Late Saturday afternoon at Williams Arena, George Washington guard Kye Allums was bursting with all the happy anticipation of a new basketball season. He laughed with his teammates during warmups, delivered joyous shoulder-bumps when he was introduced as a starter and hollered encouragement when he wasn't on the floor.
In that sense, nothing had changed for the former Centennial High School star. That is exactly as he hoped it would be after he made the most significant decision of his life: telling family, friends, his team and the world that he is transgender. Allums, 21, gained instant fame earlier this month when he publicly announced that he identifies as male despite being born a woman, becoming the first Division I basketball player to make such a disclosure.
The small group of fans at the Best Buy Classic gave Allums a round of applause before the Colonials' 75-51 loss to Green Bay. That mirrored the support he has received from his team and his school, plus friends and strangers from all over the planet.
Though an ESPN crew and a Washington Post reporter came to cover Allums' season debut, George Washington officials did not allow him to speak to the media. He didn't play as well as he might have hoped to in his home state, finishing with no points, one rebound and one assist in 15 minutes on the floor. But by having the courage to be himself, in a world where being different often means being dismissed, he's already given something meaningful to his sport.
"At some point in their careers, coaches and athletic directors [may] work with a transgender student-athlete,'' said Helen Carroll, director of sports projects for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "Kye puts a face and a personality to what we're talking about. With all the vast media coverage, which has been happening in such a positive way, it gives them a way to read about this and see it can be done in a very good way --for not only the student but for the team and the coach and the whole athletic department.''
Formerly named Kay-Kay, Allums, of Hugo, was a three-time honorable mention all-state and a Miss Basketball candidate in 2008 during a career that began at St. Paul Highland Park and ended at Centennial. At George Washington, he started 20 of 26 games last season and averaged 7.4 points and 4.6 rebounds.
He had long kept his true gender identity secret, but that burden finally became too great to bear. After telling his family, his teammates and his coaches, Allums decided to go public.
"It got too tough to not be me,'' he said at a news conference. "I wanted to set an example for other people who are afraid to be themselves.
"I didn't choose to be born in this body and feel the way I do. I decided to transition, that is change my name and pronouns, because it bothered me to hide who I am. I am trying to help myself and others be who they are.''
Coaches, athletic officials and administrators at George Washington issued statements supporting Allums' right to make his identity public. They also consulted the NCAA, which said Allums is eligible to play women's basketball as long as he does not begin hormone treatments or have surgery. Allums, a junior, has said he will not undergo either until he has completed his college eligibility.
Allums' forthrightness will help bring attention to an issue that is likely to crop up more often. Studies show that more people are identifying as transgender at younger ages, and sports can give them what it provides to everyone else: physical fitness, a sense of belonging, lessons in teamwork and responsibility.
Few schools, though, have discussed how to accommodate transgender athletes -- let alone made any policy. To that end, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Women's Sports Foundation brought together experts in sports, medicine and law for a summit last year. They produced "On The Team: Equal Opportunity for Transgender Student-Athletes,'' which includes educational information and model policies to help high school and college teams fully integrate transgender athletes in a way that is positive for everyone.
When Allums told his teammates and coaches about his gender identity, the athletic department and school administration used "On The Team'' as a resource. Last month, Carroll took 200 copies to a convention of college athletic directors, and they were snapped up instantly.
With Allums putting a face on the issue, Carroll hopes the conversation will continue to grow. "Coaches and athletic personnel want to do the best thing for student-athletes,'' she said. "But in a situation they haven't experienced, they're silent because they don't know what to do.
"Kye really gave it a lot of thought and worked through how he wanted this to happen for himself and for his team, and George Washington is providing an exemplary example of how to support and respect a transgender player. It's been incredibly positive.''
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org