success of trans athletes–but I hope that what comes out of all of this." He believes that one day, "Chris is a transgender man" will be seen as a fun fact to the public — as benign as "Chris can juggle," or, "Chris has pet rabbits."

"When I came out to friends, family, and teammates, it wasn’t a big issue because they knew me," he explains. "I want to be visible so people can know me or at least, know of me and that I exist. It's a very different experience when you put the person before the pronoun."

So Chris Mosier continues to train. He continues to speak out publicly and advocate for LGBT athletes. He continues to comply with testing regulations. He continues to make the playing field feel as equal as it did when he was just an athletic kid in Illinois. "I'm going to keep busting my ass to get on the podium – and hopefully that makes it better for other people" he says. "I want to be the person I needed 10 years ago."