Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“Sport can lead the way to social change”: Being a black, trans, queer woman living in America

Posted on 7 September 2020 by Becky Thompson
Karleigh Webb cycling. Photo courtesy of Karleigh Webb.
Karleigh Webb cycling. Photo courtesy of Karleigh Webb.

Karleigh Webb has been through it all. 

As a transgender athlete, she has been accused of cheating and called a man.

But, she has also experienced warmth, acceptance and pure happiness from being her authentic self. 

Her experience puts her in a unique position to talk about the challenges that transgender athletes continue to face everyday.

Webb is an avid athlete, sports journalist and a pioneer for trans inclusion in sport. 

At the age of 49, she has participated in events across the United States and competes in running and triathlons, as well as socially in sports like softball and flag football.

And as a trans athlete herself, Webb explained that embracing who she was, was essential to her happiness and wellbeing. 

“I’m doing this for one purpose because for me, this is something I needed to do to make my life worth living,” said Webb.

Power of sport

With so many debates in the media about whether or not transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in women’s sport, Webb emphasized how positive the experience can be for so many in transition.

Webb after finishing a race. Photo courtesy of Karleigh Webb.
Webb after finishing a race. Photo courtesy of Karleigh Webb.

Working as a sports journalist and competing as an athlete mean that sports are a central feature of her life. 

However, with the internal battle she was facing, sport has been both a positive and a negative. 

“I was falling out of love with it. And at the same time I was finally coming to realize that okay, there’s this thing that’s been inside you ever since you were a little kid, and in many ways you use sports to hide it. You use sports to try and bury it. And at one point you even tried to kill it, but she wouldn’t die.”

After transitioning, Webb explained that her love of sport came back, with even more power and meaning than before. 

“It’s a matter of how you represent yourself,” she explained. 

“The first time playing sports as my authentic self meant more to me because for the first time I was actually representing myself at a starting line.

“It wasn’t this caricature of me out there playing a game anymore, now it’s me playing a game.”

As an athlete, representing yourself, your team or your country can be one of the most powerful experiences. When you get to do that in the way you have always wanted to, it can mean everything. 

“I’m at the end of a road race and seeing my name with an F [for female] next to it, the first time seeing my name the way I want to see it. Those are big things and they meant a lot.

“Transition brought me back to why I love sports in the first place. I got my love of sports back.”

Webb playing flag football. Photo courtesy of Karleigh Webb.
Webb playing flag football. Photo courtesy of Karleigh Webb.

Living with systemic racism 

In addition to the role that sport has played in her own life, Webb talked about how it can help pave the way for positive conversations in many different walks of life. 

In the United States, the average life expectancy of trans women of colour is only 35 years old. 

Webb has beat that statistic despite facing all kinds of discrimination, something that is not lost on her, and growing up as a black male prior to her transition presented its own set of challenges. 

For her, being able to see faces that look like hers playing and working in sport was, and is, vital. 

“Representation always matters, it always matters,” she said.

“Just growing up black in the States, regardless of gender is difficult.

“And it’s difficult because of systemic reasons. These things did not occur in a vacuum. These things have been built over. The United States has been a nation for 244 years. Throughout the entire history of this country. The systemic underpinnings have been a part of the nation. 

“They’ve been a part of the nation’s legal practice, been a part of the nation’s economic practice. It’s been a part of its social practice, and it’s been a part of its foreign policy. 

“Growing up in that framework, growing up black in that framework means it’s already difficult.”

Webb in the middle of a race. Photo courtesy of Karleigh Webb.
Webb in the middle of a race. Photo courtesy of Karleigh Webb.

Webb explained that the difficulties that come with being black is something she has had to work through her entire life, and has intensified in the last four years since her transition in 2017.

“Being black has been difficult enough as it is, then you add gender on top of it. Then you add orientation and gender on top. This has been a toxic country to live in these last three years.”

Lifelines in a pandemic 

This toxic culture has been even more clear in the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has affected minority communities significantly, but even more so for those who already are prone to feeling isolated such as the transgender community. 

Webb has struggled with the pandemic dealing with the day to day uncertainty, but her work as a crisis operator for Trans Lifeline has been particularly challenging during this time. 

“The coronavirus has really laid bare how toxic the environment has become here in the United States,” said Webb. 

“It’s sad to see and that’s for anyone, but even more so for the constituencies that are a core part of my being; being black in this country, being trans in this country, being a woman in this country, and being LGBT and being queer in this country.”

For Trans Lifeline, Webb takes calls from people in distress or who just need to talk.  

“It’s been the toughest jobs I’ve ever had. It has been the most fulfilling and at the same time demanding work I’ve ever had in my life.

“That’s been the hard part of this pandemic, the isolation has really hit harder. And that isolation is affecting all LGBTQ communities, but especially hitting the trans community really hard, because that isolation – it was there when the world was whole.”

Webb explained that a lot of transgender folks are facing unsafe situations at home or have been kicked out of their homes when they transition.

And, when the pandemic is causing everyone to have to stay at home, that is terrifying for anyone trying to navigate their transition. 

That’s where Webb can be a comforting voice to listen to, as she would describe: “a sounding board, a resource and someone who’s has a listening ear and an open heart to listen to someone who’s really hurting.”

Throughout the current crisis, one thing that keeps Webb and other transgender athletes alike going is sport. 

“The one thing that has kept me sane through this has been going out for a run, or going out for a ride or getting a workout in.”

“I need those times, just so I can let out that scream and vent, all that anger, even that sadness. 

“That’s another way where sports have helped. And that goes back again to, sports is such a life affirming, healing thing. 

“Why would you want to take that away from anyone, especially out of hysteria and fear?”