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Transgender runner details the hurdles of changing hormones and negative stereotyping

Editor's note: Joanna Harper has always been a runner, but she hasn't always been a woman. Her decision to transition beginning in 2004 posed numerous challenges to her ability to continue running on a competitive level. She recently decided to share her story with her readers at WomenRunningTogether.com with the hopes of affecting change, and has now agreed to share it with readers of San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

My early life was pretty much like any other girl’s childhood. I played a lot with my sister, and dreamt of the day when I’d become a grown woman. Yes, my life was pretty ordinary … except for the fact that everyone else seemed to think I was a boy!

My innate sense of gender, or gender identity, did not match my biological sex. I belong to a small but not insignificant slice of the population that does not fit into the standard notion of gender. There are worse fates in life than being transgender. I actually had a lot of things going for me in life.

I was good in school and my math skills were exceptional. While I didn’t like rough and tumble games, I did very well in most non contact sports. I was good looking even though I didn’t come across as very masculine.

I was both valedictorian and athlete of the year in high school. I earned two degrees in physics from one of the top universities in Canada. While I was there, I became a terrific runner. I claimed all Canadian honours in cross country and ran a 2:23 marathon.

After college, I embarked on a successful career in medical physics and continued to run at a high level. I married two very attractive women (not at the same time), bought a big beautiful house in the suburbs and lived what many people thought was a wonderful life.

However, I never got the thing I wanted most. I never did grow up to be a woman. Puberty was the worst part of my life. Instead of becoming more feminine, my body betrayed my wishes and somehow I grew into a man. I hated having a masculine body with a passion, but I learned to hide it well.

In the end I found that my need to be feminine outweighed all other considerations. In February 2004 I finally took matters into my own hand. If nature wasn’t going to turn me into a woman, I’d have to do it myself. I started to see a therapist who specialized in dealing with gender variant people.

One of the first things she asked me to do was make a list of all the things I stood to lose if I went ahead with my plans to change gender. Competitive running was close to the top of the list. Back then transgender women couldn’t compete against other women and I sure as heck wasn’t willing to run as male.  There were many other drawbacks with changing gender but nothing was going to stop me.

I started on hormone therapy the day after the Hood to Coast relay in 2004. I continued to live part time as male until January 1st, 2005. I also continued to race. As a scientist I was interested in tracking my running results. I knew that I’d get slower but I thought it would be a gradual process. It was anything but slow.

Within three weeks, I was markedly slower. It was funny because I didn’t feel different when I ran. I just couldn’t go as fast. I ran my last race in male mode around thanksgiving that fall. I finished shortly after local runner Kelly Kruell. Six years later I still finish right behind her. In three months I lost more speed than I ever imagined I would.

I was now hormonally female with two running related consequences. Hematocrit levels are markedly lower in women than in men, and the lower levels seriously inhibit endurance racing. I also lost a lot of muscle mass and strength. As a result of these changes, I ran like a girl. But would I ever get the chance to race against other women?

In February 2005, USATF amended their rules to let transgender women compete against other women two years after surgery. A year prior I would have been ecstatic with this decision.  However, my surgery wouldn’t occur for several more months, giving me almost three years before I could compete as female with USATF blessing. I didn’t want to wait that long before racing again.

I wrote Jill Pilgrim, who was a lawyer with the organization. We worked out a compromise where I could run in mixed gender races as long as I didn’t declare a gender and didn’t accept any awards. I could easily live with the arrangement. For most of 2005 I raced sparingly, either at races where I knew the race director, or out of town where no one knew me.

In the spring of 2005 I read a magazine article about another transgender woman runner. This was an important milestone for me. I wasn’t alone. I made contact with her as did several other transgender runners. Soon we had formed an online group to provide support and encouragement for each other.

In the fall of 2005 I decided to run in a local cross country series. I told race director Sean Costner about my deal with USATF. He replied that his races weren’t USATF sanctioned and thus he didn’t need to follow their rules. He wanted me to run in the women’s category. After some agonizing on my part I agreed.  That fall was the first time I lined up in a women’s only race and I’m grateful that Sean gave me that opportunity.

I carefully tracked my races in 2005. I was almost a minute per mile slower than I had been previously.  For instance I ran a hilly half marathon in 1:23:11 as 46 year old male and in 1:34:01 as a 48 year old female.  My age graded performances stayed almost constant from those of my male years. I thought my slower times would ensure that I’d be accepted by other women runners. I was wrong.

It has been much more complicated that that. Some women have concluded that I’m just another fast female runner. Some will never want to have anything to do with me again. By and large those women who are faster than me don’t have a problem with me racing. Those women who finish just behind me usually do. I have learned to live with it.

I had surgery after finishing up with my fall 2005 races. It took months to recover from the surgery, but that period did provide me with a wonderful setup. Whenever people would ask how I was recovering, I would respond with “pretty well, I’m back at work and I’m doing a little running now. Oh yeah and my IQ is up 10 points too.”

Once I got back into racing, I found that my 2006 times were virtually identical to my 2005 ones. That strengthened my hypothesis that anatomy didn’t make a difference to performance. It was all about the hormone levels.  At this time I started running local races in the female category with the blessing of the race directors.

In the fall of 2007, USATF accepted me as a female member. I ran the club national cross country race in Ohio and I was thrilled to place 1st in the women’s 50-54 category. It was almost as much of a kick that Michele Montgomery and Mo Bartley, who were 2nd and 3rd, invited me to join them for dinner after the race.

Since then I have run in several more high level master’s races with varying degrees of success. I have had the opportunity to become the director of a prominent race for master’s women. And I’m now a blogger of some renown too. I love it when people recognize me from my writing and it happens more than I ever would have guessed.

It has been important to me to let my new friends know that I am transgender. But this is the first time that I put that information into one of my blogs. One of the main reasons that I am open about my past is that I am trying to dispel the generally negative stereotypes that are associated with people who don’t fit into the gender binary.  I hope that I can succeed.

Joanna Harper is a board certified physicist, an avid runner, a masters athlete, race organizer and blogger. You can find her tackling various topics regarding gender variant athletes in her blog at womenrunningtogether.com. WomenRunningTogether is all about celebrating women’s running. It is a place where you can tell your running story or a story about a woman runner you know.