The player who struggled to find home after his 2007 Women's College World Series home run
Lex Clay dug his cleats into the dirt and tightly gripped his bat. The orange of his Tennessee jersey shined under the light of the Oklahoma City sun. The score was 0-0 and the pitch was on the way. He ripped his bat through the plate, sending the ball into the outfield and over the fence.
He had imagined this moment since he was a kid watching softball games with his dad. But even as he hit 500 balls a day, set the high school home run record in Indiana and traveled the state and country with his dad/coach, there was no guarantee that Clay would make it to this stage. He didn't even know he'd be in the starting lineup for Game 1 of the 2007 Women's College World Series until batting practice earlier that day.
But some things are serendipitous. Taryne Mowatt was pitching for Arizona, and Clay had faced her before. They were 12, and Mowatt was pitching a no-hitter at nationals until Clay had his say. It's a funny thing to remember, but Clay doesn't forget much of anything that happened in his softball career.
While the 2007 Women's College World Series is remembered by fans for a number of things 10 years later -- Monica Abbott's dominance, Mowatt's resilience and Arizona's most recent entry into the winner's circle -- Clay's moment was more than a home run. It was personal.
As Clay approached home, he savored the moment and the roaring crowd. After this series, he was leaving Tennessee, and who knew if he'd ever make it back to Oklahoma City?
"[Sports] should be fun," Clay says. "It should be difficult in some sense as far as putting in work, but you shouldn't hate your life because of it. And I did."
Clay had told a couple of his teammates that he was transgender, but he mostly kept it to himself. He had two wardrobes that he jumped between, one for those who knew and one for everyone else. Most of his teammates read him as being gay.
"It was a tough year," former Tennessee outfielder Lillian Hammond says. "There was a lot going on that [Clay] didn't really want to talk about or disclose."
Clay was attracted to women and was assigned female at birth, but "female" and "woman" were words that never quite fit. He did not tell Tennessee coaches Karen and Ralph Weekly.
"I wanted to be open with my coaches," Clay says. "But I knew very quickly that was not going to happen."
The Volunteers, a senior-led team, circled up before every game to say the Lord's Prayer. Oftentimes there would be an additional prayer led by one of the Weeklys. Fellowship of Christian Athletes had a strong presence at the university. FCA does not ban LGBTQ members, but in order to enter leadership within the organization, anyone must comply with a sexual purity statement that explicitly includes "homosexual acts" as sinful in addition to sex outside of marriage.
"I cannot say for sure that [being LGBTQ] was not accepted, but it was very much said that it was a Christian team," says Nicole Kajitani, a middle infielder (2007-10) who grew up in Southern California. "To me, it is embedded in Southern culture, and as an outsider, I can see that. I had never been to a game where there is a prayer."
In 2007, the landscape for LGBTQ people broadly and trans people specifically was very different. It wasn't that there weren't trans people, but the cultural awareness present today didn't exist. Legislative measures targeting transgender people had not yet divided the country. National marriage equality wouldn't arrive for eight years. "Orange is the New Black" was not a thing. No one knew the names Laverne Cox, Janet Mock or Chris Mosier. For Clay, that meant latching on to language to describe himself as he found it. For a long time, that word was gay, which proved to be complicated in softball.
"There was this weird period where girls were wearing bows to say if they were straight or gay," Clay says. "If you were wearing a bow, you were straight, and if you didn't, you were gay. That was hard too, because it still pigeonholed me as female."
The bow phenomenon became such a big deal that teams would give out packets of special ribbons to be tied around ponytails for games. There were different bows for different uniforms, and they were embroidered with names and numbers.
"They wanted to show that they were feminine and straight to differentiate themselves from the 'lesbian softball player' stereotype," Clay says.
Trying to navigate that minefield, get an education and perform at a high level on the softball field took energy from Clay. He was already feeling a sense of burnout from his intense focus on softball as a child, and he realized that Tennessee was not a great fit. He wanted more of an academic challenge from a university and to be in a softball program that allowed him room to engage academically in the way that he wanted.
So Clay moved home to Indiana. The next time he wore a softball jersey, it would be for Notre Dame. It just took a lot longer than he anticipated. Tennessee and the Weeklys didn't grant him a release, so Clay had to sit out for a year.
I wasn't able to perform, especially because I was upset with who I was, and not being able to be male and play softball. That was eating away at me.Lex Clay
"It was against their policy to release players who wanted to transfer," Clay says. "They didn't give more of a reason than that, but it seemed to be a strategy to keep good players from leaving and/or to prevent them from being a threat on the field with another team."
The Weeklys declined to comment on Clay's career and transfer from the school.
"When Lex had to redshirt, that really hurt Lex for a year or two," says Clay's father, Kim Clay. "Having to sit the bench when you're dying to be playing is a tough thing to go through."
When Lex Clay arrived at Notre Dame, which offered the academic experience he was craving as well as a spot on the roster, Clay decided he needed to be open about his identity as a transgender man. Sitting down with each of his teammates and coaches over the course of his first semester, he shared this part of himself with them.
He found acknowledgement and acceptance from his teammates, even as he struggled.
"When I went to Notre Dame, my life -- and not just my career -- hit a rut," Clay says. "I wasn't able to perform, especially because I was upset with who I was, and not being able to be male and play softball. That was eating away at me."
Medically transitioning, even if Clay was ready to do that while in college, was impossible if he wanted to continue with softball. There is no men's fastpitch softball at the collegiate level. Men play baseball.
"It felt like there wasn't space for me," Clay says. "I didn't know how to navigate that because there weren't really any transgender athletes that I knew of."
Kye Allums was the first NCAA Division I transgender athlete to come out publicly in 2010. He played on the women's basketball team at George Washington. Clay had come out to his Notre Dame teammates two years before, but never made his identity known publicly.
"I didn't feel like it was a very safe space for me," Clay says. "Notre Dame is a private university, and I didn't know how they would handle a trans athlete. I was not a protected class, so I didn't feel it was safe for me to do that. I was also concerned about how my family would handle it."
The feeling of safety only within the softball or athletic bubble on campus was not unique to Clay. Former outfielder Sarah Marsh, who played softball at Notre Dame from 2004-08, echoed those sentiments as a gay woman on campus.
"The athletics community at Notre Dame [was] very diverse in terms of countries, religions, ethnicities, sexuality, gender, everything," Marsh says. "The other 90 percent of campus was not diverse, and I did not feel safe being who I was."
It was the support of his friends and teammates that carried Clay through. They treated him as the person he felt he was. In his senior year, Clay was given mostly men's issue gear. His ring from the 2009 Big East championship is a men's ring.
Clay's senior season was the best of his softball career. He earned first-team All-Big East honors in addition to being named All-Region by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association. He hit .375 with 13 doubles, seven home runs, 39 RBIs and a .625 slugging percentage.
After graduation, Clay migrated to Tampa to get a graduate degree in medical science. His bat and glove made the trip, although for what reason even Clay isn't sure. Maybe reflex, maybe nostalgia. He had no intention of playing softball, but a classmate roped him into playing a couple of slowpitch games.
"I found a little bit of joy in being able to throw again," Clay says. "I was a little surprised that I missed it, but I realized when I was on the field how much I missed the game."
Today, Clay lives in the Bronx with his partner, a high school girlfriend he reconnected with at their 10-year reunion last summer. He is figuring out his next steps, but he feels the pull back to home plate as he walks by a field near his apartment every morning. There is a team of young girls playing softball, and he can't help but want to be involved. "For me to be a trans person in sport, I think it's important for young people to see that even if they aren't trans," he says. "Too often, in sport, it's very homophobic and transphobic. Part of negating that ideology is having access to those people."
Even though softball inflicted some pain, Clay still loves the sport and wants to make a difference. He is hoping to return to Notre Dame some day to help cultivate understanding and inclusion. His transition put a strain on his relationship with his dad, but they can always talk about softball. And despite the tension they have felt at times, Kim wants what is best for his child.
"As a parent, I am in support of Lex's choices, whatever they are," Kim Clay says. "I just want my kids to be happy as they go through life."
Kim has a video of Lex's home run at Tennessee on his phone to go along with the DVDs of the Women's College World Series. Lex still thinks about that Oklahoma City home run on occasion. It's hard not to.
Kim used to say, "Wouldn't it be crazy if you hit a home run in the World Series?"
Reminded of that, Lex smiles. "It was nice."