What Public Swimming Pools Are Like For Trans People

Photo: Artem Verbo
I have a complicated relationship with swimming. While most people see it as a social activity with friends or their chosen form of physical exercise, it can be distressing and even dangerous for people like me.
As a child, I used to love the waterslides of the swimming pools in the big city of Reykjavík. Where I actually lived, in rural northwest Iceland, there were no waterslides. It was a very isolated, hardworking farm community and my primary school had fewer than 100 students. My class had a grand total of eight.
The only time I had the opportunity to use a waterslide was once a year, when my parents drove for five hours to attend the annual agricultural senate of Iceland; it was a big deal. So you can imagine my excitement as I raced my older brother, rushing up the plastic stairs to reach the top of the waterslide in the freezing Icelandic winter before throwing myself down it with glee.
As I grew older, my body started to change shape and form in ways which made me feel more and more alien with every passing day. I began to feel differently about swimming and changing rooms. It became a space of shame for me, and I didn’t quite know why. Standing naked with the boys and showering made me feel like someone somewhere had gotten something seriously wrong along the way and I just wasn’t in the right place. By the age of 16, I felt so uncomfortable in changing rooms that I started showering at home.
From then onwards, I didn’t go swimming or do any sporting activity for at least 10 years. Despite having been very successful on a national level in athletics, I couldn’t bear the thought of having to train and shower with the boys. So any thoughts of having a successful athletic career were quickly abandoned. The 30 or so medals I have at home – all branded with various men’s track and field events – are but a distant memory of something that could’ve been.
When I started using the women’s facilities for the first time, almost a decade later, I was absolutely terrified. All body features that could possibly out me as a trans person became so much more visible and with that came deep distress and anxiety. I felt insecure and I feared judgement from others. What if someone looked at me and asked me if I should really be in here? What if they didn’t believe me when I said yes? What if they called the staff to have me escorted out?
Illustrated by Fox Fisher.
Although I've gained confidence over the years and made peace with my body, the times I've been confident enough to enjoy swimming's wonderful benefits for mind, body and soul have been very few and far between. While I care a lot less about what people think now, the fear that I might be harassed is still present, as is my internalised shame at having a body that doesn’t conform to society’s oppressive, binary standards.
These genuine and well-founded fears limit my participation in society, and I know many trans people who feel the same. While I am read as a cis woman in society most of the time, many trans people are read as trans. Many trans people have bodies or features that don’t conform to gender binarism, making them visibly trans. Many have scars, such as from top surgery, and some haven’t had, can’t have or don’t want to have genital surgery. Getting naked as a trans person and having your body on display in front of strangers, especially when it doesn’t conform, is a living nightmare. As much as I would have loved to have the confidence to be true to my gender identity and been able to access the women’s changing rooms over a decade ago, there was absolutely no way I could have done that. I was trapped – not in the wrong body but in people’s perceptions of it.

Since moving to the UK two years ago, I haven’t once entered a gendered space. This is a direct consequence of the misinformation and fearmongering about trans people in mainstream media.

When I heard of the recent ‘protest’ against the reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) in a swimming pool in the UK, I felt disgusted. While the protester thought this illustrated just how easy it is to enter gendered facilities, it does little but trivialise and disrespect trans people like myself. It reminded me of how little society actually knows of our struggles and the way we are treated. It reminded me that there are still people out there who deliberately mislead and misrepresent our lives and rights. The 16-year-old me, so full of shame and self-hate, could not be a better example of how insensitive and misguided this protest was. It completely missed the point, as the reform of the GRA has nothing to do with gendered facilities and whether or not I, or anyone else, can enter them.
At the moment, everyone is talking about trans people and all the alleged dangers we pose to society and to other women in particular. I feel that all eyes are on me, and on everything that could possibly reveal that I am a trans person. An everyday activity such as swimming has become a political battleground for me, in which I fear that I have to prove and justify why I can use a certain changing room and why I don’t pose a threat to anyone inside.
Since moving to the UK two years ago, I haven’t once entered a gendered space. This is a direct consequence of the misinformation and fearmongering about trans people in mainstream media. It’s been many years since I was made painfully aware of all my physical features in public, and revealing them in front of strangers feels increasingly uncomfortable, much like when I was a teenager.
I can’t remember the last time I actually went swimming. I don’t think it will be anytime soon.
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