Kyle Allums has been a fighter for most of his life. Fighting to excel at the sport he loved and fighting to find acceptance for who he is. Growing up transgendered led him into a suicidal depression, but basketball was his salvation. This is his incredible story.
I never intended to be an advocate. I never intended to be the person kids would come to when they felt suicidal. But somehow, somewhere along the line, that’s exactly what happened.
In 2011, as a player on the George Washington University women’s basketball team, I made history by becoming the first openly transgender Division I athlete. It wasn’t my intention. All I wanted to do was show my closeted gay friends, “Look, if I can come out—with people who have no idea what ‘trans’ even means—you should be able to say, ‘This is my girlfriend, not my friend.’”
At first, only my teammates heard my story. Afterward, nothing really changed. I still got dressed in the women’s locker room. I still shared a hotel room with one of my female teammates. But the media and the rest of the world couldn’t seem to process how someone who identified as male could play on a women’s basketball team. They pried and pried—especially ESPN—revealing personal details of my life I didn’t want public. The subsequent attention sent me into a suicidal depression.
Eventually, however, I realized that trans people—and trans athletes who want to come out—should have control over their own stories. The last thing I wanted was for someone else to feel the way I did after the media turned my story into their own: powerless. And so, I’ve made it my life’s mission to give everyone on the gender spectrum a platform to tell the world who they are on their own terms—and no one else’s.
Growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, I wasn’t like everyone else. Kids never used the words gay or lesbian when they teased me; they just bullied me because I was a girl who looked like a boy. I came out as a lesbian in high school (trans wasn’t even on my radar back then)—a revelation that my mom struggled to understand. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere because my mom feared that other lesbians might be there. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to hang out with anyone. As a result, I was constantly stuck at home in an environment that wasn’t a happy one. (My dad was never in the picture, leaving us when I was five years old.) Most of the time, I felt like killing myself.
Basketball was my salvation. When I stepped onto the court, I didn’t think about the struggles I went through to prove myself to my mom. I could be myself while bonding with other people in the pursuit of a common goal: winning. I enjoyed every second of it, and when George Washington University recruited me, it was my ticket to freedom.
During my first semester, I took a human sexuality class in which I heard a panel of LGBTQ-XYZ people, including a trans guy, telling their stories. That’s how I learned trans people existed. Everything he said fell in line with how I felt. Finally, I had the vocabulary to explain it.
Initially, I came out as trans to only one of my closest friends on the team. She had never heard of the word trans either and didn’t know what it meant. She wasn’t alone. I was the first trans person that anybody on the team had met except for an assistant coach. For them, it didn’t sink in until we would go out and people would say, “Here’s the women’s team” or “Hey, ladies,” and I would start to look sad or stop smiling.
There wasn’t much time for them to comprehend my gender identity. Less than two months after going public with my story in fall 2011, I suffered my ninth concussion. (That’s a lot of concussions, right? I’m short for basketball—under six feet tall—meaning taller players constantly elbowed me in the head.) I tried to come back for my senior year. But it wasn’t happening. My equilibrium was off, greatly affecting how I moved on the court, and I was forgetting the names of even my best friends. Ultimately, I knew I had to give up basketball and focus on the rest of my life.
Around the same time, I discovered that ESPN’s Outside the Lines had interviewed my mom about her basketball-playing trans son. I didn’t want press, but I also didn’t want people to hear from my mom without getting my side of the story. So I did an interview with them too. When the segment came out, it was more hurtful than I thought it would be. They showed pictures of me when I was younger, they used my old name, and my mom showed my coming-out letter on camera. My face was everywhere, continuously, for an entire week.
Between the media attention and the concussion, I could barely tolerate the stress. I remember the last day the Outside the Lines segment aired, I got out of class and turned on the TV thinking SpongeBob (my go-to stress reliever) would pop up. Instead, ESPN was on, and there was my face—yet again.
I lost it. I walked into the kitchen, grabbed a knife and was like, How should I do this? I was about to cut myself when I heard a knock at the door. It brought me back. I put the knife down and opened the door. The person I was seeing at the time was on the other side.
We sat down. We watched SpongeBob. And I just breathed.
I graduated early and moved to New York City in March 2012. I became a bartender and personal trainer to support myself. Eventually, I reactivated my Facebook account. (I had abandoned it after the ESPN thing.) Twenty-five thousand unread messages awaited me, mostly from kids or people my age. Two people who had been bullied by family and friends messaged me at the same time—2 a.m. on a random Tuesday morning. They were planning to kill themselves. “This is it,” they wrote, almost in unison. “I’m done. I’ve had it.”
It had taken me a full year after the Outside the Lines segment to regain my energy and find myself. But it wasn’t until I saw those messages that I realized I had the ability to make a difference in people's lives. The last thing I wanted was for someone else to feel how I had felt. So I wrote back.
I told them they were loved. I told them I was there for them. I told them they are here for a reason. I told them that despite all the harassment, bullying and ignorance, there were many wonderful things in store for them. I told them life is rough. I told them that if things aren’t going the way we planned, we make another plan. It worked: They told me they would give life another shot.
Right then and there (more or less), I decided I should share that message with other kids, too. I started by reaching out to every LGBT organization in the country. At first, only colleges invited me to speak. Recently, however, high schools have asked as well. It makes me feel good to visit a high school in a conservative part of Florida—an area where LGBT students are typically harassed—and get people to understand how to become more tolerant. I save a lot of time for questions because I want people to ask me ignorant questions—questions they don’t even know how to ask—so I can teach them how to respectfully interact with a trans person whom they might meet later in life.
At the college level, I’m trying to create a safe environment for other openly trans athletes. It’s about teaching players and coaches Trans 101—what the terms mean and that there’s a difference between biological sex and gender identity. It’s funny when people assume it’s easy for female athletes to come out. I still know about a dozen players and a few coaches who are closeted. They can’t come out because they worry they’ll be kicked off their teams. Believe it or not, many coaches still say, “I don’t want any lesbians on my team.”
For many trans people, however, coming out is only the first step. The next step is sometimes gender-reassignment surgery, which can be even more difficult, in part because it’s expensive—for trans men top surgery (work above the belt) can be as much as $15,000, and up to $250,000 for bottom surgery (work below the belt). This past summer, I wanted to see if I could help people with minimal resources fund their transitions. I made a two-minute video, offering my support: “If you are looking for financial assistance for your transition—hit me up!” (My own transition is ongoing; after thinking about it for a few years, I’ve decided that I will pursue top surgery once I’ve found the right surgeon.)
Within minutes, 10 people reached out to me. I decided to visit each of them and turn their stories into a documentary designed to raise $45,000 for their transitions. I met their friends, families and significant others. I got a sense of what they had gone through when they came out as well what transitioning has meant for them.
I’m calling this Project I Am Enough. You can watch the trailer for the documentary at our fundraising page and starting Friday you’ll be able to stream the entire movie. I plan to make a similar documentary focusing on people within the LGBT community every summer. Next year, the theme will be LGBT people in the South, trans youth (kindergarten through sixth grade) and trans athletes.
Since I came out at George Washington, numerous other LGBT athletes have done the same—NBA journeyman center Jason Collins is the most prominent. This is a great thing. But I also hope it’s temporary. Someday—soon, if I have my way—enough LGBT athletes will be out that fans and the media will greet a player’s sexuality with a shrug as opposed to a segment on Outside the Lines or the cover of Sports Illustrated. The focus can then shift back to the games themselves. In the end, that’s what I’ve become an advocate for: an even playing field.
In the photo above, Allums visits with Jacob Saunders in Loughborough, England* (Photo courtesy of K. PAGE Productions and Daniel Edwards).
*Correction: Caption earlier misstated Loughborough as being in Scotland, it is in England. [h/t Pockets]