For Harrison Browne, the hardest part about being the only openly transgender professional athlete in North American team sports is going from the comfort zone of the dressing room, ice rink and weight room to uncertainty in public, where strangers do not know how to address him, or which gender pronouns to use.
“I feel like people don’t take you seriously, and sometimes I don’t take myself seriously either because I’m walking around saying I’m one thing, but I look like I’m something else,” said Browne, 23, a transgender man playing forward for the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League.
Since he came out publicly as transgender on the eve of the season in October, hockey has been Browne’s refuge.
But now he plans to give it up, trading his career for the opportunity, he said, “to fly under the radar in my everyday life.”
Browne plans to retire at the end of the season to undergo a physical transition, starting with surgery in Florida in June to create a chest with male contours, followed by hormone therapy. He then plans to join his girlfriend in Chicago, where she is a social worker, and look for a new career.
“It’s going to be so validating to look into the mirror and see the person that I see inside,” Browne said.
His final game as a professional hockey player could come today when the Beauts, seeded third in the opening round of the NWHL playoffs, face the second-seeded New York Riveters, in Newark, New Jersey. The winner advances to the league championship game Sunday in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Browne, who is also known as Brownie, played as Hailey Browne with Team Canada, at the University of Maine and during the inaugural season of the NWHL in 2015-16, when he scored five goals and seven assists in 18 games for the Beauts. He had come out to family, friends and teammates by his sophomore year at Maine, but not publicly.
There had been athletes on college sports teams who came out as transgender, but never on a pro team in North America.
After Browne’s announcement in October, the NWHL changed his name on its website and later created a transgender policy with the help of You Can Play Project, an organization that works to ensure that athletes are not discriminated against because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Harrison helped teach us what being inclusive means,” said Dani Rylan, commissioner of the four-team NWHL. “How he was the same Brownie that he was before the announcement, and it was us accepting him for that. We always said we are an inclusive league, and it did take some learning to realize what that means and to move forward with a policy. We are very proud to be a leader in that.”
The policy took effect in December with a stated purpose of supporting athletes “choosing to express their gender beyond the binary of female and male.”
To address concerns over fair play, there are restrictions about transitioning from male to female. And those taking testosterone hormone therapy are barred, a condition that will disqualify Browne, prompting his retirement.
His final season has featured several highlights. Browne was voted into the All-Star Game, held in Pittsburgh in February, and he scored two goals. His jersey sales rank among the top five in the league. And on Monday he was named one of the “Fans’ Three Stars of the Season,” an end-of-season award based on fan voting.
“I know a lot of people look to him as a sign of hope and sign of change in athletics,” said Chris Mosier, vice president of program development and community relations for You Can Play and a professional triathlete who came out as a transgender man in 2010. “He was the catalyst for the professional league to create a policy that is groundbreaking in its inclusion.”
Still, it has not been easy.
“Coming out and having all the support has actually made it a little more difficult going about my daily life,” Browne said. “It’s given me a taste of what it’s like to have people refer to you properly.”
Paige Harrington, who plays defense for the Beauts and is one of Browne’s roommates in Buffalo, said the attention had not all been positive.
“Others may not realize how much of a toll it takes on him because he holds himself the right way,” Harrington said. “Brownie is my first trans friend, and life is hard enough without having to deal with a transition.”
The NWHL will lose many of its marquee names next season, in addition to Browne. National team players will not join the league as they prepare for the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.
The talent drain is the latest blow to the fledgling league, now in its second season. With attendance down, player salaries, which originally ranged from $10,000 to $26,000, were slashed about a third. The league tried to compensate for the shortfall by enacting a revenue sharing agreement with players for sales of tickets and jerseys.
Browne said the league’s bumps were not related to his decision.
“My leaving and retiring has nothing to do with my belief in the league,” he said.
His reasons have nothing to do with hockey, either.
“I cannot wait until I don’t have to use the cheat sheet anymore, until people just look at me and then see me for what I am, without me having to say anything, without having to read a story,” Browne said. “It will just be me.”