On common ground
Baseball writer Christina Kahrl, AB’90, found acceptance as a trans woman in the sports world.
“Oh God, it must be awful. How do you do it?” For years that has been the too-frequent response, offered with empathy, when people learn about my day job—writing and editing stories about baseball and venturing into dugouts and locker rooms to interview big leaguers.
If you knew me in college, you know it’s my dream job. Back then, the time I spent ditching class and not giving Antonio Gramsci my full attention was spent reading Bill James’s Baseball Abstracts and trekking with my fellow self-liberated miscreants to buy $1 seats at Comiskey Park. This set me down the path toward eventually getting into the game by helping cofound Baseball Prospectus back in 1996, in the go-go days of the internet. To this day, BP is a combination of think tank, annual book, and analytical website that’s given rise to dozens of careers in baseball front offices and the media.
But the thing is, if you knew me then you might not recognize me now. I started coming out as a transsexual woman in 2002–03, finally acting on something I’d sorted out for myself once my fifth-grade health textbook explained gender dimorphism and made it abundantly clear that I had been somehow dropped into the wrong bin.
Hence the worried comments and questions. This oft-voiced concern about my life in sports usually comes from friends who are gay, lesbian, or trans. They expect that the sports world must be one of the worst places possible for a person to publicly come to terms with being gender variant in any way, shape, or form. However thoughtful these worries, my time in the game has proven them to be spectacularly misplaced.
Not to say there weren’t reasons to be afraid when I came out. At that point, nobody had tried to pursue a career as a sportswriter while also being trans. Unlike sexuality, this wasn’t something that could remain my own business: I had done a lot of TV work, particularly Cubs and White Sox postgame shows on CLTV, and a national book tour every spring for the new Baseball Prospectus annual. Folks were going to notice.
Given society’s reliably awful numbers for trans unemployment and underemployment, and sports’ generally poor reputation on LGBT issues, pessimism was the order of the day. When I told my parents about the shape of things to come, Mom’s first comment was understandable: “Well, you’ll have to give up sports.” It was tough to hear this from a lifelong friend and mentor, the tough, funny lady who had taught me how to ride a horse and how to make marinara from scratch. But the kid who had grown up idolizing the similarly brassy Gayle Gardner, who blazed trails in sports journalism in the ’80s, told her that I still had to try.
Like any trans person coming out, I understood that I was handing everyone in my life a fait accompli, one that might cost me every relationship I valued. I told my family, friends, and my colleagues at Baseball Prospectus the same thing: I didn’t know how it would turn out, and I didn’t have all of the answers. This would be my first and only time down this road as well. But if they could give me time to work it out, I would do the same with them.
In my family, the instant acceptance of my grandmother, our alpha-female matriarch, helped set the tone. She brought Mom around soon after our first re-meeting by telling her, “You know, she looks a lot like you.” But perhaps nothing can better help friends than the things you have in common despite this newly discovered difference—in this case, America’s perfect social lubricant, sports. I wasn’t getting a personality transplant, after all. The person my friends and family had always known—a Kahrl capable of boring you on any number of subjects, but especially baseball—was the person they would still recognize.
Not only recognize, but accept. And through an acceptance forged in our common ground, they made much more than that possible. My job responsibilities expanded over time as I moved into a full-time role, writing my own column, mentoring interns and writers, and managing content. I remained in the mix for TV and radio gigs and stayed on the book tour. Audiences in the hundreds, mostly male, some with their kids, kept turning up to listen to an out trans woman talk about something they were interested in hearing about: baseball. When one media opportunity was brought to us with a request for “anyone but Christina Kahrl,” our managing partner turned it down flat. I didn’t ask my coworkers for that brand of everyday courage, and they didn’t have to provide it. But they did.
Thanks to that kind of support, I’ve achieved more in baseball since coming out as trans than I had beforehand. In 2008, I became one of the first four internet-based writers voted into the Baseball Writers Association of America. As America’s oldest agglomeration of sports scribes, the BBWAA has a well-earned reputation for being mostly white, male, and over 50. They took me, their first trans colleague, in on my first try, adding me to the pool of voters for MLB’s annual awards and eventually the Hall of Fame. Getting a BBWAA badge also grants you full access to big-league ballparks. What if I should run into trouble in the locker room? I asked. One crusty New York writer was unequivocal: bring it to them immediately, because nobody screws with the BBWAA, and they had my back.
Which, as it turns out, I haven’t needed. People in baseball have treated me exactly the way I wanted: as just another reporter, and thus a necessary evil. Nobody freaks out when I walk into a locker room. Players, managers, and general managers take my questions and agree to interviews. Any initial distrust quickly fades into comfortable conversation; my being trans doesn’t matter to me or to them because we’re on common ground, just talking about baseball.
When ESPN.com approached me about a job in 2011 we were 90 minutes into the initial interview before I asked: “You know I’m trans, right?” It was sufficiently old news that the answer came: “Yeah, we know all about it—so what?” In the history of right answers, there may not be a better one. In the years since, my ESPN coworkers have never screwed up something as small as a pronoun. I covered my first World Series on site for ESPN in 2013. Ozzie Guillen greeted me before game six in Fenway Park asking if I was enjoying myself. There’s only ever going to be one answer: of course.
To revisit the original question, how do I do it? Not simply because I wanted to, and not just because I earned the opportunity. I get to do it because hundreds of people in sports and sports media got it right when they had their first chance at having a trans coworker and colleague. How did they do it? Through basic decency. But perhaps there’s a better question, considering workplace discrimination makes trans folks four times as likely to be living in poverty as the national average: if pro sports is getting it right, what’s your industry’s excuse?
Christina Kahrl, AB’90, is an MLB editor and writer for ESPN.com based in Chicago, where she lives in Rogers Park with her wife, Charley. She is active on the boards of GLAAD and Chicago House and is a member of the LGBT Sports Coalition.