Q&A: Stroke of Genius—A Chat With Brilliantly Woke Trans Athlete Schuyler Bailar

To celebrate APAHM and the launch of our new name Character Media, we’ll be sitting down with notable Asian American creatives working in entertainment for a series of Q&As during the month of May.

In pictures from his Harvard swim career, hapa athlete Schuyler Bailar wears an intimidating grimace beneath his goggles, powering through the water like he was born in it. Outside the pool though, Bailar often sports a cheerful grin, and T-shirts with slogans like “Trans* Is Beautiful” and “Not Cis.”

As the first openly transgender NCAA Division 1 athlete, Bailar has appeared on shows like “Ellen” and CBS’ “60 Minutes.” He also gave a TedxJHU talk in 2018, and is kicking off a public speaking tour this fall. Though many trans individuals prefer to avoid the spotlight, Bailar has embraced it, particularly on social media. His Instagram posts detail everything from his swimming stats to his past struggles with gender dysphoria, told with an honesty that makes him sound like anyone’s best friend.

Skyping from his Harvard dorm room, Bailar’s same warm tone shines, even through a faulty Internet connection.

“I love being in the water more than anything, so that’s what’s comfortable to me.” (Photo by Sydney Claire Photography)

How do you think your trans and hapa identities might intersect with one another?

I always have trouble with this question, because I’m not really sure how identities wouldn’t intersect if they’re in one person. My hapa identity prepared me a lot for coming out as trans in some ways. I’ve existed between things for most of my life, always, and very visibly so. As somebody who was never Korean enough to be Korean, or never white enough to be white, like I’m always the white kid with the Koreans and I’m always the Asian kid with the white people. I’ve experienced that in-betweenness and that’s demanded of me to be able to define myself in a way that jumps outside of the box.

In that sense, being hapa informed parts of my experience as a trans person, or at least gave me the tools to be able to confront being trans. At the same time, being half-Korean has sort of held me back in some ways, in that I was very nervous to come out to the Korean side of my family. It ended up being totally fine, but that could have also gone different ways.

A lot of Asian Americans can be conservative when it comes to LGBTQ topics, have you ever felt as though your trans identity might affect your place in the Asian American community? Before you came out, was that ever a fear of yours?

I don’t really think about being parts of communities a whole lot. When I was coming out, I wasn’t particularly concerned about whether or not the Asian American community as a whole was going to accept me, I was way more concerned with specific individuals in my life. That’s why I have trouble quantifying exactly how much my Asian American identity affected my coming out, because it was more that I was afraid to tell my Korean grandmother, but I didn’t associate that so much with her Korean-ness as much as I did with her personality.

I’m also very much an individual, and not super concerned with what everybody thinks of me. That’s just been a consistent ‘me’ characteristic, and parts of things that my parents have taught me, but that’s also caused me to not care as much about whether or not I fit into a community at all. Even now, as part of the trans community or LGBTQ community, there’s a lot of ways in which I don’t fit into that either, and I’ve gotten plenty of pushback from people in the queer community who say, “Well, you’re not queer enough,” or something, and I just can’t bring myself to care. I’m just doing me, and if somebody has something to say about that, there’s a lot of me that’s just like, “Great, you have your standards for whatever community you’re fabricating over there, I’m going to do my thing.”

Could you tell me a little bit about your Korean tattoo and the significance behind it?

I came out to my Korean grandmother about a month after I came out to everybody else, the reason being that I was really, really afraid she was going to disown me and my mom. I actually came out on Facebook. I blocked her beforehand—why she has a Facebook, who knows—and then I told everybody who’s friends with her to hold off on telling her and to let me do it. I wrote her a letter, and I read it to her and my grandfather in May of 2015. I basically had to explain what it meant to be trans, and I went through evidence as to why I was trans, and I was like, “Listen, I’m just telling you this because I love you and I really want you in my life, so I hope you can understand.”

I finished reading it, and my grandfather started clapping. I was like, “What is going on,” and he said, “So, you’re coming out of the closet!” And I was like, “I just spent so long trying to figure out the vocabulary to explain this to you, but you guys already know it?”

My grandmother turned to me and she said, “Well, I knew that.” She started going on, “Listen, you can be a boy, a brother and a husband and all those kinds of things, but in Korean culture, daughters take care of their parents. And your mother has no daughters. So, it’s still your responsibility to take care of your parents.”

And I was like, “Listen, man, I got you. If that is the only caveat, totally fine, I was planning on doing that anyways.”

So, those words, 부모효도, meaning “Take care of your parents” in Korean, are tattooed in my grandmother’s handwriting. She wrote the tattoo for me, designed it and everything. I have it tattooed underneath my [top surgery] scar, next to where my heart physically is, on my left side. That means a lot to me, it’s a consistent reminder that people can surprise you, and also I’m remembering where I come from and who I come from.

“The thing that really changed my life was public speaking, which came as a result of “Ellen” and “60 Minutes,” because it made my image more public and credible.”(Photo courtesy of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”)

That’s a really sweet story. So, you appeared on “Ellen” in April 2016. How do you think that affected your life?

People knew who I was, to some degree. I got people asking me, “Are you that kid on ‘Ellen?’” But I don’t know how much it radically changed my life, “60 Minuteswas a far bigger impact than “Ellen” was, because I think more people see “60 Minutes” than “Ellen.” “Ellen” also was a 6-minute segment, one of those novelties where people are like, “Oh, cool,” and then move on. Whereas “60 Minutes” was a 16 or 18-minute segment that hit a lot of older crowds, who are more likely to push back, and so there was more response to that, there was also more hate in response to that. So, that was one of the things that really increased my following, where people started wanting me to come and talk. “Ellen” also did a little of that, but neither of them were like a switch that was flipped. A lot of things were just gradual.

The thing that really changed my life was public speaking, which came as a result of “Ellen” and “60 Minutes,” because it made my image more public and credible. But it was all those things together.

I know you said you do your own thing and don’t really care about what people think, but did you ever feel intimidated after receiving negative responses? Did you ever feel afraid to continue being so public with your image?

No, I never stopped wanting to be public because of negativity. In fact, when people are negative, I have a desire to share more of my experience, because people don’t see it in a good light. There are some people that are just a–holes, but some people who don’t see things in a proper light are usually ignorant and uneducated. It motivates me to do better education, to do better work and more comprehensively share my experience.

That’s the case when somebody pisses me off on my Instagram, I think, “How can I better communicate what I’m trying to say?” That’s an important growth for me, but also important for communication, period. When you’re misunderstood, the best response to that is trying to be better understood, not trying to get super angry and retreat. There are times where I feel I need to retreat, but that’s more for self-care.

The most negative responses were after “60 Minutes,” some people were saying things like, “Why would you give up being this beautiful woman? What a monster you are now.” Mostly negative things about my appearance. So that was hard, because I did struggle with an eating disorder for a while and I was [hyper] body-aware. But at the time the episode was released, I knew, “I am so much happier now. It’s absolutely ridiculous for people to be harping on my body, plus I’m literally going through puberty right now, so of course I don’t look great.” Now in terms of body, I’m more stable because I’ve been on testosterone for four years, my body has leveled out. If people have negative opinions about my body, it’s their problem and not mine.

“Every part of my body was being critiqued by everybody: ‘What surgeries are you going to get? What facial hair are you growing? What’s happening to your parts?'” (Photo by Melissa Ulsaker Maas)

You’re a really big proponent of body positivity on social media. Can you tell me a little about how you reached that point throughout your transition?

I never thought about body positivity before I transitioned, especially in the pool. People always asked me, especially when I was in treatment for my eating disorder, “How could you be in a swimsuit all the time?” And I used to tell them, being in a swimsuit was always the most comfortable place for me. It was wearing clothes that made me feel uncomfortable. Part of it is because I grew up swimming, I just was never not in the pool, and I love being in the water more than anything, so that’s what’s comfortable to me.

As I transitioned, my body was not only on display as a swimmer, but also as a trans person. Every part of my body was being critiqued by everybody: “What surgeries are you going to get? What facial hair are you growing? What’s happening to your parts?” Everyone was asking me questions about every part of my body during that time. So there was a body consciousness or awareness that was heightened during that time, and I’d spent five months in treatment for an eating disorder that prepared me excellently for this experience. I’m not sure how well I would be able to take it had I not had that experience.

I reminded myself that my body is mine, nobody else’s, and anybody else’s worries about my body are theirs. I started trusting that my body will change as I work out, as I take testosterone, as I eat this or don’t eat that. Trusting that bodies can be both chaotic and stable is really important. That’s something I worked through a lot in my freshman year, because I was so bent on not being miserable. I was like, “I’m not going to sit here and hate my body because somebody else does. I’ve worked so hard to be myself and to be on this men’s team and to be open about myself. I refuse to hate my body because somebody else does.”

So, that wasn’t about body positivity, it was just about wanting to not be miserable. It ended up becoming body positivity because I started talking about it. I wasn’t setting out on this “We have to love our bodies” thing, it was more like, “I’m going to love my body. What you do with yours is your right, but here’s what I’m going to do with mine.”

Of course! Who or what inspires you to have that sort of mindset?

My parents are my biggest role models in my life. They’re just incredibly ambitious, smart, organized, kind people. I’ve always wanted to be just like them growing up. One of my favorite characteristics about my dad is that he’s incredibly curious, and he always tries to learn about everything. So, I try to be as curious as I can. That’s actually a psychotherapy thing as well, to try to be curious about how you feel before you judge how you feel, so that’s something I try to think about a lot.

In terms of people in sports, or other trans people, I’ve never been the kind of person to look up to famous people, just because they don’t feel as immediate and I just never saw myself anywhere. I never saw myself in sports. I never saw myself in the media. There weren’t a whole lot of half Asian, hapa people that I saw anywhere. That made me pull back a lot, because I thought, “I don’t look like any of these people, they’re all different from me.” That’s something that pulled me back from identifying with anybody, and therefore not idolizing anybody.

What I like to add is that it’s really important with minorities and marginalized peoples, because we have so little representation in the media, to remember that there’s no one way to be trans, there’s no one way to be hapa, there’s no one way to be a person. Especially for young trans people, there are so many different ways to be yourself. When people get caught up in only replicating the role models they see online, that can be really harmful, because then they’re not being themselves.

Schuyler Bailar addressing students at Steamboat Springs High School during an assembly to kick off Diversity Week at the school. (Photo by John Russell)

What do you think is next for you after graduation?

I’ve had a plan since last July. I’m moving to Seattle, I have a job teaching emotional intelligence skills to the employees at a financial services company. I’m really excited about that, I’m not sure if that’s what I’m going to do long-term—it might be, who knows. I’m really passionate about social and emotional learning programs, specifically in kids. But I’ll probably come back and get a master’s in education, or a PhD in psych and education joined.

I’m still going to be doing my speaking and advocacy, I accepted this job on the contingency that I could continue speaking. I have a school speaking tour in the fall before I start work, trying to hit schools that don’t have the resources or wouldn’t normally bring in an LGBTQ speaker. I’m trying to get to the places that need this kind of awareness.

And do you have any plans for swimming?

Not really. I’m probably going to go to practice this afternoon for fun, but swimming is going to be for fun from now on, until I decide if I want to train or compete again. But for a while I’m going to take a good break, because I’ve been swimming for 18 years, and it’s time to do something else.

To learn more about Bailar or to get more information about his tour, check out his website here.