TIME Culture

Meet The First Openly Transgender NCAA Division I Athlete

NY Premiere of MTV and Logo TV's "Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word"
Kye Allums attends the premiere screening of the MTV and Logo TV documentary "Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word" at the Paramount Screening Room on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014, in New York. Scott Roth/Invision/AP

As school authorities and sports associations develop new policies for transgender athletes, TIME talks to an early barrier-breaker

Correction appended Oct. 28, 3 p.m. ET

Advocates for transgender rights are waging their battle on many fields, including athletic ones. Authorities that oversee school sports are adopting new policies that outline who can play on which team and under which circumstances. In October, for instance, the Arizona Interscholastic Association for the first time gave a transgender student the go-ahead to play on whichever team, male or female, that aligned with their gender identity.

To protect that child’s privacy, no details about the student’s gender or the sport were released, but older athletes—playing in college sports or for a spot in the Olympics—have put themselves in the spotlight to make a statement about how their gender identity and love of sports matters more than what’s under their jersey. And among the best known of these barrier-breakers is Kye Allums, the first openly transgender NCAA athlete to play Division I sports.

Now a 25-year-old activist, Allums came out when he was playing on the women’s basketball team at George Washington University in 2010. Today, he travels the country letting students ask questions about what it means to be transgender and is one of the stars in Laverne Cox’s new documentary The T Word, an exploration of what it’s like to be a young transgender person.

TIME interviewed Kye about putting himself out there, how much hormones really matter and what advice he has for other athletes who might be mulling the same decision.

How did you decide you were ready to tell people you were transgender?

I needed to be comfortable. Playing on a sports team, you become very close. These girls were like my sisters and having them refer to me using female pronouns every single second of the day and not knowing how that made me feel, I couldn’t keep playing like that.

How did their use of female pronouns affect you?

Hearing female pronouns would make me dysphoric. It’s like being sick. It’s like having the flu. It’s like you want to rip the skin off of your body. It’s the most uncomfortable, unbearable feeling in the world. I could not focus on basketball feeling like that. All I wanted to do was escape my body and run away. … To bring that focus back to basketball, I needed to hear male pronouns.

Did you encounter any negative reactions when you came out?

Yes. Some people would tell me that I was not a guy, or that I was confused. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I know who I am.

Kye Allums (50) of the George Washington Colonials battles Shenise Johnson (42) of the Miami Hurricanes for position during the NCAA basketball game between GWU and the Hurricanes in 2010. JC Ridley—AP

What about teams you played basketball against?

At other schools, we were anticipating a lot of negativity, but the schools were actually very supportive. Some would reach out and offer a gender neutral space for me to change. With the players, it was all business. The fans were different. Whenever I walked onto the court, people would just stare at me. They would stare at me and point, as if they were expecting me to be a 10-foot monster.

The main point of angst when it comes to transgender athletes is often this notion of the unfair advantage a transgender woman might have, as if a 10-foot player might suddenly be on the girls’ team.

People talk about that as if men are super-human, as if just because you were born with a penis, that means that you can defeat every single female. And that’s not true. This world values men. We value men. We value male bodies. We don’t value women … People need to stop placing limits on how strong people can or should be, and what their bodies should look like.

There is a strong connection between testosterone and generally being bigger, having more strength. How do you view that?

I’ve been taking testosterone for three and a half years. I am a little bit bigger. But just because I now have more body mass is not going to give me an advantage that I couldn’t get without practicing or without training.

Do you have advice for young athletes out there who might be considering coming out?

Make sure you have a positive support system around you. Come out only if you’re ready, and just because you come out does not mean that you have to come out to your entire team. You should be able to go to an athletic director or a coach … Also there is no right or wrong way to be trans.

In general, how do you feel about athletic policies dictating which teams transgender people play for?

You’re asking somebody who is all about the best athletes competing against the best athletes, regardless of gender. If you want to identify as being a gladiator, as queer, as gender nonconforming, I really don’t care. Are you going to make this basket when it counts? Sports is about winning. It’s about competing. It’s about respect. And it’s about how you play the game. It’s not about the body you’re born into.

What do you hope the audience will get out of watching The T Word?

I hope the audience will begin to see that trans people are human beings, who deserve to be treated with respect, just like anyone else.

Do you think America’s attitude toward trans people is changing?

Everyone’s attitude towards trans people is not going to change overnight, and for some they may never change, but I think as long as us trans folks continue to be our true selves, and fight for what we believe in, change will continue to happen whether people are ready for it or not.

Correction: The original version of this story stated that Allums was the first openly transgender NCAA athlete. He is the first openly transgender NCAA Division I athlete.

TIME Profiles

How Europe’s First Female Poker Champ Made History and Learned to Compete With the Guys

European Poker Tour Launch
Victoria Coren Mitchell attends the launch of The PokerStars LIVE Lounge at The Hippodrome Casino London on March 4, 2013 in London, England Ben Pruchnie--2013 Getty Images

Victoria Coren Mitchell has made history at the European Poker Tour for the second time. She talks to TIME about the game, poker as a career and being the last woman at the table

British journalist and professional poker player Victoria Coren Mitchell made poker history for the second time in her career on Sunday, when she won the European Poker Tour and became the first person ever to win the tournament twice. The first time she broke records was with her win in 2006 when she became the first woman to take the title.

Though she might not be a household name in the U.S. — yet! — Coren Mitchell is a prolific writer, penning columns in the Observer and books such as 2011’s For Richer, For Poorer: Confessions of a Player. She’s also a part of British media royalty: her father, Alan Coren, was a legendary journalist, she’s married to comedian and U.K. television star David Mitchell and her brother, Giles Coren, is a writer for the London Times. With her latest poker victory, she’s also one of the all-time top 10 female earners in the game.

Coren Mitchell spoke to TIME about her win, learning the game and why you shouldn’t play poker with your spouse.

TIME: Victoria, hello. Congrats on your second win of the European Poker Tour!

Victoria Coren Mitchell: Oh, thank you very much.

When you won back in 2006, you became the first woman to take the title. Now you’re the first person – man or woman – to win it twice. How does it feel?

It feels incredible. I can’t really believe it. Obviously, when [I won] the first time and I was the first woman to do so, that was great too. It was a different sort of barrier to break. [This time] there were 97 EPT champions – only three of them women—all fighting to be the first one to win twice. I don’t think anyone thought it would be me who would get there – including me.

At one point during the tournament, you were in eighth place. When did you know you were going to win it?

When I knocked out the player who came third, Jordan, the American guy, I had a wave of thinking, my God, I’m going to win. We’d been playing for six days – it’s a long tournament – and at no point did I think I was going to win it. I had the lowest chips when there were 16 of us and I had the lowest chips when there were eight of us. To find myself with just one opponent when I had most of the chips, the writer in me thought, what kind of story would this be if I didn’t win it now?

I’m generally a pessimist and I try to be self-deprecating because that’s the British way, but when there were two of us, [I knew] that I was playing really well. Also, what they call Heads Up poker — where there are just two people at the table — I’m quite good at. When the play started I felt in control and I did think, I can outplay this guy. So when I won I was actually quite calm. I thought, yes, that’s what was supposed to happen. It was only the next morning when I woke up that I thought, what on Earth happened there?

In addition to being a champion poker player, you’re a busy journalist with columns in the Observer and British GQ and regular appearances on the BBC. What do you consider your primary job?

I really don’t know anymore. I don’t if I’m a writer who plays poker or a poker player who writes. I don’t know whether TV fits in at all.

I do feel incredibly lucky to be making a living at things I love doing. I never wanted poker to be a job. That’s partly because I love it and it’s fun and I didn’t want it to stop being fun and partly because, I suppose, something in me doesn’t feel right about calling poker a job. It’s not grown-up enough. But it’s a hobby that takes up an enormous amount of my time.

So when you fill out, say, customs forms when traveling you can just put “luckiest person alive” under occupation.

[Laughs] The problem with that is I’m really frightened of flying, so if I put “luckiest person alive” on a form before getting on a plane something terrible would happen.

You are a pessimist.

[Laughs] I really am!

Speaking of professions, you come from a very prominent family in British media – how did playing poker even come about?

Back in the old days, my brother [Giles Coren, writer for the London Times], who is three years older than me, would play poker with his friends in the kitchen and I just wanted to meet boys. I was at an all-girls school and I thought if I learned how to play this game, I’d get to spend time with boys and figure out what they’re like. Then I found that I was absolutely gripped by the game.

It happens or it doesn’t with poker. My husband [David Mitchell, the British comedian and star of Peep Show and The Mitchell and Webb Look] tried playing poker and he just found it really stressful. He didn’t enjoy it. People do or they don’t and I really did. I sat down to play cards with my brother when I was about probably 14 and I never really got up from the table.

So if your husband finds poker so stressful, I guess that means he never plays with you?

I don’t think that would be good for a marriage to play poker against each other. I mean, some people would say marriage is one long poker game against each other but I would say in the Mitchell sense, it wouldn’t be a good idea.

One final question: what’s your number one poker tip for beginners?

My number one tip is never play for an amount of money you can’t comfortably afford. That’s not just a moral thing — obviously people shouldn’t do anything they can’t afford and that doesn’t matter if it’s buying a car or a pair of shoes or getting into a poker game. But also, from a practical point of view, in poker you can’t win if you’re frightened. So you’ve got to play for an amount of money you can lose without it damaging you, because otherwise you’ll play scared and it’ll come to no good.

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