"Hockey gives me an outlet to just be me. 'Athlete' is a genderless term."

How the Only Man in Women’s Hockey Rises Above the Noise

The fire inside Harrison Browne, a barrier-breaking hockey player who has been fighting for transgender rights for a decade, has morphed from anger to joy.

He was born Hailey Mildred in Oakville, Ont., and is currently the only transgender athlete playing professional sports. He’s the centre for the Metropolitan Riveters, based in Newark, N.J., to be exact. If he has his gender reassignment operation, he will outwardly become who he’s always known he was internally, despite bigotry, homophobia and a tempestuous relationship with his parents, which he refuses to discuss. However, a single testosterone injection would immediately disqualify him from playing professional hockey in the National Women’s Hockey League, a job that he loves and that provides him with an escape, solace and a second family.

“Everybody deals with choices. It’s just that mine are magnified, and I think that’s made me grow up faster than most 24-year-olds,” says Browne from his home in Jersey City, N.J., where thus far the Riveters are off to an undefeated season. (The playoffs begin on March 17.) “Everybody’s battling something; everyone needs to figure out a way to survive,” he adds. “I’ve learned a lot on my journey. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to be comfortable in my skin.”

Last March, Browne pulled what he calls “a Brett Favre” and announced his retirement in order to proceed with the operation. But in August, he reversed his decision and chose to defend last year’s Riveters championship cup. He knows that the next step of his life is looming, just like he knows there will always be prejudiced trolls unafraid to make their vitriol public. Still, though he’s oscillating between the end of one life and the start of the next, Browne is at peace. We spoke to him about keeping his head.

TITLE: How often do you grapple with “the decision”? Can you ever forget? 

HARRISON BROWNE: Compartmentalizing is a skill I’ve had to develop my whole life. Some days are better than others, but for the most part I’m enjoying myself playing the sport that I love, surrounded by my friends. I’d love to transition, but right now I’m in the body I’m in and I’m trying to be thankful and take it day by day.

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson has been in the news for his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns, while you describe being referred to by your true pronoun, “he,” during a Riveters game as a watershed moment. Can you explain the weight of a word? 

It’s a matter of life or death. A simple statement can do serious damage. Pronouns seem simple, but when one is your identity, it can be an overwhelming experience, both positive and negative. I’m an athlete, and hockey is where I lose myself, so to hear it for the first time on that stage—“he” in an arena—brought back memories of “she” and “her” and the hurt I felt and the stuff I endured. Suddenly, it didn’t matter anymore. None of it did. A pronoun can be an overwhelming experience.

Why hockey? 

It’s always been my safe space. Anybody who has played it can resonate with the fact that your team becomes your family. I’ve never had relationships like I have with my team.

Sexual abuse isn’t the same as bigotry and discrimination, but the culture appears to be waking up in general. You saw how that judge in the United States struck down Trump’s transgender military ban. Will these things help the next 14-year-old transgender person struggling to fit in? 

The military ban was dirty. I loved that fight. You don’t have to be transgender to fight against discrimination, and when everybody comes together—just like with #MeToo and #TimesUp—I see hope. The shift in culture is a necessary corrective; people are not wanting to be caught in these constructs of society. They’re saying “Why do I have to live like this? This isn’t right!” I hope it helps the next 14-year-old. All I want is to help my community feel safe.

You came out in high school but then later realized that what you are is transgender. Can you talk about how your identity evolved?

I was in a single-sex environment—an all-girls school—and felt attracted to women, and that made me different from my friends. Once I switched schools at 14, I didn’t feel comfortable in the place I was, in the box. I was hanging out with girls, feeling the pressure to conform, to wear women’s makeup and clothing. Everyone wants to fit in during high school, and I did everything I could not to create waves. It got really bad for me during puberty, and I just did not want to be in this body. I knew I did not want to be a mom, I did not want to be a grandmother, I did not want this for my future. This is not who I am. Then I learned the term “transgender.” I’m transgender. That’s what I am.

And now you’re stuck in that body to do what you love. That says a lot about how much you love playing professional hockey. 

When you’re playing your sport and you’re in the zone, there’s nothing that can get in the way. In that moment there is nothing else on your mind. Hockey gives me an outlet to just be me, even if it is only for a few hours. It isn’t about gender. ‘Athlete’ is a genderless term. And that feeling…I still get that feeling. You know, I thought I was ready to retire last year. I figured I’d put on a suit every day and the sport would fade away. But I wasn’t ready. I want to hold on to this for as long as I can. Listen, both of my outcomes are exciting. Both are necessary. Either I’ll be a professional athlete or I’ll be in the body that aligns with who I am. Either way, I know I’ll be ready when I walk down that path.

Photo: Vanessa Heins