Author’s note: In late January, WNBA player Layshia Clarendon of the New York Liberty announced they had top surgery. As part of their announcement, Clarendon wrote, “I want Trans people to know and see that we’ve always existed & no one can erase us!” Clarendon’s news was immediately supported by statements from the WNBA, the players’ union, and New York Liberty. Last week, I sat down with Clarendon to talk about the support they’ve received, what it means to identify as trans, and why it’s important for cisgender women to lead the fight for trans inclusion in sports.
This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
On Her Turf: What has the last week been like for you? Both in terms of the support that you’ve received, but also because it’s the internet, I’m sure there have been some not-so-nice comments.
Layshia Clarendon: Overwhelming is a really good word that comes to mind. I’ve been overjoyed with the responses, love, and support that I’ve gotten. [It] can actually be overwhelming in the best ways… just to receive an outpouring of love. And it’s really left me speechless in some ways because I did not expect it.
And then in terms of trolls, my wife has done a good job of stopping folx from continuing to comment. I’ve seen other people in the comments who are like, ‘I’m here to block all day!’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, squad! Let’s go!’
So I appreciate all of the people that have showed up for me.
On Her Turf: When I first read your post about having top surgery, and then saw the statements from the WNBA, the players’ union, and the Liberty, I found myself wondering, ‘What exactly is the news here?’ Prior to your post, I had known that you identified as non-binary. But I’m curious if last week’s announcement represented a change in terms of how you identify?
Layshia Clarendon: So the only thing that really changed is that I cut my boobs off. Top surgery was really important to me for my gender dysphoria, and [so I can] feel really good in my body. And obviously I posted my boobs all over the internet, which garnered some attention too.
But I think so often for the trans community, it’s almost [treated] like you’re not really trans unless you have a surgery or alter your body. There is so much hyperfocus on what trans folx do with their bodies, what hormones they have, what chromosomes they have, what surgeries they have. But [those things] don’t make you any more or less trans. You can be trans like I was before I had surgery because this is just who I am.
I think it was really important what the W[NBA], players’ union, and New York [Liberty] did [in putting out statements]. I’d had conversations with all of them before sharing the news and they were obviously prepared with their statements, [which] were so beautifully written.
I knew that [making an announcement about] living outside the binary in sports, particularly with a body-altering surgery, was going to shake up the sports world. Sports exist [with] men on this side, women on this side. So what does that mean for [me], Layshia, as a non-binary person? Some people don’t even know what those terms [mean].
So I wanted to make sure that there was going to be a stake in the ground… [because] of course people are gonna have questions… And I wanted there to be somewhere for people to look to get those questions answered. And [it was important] for me to feel safe and secure, [have the] ability to show up and do my work, and [know] that livelihood wasn’t going to be questioned. So [for it to be] really easy for people to see the news about my surgery, and then [see that] the New York Liberty supports people based on gender identity, [that] the union supports Layshia, [that] the league supports trans and non-binary players – I think that was really important.
[People] can have all the questions [they] want. But this isn’t a public debate about whether Layshia belongs in this league or not. And that was really important for me to have that security before I shared my news.
On Her Turf: Along those lines… I think a lot of people probably have a general understanding of what it means to be a transgender man or transgender woman. But I’m wondering if you can explain what the word ‘trans’ means to you in terms of your identity?
Layshia Clarendon: Yeah, so it means I’m not cisgender… So then to explain what ‘cis’ means: being cisgender means your gender identity aligns with the sex you were assigned at birth. So my wife is cisgender; she was born a woman, she feels and is a woman.
A lot of narratives are like, ‘Okay, you’re a trans man. You were born a woman, [now] you’re a guy. Cool, I can get behind that.’ Or vise-versa. But for people to exist in the middle, or in this fluid way, in a very non-binary way… it’s really hard for people to wrap their mind around because our world is very binary. We want to put them in a box so we know how to treat them…
It’s funny for me to look back and connect my own dots. [Back in 2016], I wrote an Esquire article and I talked about how we’re not speaking up enough for the trans community. And I talked about how I wasn’t trans. Like I said, ‘I’m not trans, but I know what it’s like to be misgendered.’ So it’s funny to look back and read that… I didn’t think I was trans or know that I could be… At the time, I was saying I wasn’t cisgender because I knew I wasn’t, but I didn’t know what I was. I didn’t see space for myself in the trans community.
On Her Turf: I know you’ve said you use all pronouns. Can you explain both what that means and also how you want people – especially the media – to refer to you in articles and commentary?
Layshia Clarendon: I use all pronouns, which means I use she/her, they/them, he/him. They all feel good to me and they all feel representative. And what feels the best to me is when people use all of them and interchange them. And so not only using ‘she,’ not only using ‘they,’ not only using ‘him.’
But I get, if you’re new to pronouns, it’s probably hard to say, ‘Yeah, I was hanging out with him over there and then she did great in the game,’ and it’s like ‘Who?’
And so there is a level of limitation to language. We haven’t created a word that’s more mainstream.
So for people who are still grasping pronouns, or [for someone writing] an article, I’m ok and comfortable with ‘they/them’ being used as a neutral term. But I also don’t want people to use it as a badge of honor that they only use ‘they’ and ‘them’ because that’s not what I’m asking for. You don’t get a gold star for [only] using ‘they’ and ‘them’ when someone is asking for all pronouns. That’s what a lot of people start to do to trans and non-binary people. But I also know that I’m willing to meet people where they are in this fight. And someone using ‘they’ and ‘them’ is reaching out, and I recognize that and I really appreciate that, too.
On Her Turf: Sports typically aren’t divided by gender when kids are little. But eventually, most sports become sectioned off into a ‘boys’ division and a ‘girls’ division. Going back to your own childhood, do you remember when that separation happened?
Layshia Clarendon: I played in co-ed leagues from a really young age, like a lot of my counterparts. Probably middle school is when we got separated [into boys and girls teams]. It was the same time my parents started pushing me to wear [certain clothes]. It was like, ‘This whole non-binary thing needs to start to get defined.’
On Her Turf: In some ways, the division of ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ sports is necessary for women to be able to compete. But given that society doesn’t exist on a binary, this division of sports isn’t representative. Do you have any thoughts on how you’d like the sports community deal with this?
Layshia Clarendon: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I know I want the sports community to stop excluding trans people and non-binary people. [I want us] to start paying attention to the fact that our sports leagues exist in a binary structure from a certain age group, and then look at the fact that there are people who exist outside of that, and then find a practical solution that includes them. Instead, what we’re seeing a lot of is exclusion.
I think there’s a lot of work to be done. There are a lot of questions to ask. This might be the way it exists, but should it exist this way?
It’s not really about trans people having a competitive advantage. There’s not a known trans Olympian, no Juwanna Mann [character]… People love to make this trope that trans people are dominating the sports world. And so I would like us to be a lot more inclusive and start to find practical solutions.
I think what’s really interesting is that the WNBA was designed as a league to support and create opportunities for people marginalized by gender… and women have been marginalized by gender.
So we are a women’s league, but I think of that as an umbrella term that would include trans and non-binary people who are marginalized by gender.
On Her Turf: In terms of having been assigned female at birth, rising up in the ranks of women’s sports, and now identifying as trans, I’m curious about your experience as someone who has already been in women’s sports… and if you see that as a privilege compared to the experience of trans women in women’s sports?
Layshia Clarendon: Yeah, that is actually a really big part of the reason why I wanted to share my news. I want to show that there’s an array of trans folx that exist. And so I definitely have that privilege of already existing in this league and having been assigned female at birth.
I’ve definitely thought about if, when I was younger, my parents had fostered more of an open environment for me… It was really hurtful that they didn’t because they didn’t see me as the trans, non-binary person I was as a little kid. But in the same sense, it’s also like, I don’t know if I would have made this far in women’s sports because of all the oppression we’re seeing right now…
There are so many disgusting myths and arguments being used against trans girls who were assigned male at birth. And I’m not gonna sit back and let trans girls and women [be attacked].
I can speak out and fight against that. We’re seeing in so many states, I think it’s 12 right now, that have these anti-trans bills that are hyperfocusing on trans girls and women, and trying to police the bodies of girls and women, which we know happens all too often in women’s sports.
On Her Turf: Not that the WNBA isn’t already doing a lot of social justice work, but do you think that the fight for trans inclusion is a fight that women, in particular, need to take on themselves?
Layshia Clarendon: Absolutely, I think particularly cis-women [need to take it on]. When – in cis-women’s names – trans girls and women are being excluded from sport… absolutely, I think that’s a fight to take on.
I love connecting it to an intersectional perspective. As a [majority] Black league, it’s like us asking white people to like take on this fight. [For Black players], racism isn’t our problem to hold, and to fight, and to overcome the history of this country. It’s on you to do the work to be anti-racist. In the same way, it’s on straight people to do the work to not be homophobic and to undo homophobia. In the same way, it’s the job of cis-women to help undo and fight transphobia.
And so I think it’s absolutely on the WNBA to push this work. Because it’s being said in our name. That’s the most gross thing that’s happening with these anti-trans bills is that [they’re being pushed forward] in the name of protecting women’s sports.
On Her Turf: Looking ahead to the future… You and your wife just welcomed a new baby to the world a few weeks ago. What are your hopes for yourself and your family in the coming months?
Layshia Clarendon: I’m really grateful that I had access to this surgery, at the time when I did, with the support of my wife…. It’s really a misconception that we’re supposed to sacrifice our whole selves for our child, instead of being the whole, best, most healthy versions of ourselves.
My child will never know me as not this whole version of myself. And that my wife supported me when she had our child a month before my surgery. The timing was tough with our season coming, which is why I had surgery so quickly after [my wife] gave birth.
So I’m looking forward to family time, and hopefully a WNBA season… whatever this season is going to look like. I’m looking forward to a safe WNBA season where you guys can find me topless at the pool.
[ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: As some U.S. soccer players stand, Krieger tells Black fans: “I’m kneeling for you”]Follow @AlexAzziNBC