Transgender Activist Shares His Journey

Schuyler Bailar poses for photos with students after his presentation
Image credit: Ahana Basu ’25
Author  Aidan Reid ’24
Published on 

“We are all going through different journeys. I happen to cross the boundary of gender that people are shocked by,” speaker and activist for transgender rights Schuyler Bailar said to a packed crowd in Jewett Auditorium on Monday night. “But in reality, it’s just another journey. Just another transition that I think we all make all the time.”

Bailar, a former NCAA Division I swimmer and the first transgender athlete to compete in Division I, came to Wellesley as part of LeadBLUE speaker event hosted by the Department of Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics and sponsored by Friends of Wellesley Athletics.

Bailar talked about his childhood, from his insecurities in his gender identity to his hard work as a swimmer. A serious biking accident when he was a teenager nearly ended his swimming career, but Bailar recovered and became a star swimmer and student at his Washington, D.C., high school. He was recruited by several Ivy League colleges to swim for them and eventually committed to Harvard.

Despite his successes, Bailar said, “for most of high school, I was absolutely miserable.” This feeling led Bailar to take a gap year before attending Harvard so that he could focus on his mental health, during which he realized he was transgender.

For Bailar, who had been swimming since he was a young child, this realization came with a lot of baggage. By embracing his identity, he thought he would have to give up the sport he loved. Bailar described the pool as “a place where I can relax, where I can feel centered in my body,” and the possibility of losing that terrified him. Luckily, the swim coach at Harvard was incredibly supportive, giving him the option to compete for either the women’s or men’s team. Despite his fears, Bailar chose to compete for the men’s team, becoming the first openly transgender athlete to do so. He graduated from Harvard in 2019.

Schuyler described his grandmother’s support of him when he came out to her: “I think she’s an example of the unconditional love that we deserve and that we can give to others to welcome them into themselves.”

After sharing his story with the audience in Jewett, Bailar answered questions on everything from how sports can improve gender inclusivity to his favorite swimsuits; his answers frequently made the crowd burst into laughter. Bailar stayed later than he planned because so many students wanted to hear his opinion on so many issues.

Ahead of his lecture, Bailar opened up about his experiences on Harvard’s swim team and as a transgender activist. Though he said he is very proud of being a transgender athlete (he even has a Speedo that says “trans athlete”), one issue he often encounters is that spectators fail to see him as just a human: “What I like to say about trans people is that we’re not a ‘before and after,’ we’re a full person, or a ‘during and during.’”

A full person, who loves swimming: “When I swam competitively, when I got to swim every day, it was this ability to connect with myself, but also disconnect from everybody’s expectations of what my body meant to them,” said Bailar. “I didn’t have to be a woman or a man, really. I didn’t have to be anybody but the act of something. And I thought that was really peaceful, beautiful, and empowering.”