Chris Mosier on athlete activism and rethinking gender identity in sports

Transgender Team USA triathlete Chris Mosier explains that sports was the catalyst to many of the important lessons he learned in life.

Chris Mosier didn't intend to be a game-changer.

When he started doing triathlons after college, he didn't envision becoming the first openly transgender athlete to participate on a Team USA squad consistent with his gender identity. This summer Mosier competed at the ITU Duathlon World Championships in Aviles, Spain. Duathlons were originally something Mosier did as a warm-up for triathlon season because he hates cold water. "However, I just found that I was really good at it," he said in a phone interview.

In addition to being an elite athlete, Mosier is an activist. He started the website transathlete.com, which tracks the policies governing trans participation in youth sports in each state. He also works full time as the vice president of program development and community relations for You Can Play, an organization working to end homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in sports.

Mosier chatted with espnW about his incredible year, athlete activism and what a gender-inclusive sport culture looks like.

espnW: Why did you become an advocate in addition to being an athlete?

Chris Mosier: I don't think it was ever my intention to become an advocate, and for a long time I actually struggled with the idea of being so public and so out. I knew that when I came out publicly in media, that was a forever thing. I would never be able to just be another athlete or another guy.

I knew that being visible could have a positive impact. The whole reason that I was public about being out as a trans athlete was that I didn't see people who looked like me when I was deciding to come out. I didn't see trans men competing with men. I wanted to see that and be an [example] for other people.

espnW: Should athletes have a sense of responsibility for their community?

CM: Each athlete needs to make that decision for themselves, as far as how public they want their statements to be. But I think every athlete needs to understand and recognize the incredible platform that they have. If you're a good athlete, you have a little extra social capital and people listen to what you have to say. Athletes are role models whether we like it or not, but I think it's up to each person to decide how much they want to use their platform.

espnW: This has been such an incredible year for you. What has been the biggest change?

CM: I actually feel visible. Prior to this year, I knew that I was impacting people. Impact is not the reason for my work, but I know that it is a byproduct of what I do, so I want my words and actions to reflect my values. The biggest change this year is that now I know people are watching and they do see me. Being recognized on the street is certainly a different thing for me as well.

espnW: In your opinion, what is the current state of sport for trans athletes?

CM: I'm really thrilled with the movement that we've had. However, "movement" doesn't necessarily mean progress. Something like [North Carolina law] HB2 is not progress, but it's movement. People are talking about how [the law] impacts trans athletes, and I think that's really positive.

We obviously have a long way to go and certain areas of athletic participation are moving faster. For example, I was able to have a successful year with relative ease, meaning that I didn't receive much pushback around the International Olympic Committee policy change. I also know that when we see trans women who are athletes, that these conversations are completely different, and so I certainly have male privilege as I'm working to make policy change. Our next step is shifting the conversation around trans women in sports, and also how we include nonbinary and gender nonconforming folks in a way that's comfortable.

espnW: When you say shifting perceptions regarding trans women and gender nonconforming folks participating in sport, what do you mean by that?

CM: There are so many intersections that could be addressed, but part of it is breaking down the sexism in sports. When people are identifying the characteristics and qualities of a good athlete, we need to understand that is different for every sport. There is so much diversity in terms of skill and genetic [composition] of genders. Since sport is so binary, it becomes complicated for anyone who is not male or female. We need to have conversations about what gender actually is and what are the attributes of a successful athlete. The idea that trans men would not be able to compete with men because they were designated female at birth, that's the sort of sexism I'm talking about.

When people are talking about the greatest athlete in the world, are they immediately saying Serena Williams? They should be, but I'm going to guess that many minds go to scrolling through a Rolodex of male athletes.

espnW: What does a fully gender-inclusive sport culture look like to you?

CM: At the most basic level, an inclusive environment in athletics comes down to respect. We need to respect one another with our language. [It's] not that we can't be competitive, that we can't talk s---, because that's part of competition and there's a place in sport for that, but at the end of the day we need to respect one another, our diverse backgrounds and who we are as people.

That's one of the reasons why eliminating casual homophobia is important. All of this conversation about "locker room talk" and giving someone a pass on the language they use -- that's the root of the problem. That's one of the challenges we have with LGBTQ inclusion in sport. The locker room talk, or the casual, dismissive things that people say, creates an unsafe space for others. That's why we see so many trans people stopping sports. It's not a safe environment.

espnW: What's next for you?

CM: Part of it is enjoying this year. For a very long time, I did not celebrate my own victories and did not share good parts of my life with other people because of my fear of how I would be perceived. For example, I did not want to share that I was doing well in races, because I was not thrilled to be in the women's category. This last couple of years has been a big shift for me.

I'm enjoying the success that I've had this year and training really hard so that I can continue next year. It is really important to me to make Team USA again, so that it wasn't just one and done. I have a really great race season planned for next year.

Part of what's next is figuring out ways to use my platform to leverage change for other people. Whether that's my work with You Can Play, helping professional teams, colleges and high schools look at their policies, or conversations with athletes and administrators -- it will be leveraging this position so that we can see wider change. It's been a great year for me, but that doesn't make it a great year for all trans athletes. What I'd really like to do is make sport a safer place for other people.

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