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Spotlight: trans, gender non-conforming, intersex athletes
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Disclaimer: Pronouns are used in the article in accordance with subject's request to reflect pronouns/gender used at the time.]

Joe Simonis was a standout, honored, multi-sport athlete at Mundelein High School.

Let's start with football, where Simonis spent two years on the Mustangs' varsity team, playing offensive guard and tight end. As a wrestler, Simonis was a three-year varsity athlete in four different weight classes. He even was a conference champion, sectional-qualifying wrestler who was recruited to continue on the mat at the Division III level. Simonis also was a member of the Mundelein track and field team for a year, competing in the shotput.

In addition, while growing up in the northwest suburbs, Simonis played baseball, mostly catcher and first base, and wore the Mustangs' baseball jersey as a freshman and sophomore.

"I wasn't really very out as … anything [in terms of sexual orientation or gender identity], until after [playing high school] sports," Simonis said. "At that point, [being labeled] gay probably was the closest thing, but I didn't do a lot of specific identity usage."

Others perceived Simonis to be gay at the time, and she admits now to being bullied as an athlete, particularly on the football and wrestling teams.

That's part of the reason Simonis stepped away from sports when he went to college.

"I liked [sports], but I was not feeling super safe and comfortable," Simonis said.

Simonis graduated from Mundelein in 2002 and then the University of Illinois in 2006 and Cornell University in 2013.

And Simonis wanted back into sports a couple years ago while living in Ithaca, N.Y.

Enter roller derby, the seemingly perfect, queer-friendly sport for Simonis, a transgender and genderqueer woman.

"With derby, it allowed me to be both queer and an athlete in the same space—and not be queer in queer spaces and never talk about sports and be in the closet about my queerness in athletic spaces," Simonis said.

She moved to Chicago last January, and now calls the Uptown neighborhood home. She is 29 and a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Simonis is a skater for the Windy City Rollers and the Chicago Red Hots.

"It's really empowering to be queer and an athlete," Simonis said. "Even though derby is really queer-friendly, I didn't really know a lot of other trans athletes. Sure, I knew other transgender people, but most of them were not athletes."

So Simonis stepped forward to aid and align those who fall under the small trans-athlete banner. Simonis is the founder of the Trans, Gender Non-Conforming and Intersex Athlete Network—driven to build community, empower advocacy, and promote sports.

The group, which currently has about 60 members from around the world, brings trans, gender non-conforming, and intersex ( TGI ) athletes together to facilitate interactions, support each other, find opportunities and resources, and build partnerships while also working across divisions to promote the inclusion of all people into athletics. In addition, the group's Facebook page and website state: "The group is not driven by specific agendas or topics, but rather exists to facilitate interactions and build community. We hope that these interactions will empower advocacy, activism, and positive change."

"There are a lot of difficulties that trans people have to deal with in day to day life and athletics bring out lots of them," Simonis said. "For example, navigating gender-segregated bathrooms and locker rooms, having people use appropriate names and pronouns, and generally being accepted as how you identify. For me, it's nice to know other people who I can talk to who might have had to deal with similar experiences. It's great to have a real supportive team, league, but that only goes so far. Sympathy only goes so far; empathy needs to be there at some point.

"The big goal of the organization is to provide space for people to come together, and not completely have an agenda, but let it be this space, build community and foster advocacy and activism."

Simonis also is hoping the network provides a positive image of TGI athletes, and she said the network is now creating original content, such as profiles of out TGI athletes.

Simonis said she knows of at least 100 other "moderately competitive" athletes who are transgender, gender non-conforming or intersex. "These are people at various levels of athletics, from international Olympic-level to small-time recreational leagues," Simonis said. "One of the things about me was, never seeing anyone like me, or anyone like who I thought I was, in any kind of cultural narrative, at all."

Simonis added: "It's weird when the gender that you don't really feel that you belong to provides you to access to things that you want, [such as sports, in Simonis' case], yet the gender that you feel you belong in more closely would cut you off from access to that. That's the mindset I was in [playing sports in high school], trying to reconcile all of this stuff, and that's difficult." "The goal with this work is to hopefully make it less difficult for the next generation of TGI athletes."

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