The Impact of Layshia Clarendon’s Coming Out and What It Means for Transgender Athletes


Courtesy Of USA Basketball

Former all-star Layshia Clarendon is the first openly nonbinary and transgender WNBA player.

Women’s National Basketball Association player and former all-star Layshia Clarendon revealed on Jan. 29 that they had undergone top surgery, thus becoming the first openly trans athlete in the WNBA. In a heartfelt Instagram post, Clarendon shared the euphoric feeling of freedom that came with their gender-affirming operation. 

“It’s hard to put into words the feeling of seeing my chest for the first time free of breasts, seeing my chest the way I’ve always seen it, and feeling a sense of gender euphoria as opposed to gender dysphoria,” they wrote.

Clarendon’s announcement comes a little less than a year after the basketball player came out as gender non-conforming, and five years after they identified themself as non-cisgender. All of these statements were met with support, and Clarendon was named by as one of the 50 sports heroes changing the world for the better in 2020. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert also tweeted a statement in support of Clarendon. 

Still, the point guard had reservations about sharing the news of their surgery with the public.

“I’m usually not scared to share news publicly but the amount of hate, myths & ignorance surrounding Trans and Non Binary people’s existence actually had me debating sharing this joy,” Clarendon wrote.

The fear Clarendon expressed is justified. Up until recently, professional sports teams have seen few transgender athletes, with many observers arguing that the physical changes brought on by hormone replacement therapy create an unfair competition. Many believe that people who undergo testosterone treatment, or simply have heightened levels of testosterone, have an unfair advantage in athletic competitions.

I have been playing field hockey for 11 years now, most of which was spent suppressing what I now know to be dysphoria — all for the sake of the sport. Here at Oberlin, I am completely out for the first time in my life, and have been vocal about my desire to get top surgery and to go on testosterone. But the NCAA rulebook is clear: transmasculine individuals cannot be on a women’s team while using testosterone, and transfeminine individuals must undergo hormone suppression treatment for a year before returning to play. 

This notion that hormones contribute to unfair competition — as seen in the mandate for South African sprinter Caster Semenya, an athlete who is not trans but has naturally elevated testerone levels, to suppress her hormones to compete against cisgender women — is ultimately rooted in transphobia, and often racism. It fails to acknowledge the plethora of factors that contribute to an athlete’s success. 

Although not all trans people undergo HRT, the governing bodies in athletics have historically seemed to believe otherwise. This, combined with the belief that increased testosterone levels make for an unfair advantage, means that many athletic organizations have archaic, restrictive, and problematic rules in place regarding trans athletes. Organizations like the National Collegiate Athletic Association claim inclusivity in their guidelines, but fail to acknowledge the increasing number of athletes who want to transition medically or do not fall in the gender binary. 

On the surface, the notion of fair play seems valid in these situations, but these policies have lasting damage. Many trans athletes have been forced to choose between their sport and their identity. 

Harvard University men’s swim team’s Schuyler Bailar, the first transgender athlete to medically transition and compete in the NCAA, is a prime example. Bailar had originally been recruited for the women’s team, but after coming out and medically transitioning during a gap year was able to compete with other men and set the precedent for trans athletes at a higher level. 

Clarendon and fellow athletes have been closeted and censored for too long. Athletics remain a highly gendered environment, so it comes as no surprise that many transgender athletes stay quiet for the sake of their career. Trans women are ridiculed for their supposed unfair advantage, and trans men are taught that they’ll never be able to keep up. Despite this, we are seeing more and more athletes on all levels being true to themselves. 

This new spotlight that Clarendon has created for both non-binary and Trans athletes, especially at the college level and above, hits super close to home. Personally, I am fighting between continuing to explore my passion for field hockey and lacrosse, and quitting my sports in order to pursue HRT. Currently, the NCAA rulebook does not allow me to go on testosterone while competing with women, but they fail to see that it’s so much more than hormones that influence play. 

I know firsthand that athletic success comes from many different factors, from lifestyle to training to nutrition and everything in between. I can only imagine the feeling of a new generation of people who want to break free, but cannot due to dated stipulations about the effect of biological sex on sports.

While athletics has seen its fair share of transgender men and women, Clarendon’s public transition represents something else that none of them have been able to: They’re breaking the very construct of gender and showing that no matter how you identify, you should be able to pursue your athletic passion.

Clarendon is an inspiration and a voice for a group that has gone unheard for too long. Their announcement, activism, and platform have reignited a conversation that, hopefully, will lead to change for all.

“I want Trans people to know and see that we’ve always existed & no one can erase us!” Clarendon wrote. “I want people to remember that my freedom is your freedom because none of us are free until we are all free!”