When I watch a television news segment on transgender issues, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Though the trans community has worked for and earned increased visibility in mainstream media in recent years, abuse of trans people is encoded into the very laws of some states, couching much coverage of trans issues in the rhetoric of tragedy and discrimination.
That’s what makes Sunday’s 60 Minutes segment on Harvard swimmer Schuyler Bailar such a joy to watch. Bailar, a star breaststroker, was recruited in high school to join the Harvard women’s swim team. During a gap year before matriculating, Bailar attended a panel of trans men and realized he was trans. “100 percent, everything that they’re saying, that’s me.” Bailar recalls in the segment. “And I just melted down.”
Watching the segment, I kept wondering when the twist would come. Surely his parents would reject him, or Harvard would kick him off the swim team, or the NCAA would have some draconian regulations around trans athletes—you can’t have a man competing against women, after all, and heavens, what about the locker rooms?!
Spoiler alert: Everything turns out peachy. Bailar’s parents are supportive as anything, and Harvard women’s swim coach Stephanie Morawski tells Bailar that, per NCAA policy, he can still swim on the women’s team as long as he doesn’t start testosterone therapy. But Morawski sees Bailar struggling with the idea of living a “double life” as a man on Harvard’s campus but a member of the women’s swim team, which would be psychically taxing. She approaches the men’s swim coach, Kevin Tyrrell, with her dilemma, and he says, “Why doesn’t [Bailar] just swim for my team?” Tyrrell prepares to tell the rest of the men’s team, arming himself with answers to all the tough questions he assumes they’ll ask, especially about the locker room. The questions never come; Tyrrell summarizes the team’s unfazed response as “that sounds fine.”
The crux of the segment is Bailar’s adjustment to swimming with the men, which means he can take testosterone, but also means he places far lower in his meets than he did when he swam against women. Morawski says his decision wasn’t easy: “Schuyler had to do a lot of thinking about what mattered most—was it breaking records, or was it being happy?”
But it seems that Harvard’s coaches didn’t think twice about what it might mean for the school’s athletics program to lose a potential star women’s swimmer and let onto the men’s team a breaststroker who might not have made the cut if he’d competed against guys in high school. Bailar himself is thoughtful, earnest, and a true sport about the invasive queries he gets from cis people on his Instagram feed, where he tries to educate people who don’t know any trans people or are too embarrassed to ask them private questions. (Reporter Lesley Stahl is one of them: In one of the broadcast’s few grimace-worthy moments, she presses Bailar on the constitution of his genitals.) As such, should you watch this video, prepare for tears and feels or, at the very least, a flicker of hope for the future of humanity in a country beset by systemic transphobia.