Earlier Friday, ESPNW broke the news that Harrison Browne of the Buffalo Beauts will be the first transgender athlete in North American professional team sports. The NWHL opens their second season tonight with the Harrison taking the ice for the first time as his true self.
His journey began a few weeks ago when he asked NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan for permission to change his name from Hailey to Harrison and all pronouns associated from ‘she’ to ‘he.’ The league was happy to oblige. The next step was to go public.
We had the chance to chat with Harrison shortly after the announcement. His openness, hope and courage is something we can all learn from.
PUCK DADDY: When did this start circulating through your mind? And when did you finally say, and what made you say, ‘Ok, I’m going to ask [NWHL commissioner] Dani Rylan if I can do this because it feels right to me?’
HARRISON BROWNE: There was always a nagging feeling whenever I’d be addressed as my previous name ‘Hailey.’ Also when I’d read articles on the game play [that] say, ‘Oh, she had a great game. She scored this many points.’ It didn’t sit well.
In my private life I’ve been known as ‘he’ and ‘Harrison.’ It just came to a point where I was kind of like, well, I have this…status, and I was thinking I was kind of living a little bit of a lie; I have a mask on to the public. I just thought it was time to align those two.
I saw an article on Chris Mosier in [ESPN] the Body Issue and he said that he was trans. He had a medical transition, but he’s saying that you can play the sport you love and still be authentic to who you are. I saw that this summer and it really set the wheels in motion for me to try to align my life, without the physical transition, and that’s why I decided to contact Dani to just do the minor thing like change my name and change my pronouns because that’s all I can do right now. That’s why I decided.
Q. Why are you waiting until after your career ends to make the medical transition?
BROWNE: Because I wouldn’t be able to play. It’s a performance enhancer, testosterone. I played in college and NCAA rules were that I couldn’t have any [added] testosterone in my body. I just assumed the NWHL would have the same kind of thing.
It’s always been that after I finish hockey then I’ll begin my physical transition.
Q. Is it difficult for you to know you have to wait to make the full transition just because you know you love playing a sport so much?
BROWNE: Yeah, it is hard. It’s obviously not hard when I’m at the rink because I’m just ‘Brownie’ and nothing else really matters, like gender. You don’t really think of societal views.
It’s mostly when I’m outside of the rink and I’m in public and I’m being referred to as ‘she’ by a waitress. I have to go into a different bathroom. That kind of stuff is hard, but it’s manageable.
I’ve been doing it my whole life, so why not delay it a little longer. If I can play professional sports, I want to do it as long as I can.
Q. When did your teammates learn you were going to change your pronoun and start going by Harrison?
BROWNE: I’ve been doing this since my second year of university. My teammates have known for a very long time. When I made the shift from the University of Maine to the Buffalo Beauts, I had played with and against most of the players. So, they either knew firsthand or they knew from another person that I was transgender and I did go by ‘he.’
When I decided to make the change, it was mostly for PR purposes and just to hear my name called right when I get called on the ice.
Q. Can you imagine what that moment is going to be like when you score a goal and the announcer says, “Goal scored by Harrison Browne”? Can you imagine that feeling?
BROWNE: It’s going to be a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I’m going to be taking that mask off and everyone is going to see me for my authentic self. I can’t wait for that. Not only for me, but also for anybody that’s going through this as well. To see someone overcome any obstacles that they might be overcoming and they can realize that they can do it, too.
Q. How does it feel to be a role model in that sense?
BROWNE: It’s great. I received a letter last year from a fan that actually wrote the NWHL … but they addressed it to me. They gave me the letter after I finished my game in New York City. It said, ‘I just want to thank you for being who you are.’
They didn’t mention anything about being transgendered because they obviously didn’t know, but they just mentioned that they were inspired by the fact that I cut my hair short, and that I had the confidence to just go out there and not care about what other people thought.
I just thought that was great. I felt very humbled somebody took the time to write me a letter, but I also thought I am doing a lot more than just cutting my hair. I think it will help a lot more people if I do come out publicly.
Q. Who would you consider your biggest support system through all of this?
BROWNE: My teammates, absolutely. Every team that I’ve had, Maine and the Buffalo Beauts, they’ve been so amazing. My friends outside of the sport, as well. I don’t have too many friends outside of hockey … Basically, my support system of my girlfriend and my teammates.
Q. What made you decide to do it this year instead of last year?
BROWNE: Well, I guess I was going into a new league; I was making the jump from college to professional and I didn’t really want to make any waves. I don’t think I was ready to. Now that I have a year under my belt of playing in the league, I know the players, I know the coaches, I know the commissioner, and I just kind of had a feel for it and I knew this would be the year.
Q. What are your hopes going forward for other athletes experiencing the same thing? Do you hope you’ve given them a safety net?
BROWNE: Yeah, absolutely. If I can break down any walls that would make it easier for someone down the road to do this then absolutely.
I’m very happy to be the kind of pioneer to take maybe some brunt, if I get any of that. I’m excited. I’m excited to maybe give someone the courage to come out, even if small, to their families, a best friend or even a larger scale. I’m happy to help out any way I can.
Q. To look at the flip side of it, are you scared of backlash?
BROWNE: I’ve actually gone through quite…’easy’ is not a good word for it that, but I’ve had a good time with it. My support system has been great. I haven’t received anything [negative] from any coaches, from any other teammates, no matter what team I’m on.
I’m not worried. I just have the mindset that, if I have any backlash, a negative view, I have about 20 other positive views that I can take from it. So it really does wash it out.
Q. Are you hopeful we’ll see more trans-athletes step forward now?
BROWNE: I hope so. They said I’m the first transgender person to play professional team sports in North America. I’m the first, so I’ve broken that down. That leaves room for many, many more after me. I’m excited to see everyone that will come out of the woodwork now.
Q. You’ve gotten to this point where you’re a paid professional athlete. You’ve made this huge stride by going forward and doing what feels right to you. For any of the other athletes, or people out there, that are struggling with what you’ve gone through, what would you say to them?
BROWNE: I’d definitely say to stay true to yourself. You can’t live life trying to make other people happy because if you’re sacrificing your own happiness to that, then you’re just going to end up miserable.
You have to put yourself first and you have to surround with people that will support you and be there for you and not bring you down. That’s what’s gotten me through, and that’s what has made me feel so much stronger than I did maybe even three or four years ago.
I can’t stress enough to surround yourself with people that support you.