Pride Month Q&A: Christina Kahrl on Trans Athletes & Caitlyn Jenner’s Kings History

An ESPN Editor & Civil Rights Activist discusses Jenner's NBA Draft selection by the Kansas City Kings, trans athletes and more.
by Jason Wise
Director, Digital

After winning the men’s decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics, Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce) was drafted in the seventh round by the Kansas City Kings.

Although Jenner, once known as the “World’s Greatest Athlete,” never suited up for the Kings – opting to continue her illustrious track and field career – she continues to blaze a trail nearly 40 years later.

In recognition of Pride Month, Kings.com caught up with Sacramento native, ESPN editor/writer, civil rights activist, Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame inductee and GLAAD Board Member Christina Karhl – who publicly came out as transsexual in 2003 – to gain insight into the impact of Jenner’s courageous story and the value of inclusion in sports.

Although you now call Chicago home, after graduating from high school in Sacramento in 1985, how do you characterize your allegiance to the Kings?

“I still follow the team. I’m still not over the heartbreak of 2002, frankly, losing the Western Conference Finals the way we did, because it was such a great team to watch. It was the kind of team playing the kind of basketball that was distinctive and so much fun to watch.”

Prior to the franchise’s arrival in Sacramento, did you know that Caitlyn Jenner was selected by the Kansas City Kings in the 1977 NBA Draft?

“I did not, wow! That is one of those tidbits I put in the same category as Dave Winfield being drafted in four different sports. Because when you’re a tremendous athlete, people are going to take a flyer and maybe it’s a news blurb, but you never know, so that’s very cool.”

Does that make her the first trans athlete to be drafted into one of the four major American sports leagues?

“I would have to guess, probably, possibly, at this point, because one of the problems with trans history is we know so little of our own history and so much of it has either been hidden or undiscussed. Trans people, when they came out in the 60s or 70s, were encouraged by their therapists, their doctors, you name it, to bury their past, break from their past, bury their former identity and completely close the door on their previous existence as an adaptive strategy. As a result, because people were encouraged to make that choice, it kind of handicaps a lot of efforts to put together really comprehensive trans history.”

How do you feel Caitlyn’s story can help fellow athletes with gender dysphoria make the transition?

“I think it’s hugely important to have possibility models to make people understand effectively we shouldn’t be gendering activities in a sense. It kind of goes to the notion that girls don’t play sports – well, yes, they do. This is something where you could talk about someone like … (Kings Assistant Coach) Nancy Lieberman. She played in the USBL against men. Nancy Lieberman’s ability, her talent, her drive to succeed, her excellence has nothing to do with whether or not she’s a man or a woman, it has everything to do with she’s an athlete and she was a great athlete and she should be on the court. Extending the message to say that includes trans people too. If you’re trans and you like sports, there’s nothing wrong. If you’re a trans man who likes sports or a trans woman who likes sports, it doesn’t matter. If you like sports, it’s just part of who you are and it’s not a gendered activity. It’s just something you want to do. It’s part of whom you are and what you drive to achieve – essentially, extending that message and allowing trans people to realize this is another area of society they should feel fully able to participate in. Why would you take sports away from anybody? Sport is awesome! It’s fun to play, fun to watch. Whatever your intersection with sport, if you’re engaged with it and you’re enjoying it, go for it! So Caitlyn Jenner is awesome as a symbolic coming out moment for people to be able to have this conversation. It’s a great place for people to start it from, to be able to say, ‘Hey, if somebody as prominent as Caitlyn Jenner can come out and can also be a world-class athlete, or has been a world-class athlete…’ Doesn’t that help create positive conversations around, ‘I’m just a kid who wants to play soccer’ or ‘I’m just a kid who wants to play little league’ or ‘I’m just a kid who wants to go out for the basketball team?’ It becomes less alien to people’s experience as a concept that trans people like to do the same things everybody else likes to do.”

How would you characterize trans awareness since Jenner’s announcement?

“I think awareness of people in the mainstream of trans people, it’s definitely helped. Trans people awareness for themselves was already there. It’s a small community. Even if you accept the numbers, it’s 1 in 10,000 births, 700,000 trans people total in the country. You’re still talking about a really tiny population of people. But thanks to the Internet, a lot of us have already been in communication with each other, know a lot about each other, have been working together whether it’s on policy issues or rights issues, or you name it. It’s not a very big community in the first place and that’s where you have national organizations of parents of trans kids working together to try and help their kids get a fair shake in school. We’re already aware of our fights. I think the question is to what extent does Caitlyn Jenner create an opportunity for us to have a public conversation about effectively what do trans people need to get their fair share and their opportunities as well.”

What are the most meaningful ways people and athletes can continue to spread support and education about civil rights topics?

“Trans people are all kind of automatically put in the position of being accidental activists. I’m a sports writer. I didn’t choose to be an activist but it’s kind of something you get sucked into because you see something wrong and you decide to do something about it. I think that perspective is valuable for anybody, trans or not. If you see injustice, if you see something that isn’t right, if you see something that needs fixing and isn’t fair, you could work on it.”

To learn more about trans athletes, visit TransAthlete.com.


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