When Quinn decided to come out publicly as transgender, they knew that the announcement would be seen as groundbreaking. Visible transgender professional athletes are few and far between. But they’re still surprised by the attention their declaration has garnered.

“I’m just operating as I am – my typical, quirky self every single day. I’m a little bit, like, ‘Wow!  I’m surprised this is a big deal because I’m just trying to be who I am,” Quinn said.

Quinn, a defender and midfielder with 59 caps and five goals for Canada’s national women’s soccer team, announced they are transgender in an Instagram post earlier this month. It’s been part of a lifelong journey for the 25-year-old, who uses they/them pronouns, and one that will continue.

“People are always exploring the ways in which they operate in society, and I think for me, my journey in exploring my gender identity has been throughout the course of my 25 years of living,” Quinn told TSN.  “We’re taught at such an early age how we should be performing gender based on the sex we were assigned at birth, so I think my process in understanding myself is ever-changing, and it’s consistent.”

Transgender is still a confusing term for those outside of the LGBTQ+ community. According to GLAAD’s website, transgender is: “an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.” Quinn also identifies as non-binary but refers to themselves most often as transgender.

“I think when I say I’m transgender, it’s that I don’t identify with the rigid binary of what it means to be a man or a woman,” Quinn said. “I think that’s super liberating in a sense of being able to explore the way that I see gender and the way I present gender in day-to-day life. I find that quite a liberating experience.”

In their Instagram post, Quinn stated they chose to come out publicly not only for themselves, but to be a visible figure for others in the transgender community.

“I was really frustrated in the fact that the media surrounding my sport wasn’t representing my identity,” they said. “Although in aspects I deemed safe with my friends and my family I was myself, and my pronouns and my name were being respected, it was hard for me going through that – being a public figure and not having the world know who I was.

“I wanted to be a public figure for trans youth and give them hope on what their future could look like and seeing someone like themselves being so successful in their field. I think that was hugely important for me understanding that I was trans – to see other trans folks being successful and just operating in their daily lives.”

Public transgender role models weren’t a luxury afforded to Quinn when they were growing up. Since they were young, Quinn says they have always wanted to explore their gender identity.

“I think looking at it now as a 25-year-old, there were definitely moments I can identify in my childhood where I was pushing back on that strict gender binary,” they said. “It was accepted up until a certain age – you could dress the way you wanted, you could perform genders in the way you wanted. But then all of sudden, when you turn a certain age – I don’t know what that age is – there’s a lot of pushback to present yourself in society. I don’t think there was one moment that was super pivotal for me, but I think I can definitely understand there were a lot of moments when I was a kid that I didn’t fully understand, and I was taught that I shouldn’t be presenting myself in that way.”

Quinn says attending Duke University was a turning point in their life. They played for parts of five years on Duke’s women’s soccer team, and in 2017 they were a semi-finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, given annually to the best collegiate player in the United States. 

“It really took for me until college when I learned vocabulary and language to be able to articulate what I’ve always been feeling throughout the course of my life. That’s when I really realized that I identified as trans. It takes me to the point where I am today, being an open trans figure,” they said.

Quinn is currently on loan from their NWSL club, OL Reign, to Vittsjö GIK in the top tier Swedish league. Soccer is one aspect of their life that hasn’t changed for Quinn.

“I still step on the pitch and I do my job every day, and I love it every single day, for sure,” they said.

But despite their love of the game, soccer has been a dichotomous space for Quinn.

“It’s a really interesting one, because in some sense it always has been an escape for me,” they said. “I know specifically in college, when I was having such a hard time verbalizing how I was feeling and trying to operate in a society that is transphobic – for me that was a time period when I could forget all that, and I could just be myself and it was something I found a lot of joy in. At the same time, it’s such a rigid space in terms of gender, so I was consistently reminded of that rigidity. It was definitely contrasting in some senses, and I think it also continues to be.”

Although the national team hasn’t been together since March when the squad placed third in the Tournoi de France, Quinn says the support from their compatriots has been “amazing.”

“My Canadian teammates have been really, really positive and really, really accepting when I came out to them. They’re such a special group for me. They always have been,” they said. “People in the Canadian sphere know we’re a really close team. I think they’ve all just had a really great attitude of understanding where their limitations are in their learning and knowing that they need to continue their education. They’ve asked me questions just wanting to be better allies.”

Quinn has also had constructive conversations with OL Reign.

“It’s been so positive with their response, and I think they’re really eager to make changes in their team to make a more inclusive space for everyone,” they said.

“I think every single day, my friends and the people that I love are trying to be better allies to me. It’s a constant path of learning for them and for everyone in our society on how to be better allies. I think every day they’re learning and they’re showing that, so I think in that realm, sports is becoming more inclusive for me, because the people that I’m playing with are trying to be better allies.”

Despite the outpouring of support from both club and country, Quinn admits that they were concerned about what coming out could mean for their future in soccer.

“I think rules and regulations are always changing,” they said. “We live in a society where there isn’t always protection for trans folks. Obviously in the United States right now, that’s a huge topic in politics. There’s always a fear that sports could be created to exclude me from that space, but I think understanding the current regulations and the system in place – I know that I have a place in sports.”

That place includes next year’s Tokyo Olympics. Quinn was a member of the Canadian team that won bronze in the 2016 Rio Games, and they hope to use the world stage as a platform to further the visibility of transgender athletes.

“I want to tell my story, but also I want to uplift the voice of others – people who don’t have that platform,” they said. “I want to continue to advocate not only for making sports a more inclusive space, but also addressing the topics of transphobia in our current society.”

Transphobia is a reality that Quinn is forced to deal with on a daily basis. On their Instagram post, Quinn mentioned that they wanted to be visible to other queer folks, and that “it saved [their] life years ago.”

“I think I went through a really difficult time coming to terms with my gender identity,” they said. “Just even presenting myself the way that I do – there’s a lot of backlash in society. For me, it was really hard to navigate that. From things like being able to go to the bathroom, being kicked out of washrooms, people yelling at you, and just people saying really ignorant, mean things. It was really hard for me to be able to digest all of that and understand the future that I had.

“Unfortunately, trans people in society aren’t presented in media very well. My understanding of trans folks growing up was that they were a punchline in movies. I really didn’t understand the future that I had in my life, and in sports as well. I didn’t see people in sports that were trans. I think it was really hard for me, and that’s why it’s so important to have visibility of trans folks in our society. Trans youth need to understand that there is a place for them and that we’re all working towards creating a more inclusive space.”

While Quinn is not the first public transgender athlete, they are among the more visible in the realm of pro sports. In 2016, hockey player Harrison Browne became the first openly transgender player in any professional team sport. Quinn says they and Browne have become friends through their shared experience.

Layshia Clarendon, who plays for the New York Liberty in the WNBA, identifies as non-binary. Clarendon is the first vice-president of the WNBA Players Association and helps lead the league’s newly formed Social Justice Council, which is focused on pushing forward conversations on societal issues such as race and LGBTQ+ advocacy.

Quinn would like to see something similar established in the NWSL. They are already a pro ambassador for Athlete Ally, an organization that fights for inclusion in sports for LGBTQ+ athletes.

“I definitely want it to be a conversation, and for the NWSL to be a vocal space on a whole bunch of social justice topics,” they said. “I think I would like things like education for staff and players on every team… I think that would be hugely beneficial.

“I want to help move the needle forward on conversations about the inclusion of trans athletes. I’m privileged to be able to play my sport, but unfortunately trans women aren’t able to do that, and trans youth.”

In Connecticut, a recent ruling from the U.S. Department of Education found that the state’s policy to allow transgender girls to compete as girls violated the civil rights of athletes who have always identified as female. Connecticut may now be forced to change course in order to keep federal funding. In Idaho, the state attempted to pass a law banning transgender women and girls from sports teams corresponding to their gender, but this was blocked by a federal judge in August.

For Quinn, overcoming these exclusionary regulations are only part of the problem for transgender athletes.

“It’s making a more inclusive environment in terms of the languages we use, potentially the uniforms – I think those are all small ways we can make it more inclusive past the actual regulations that are physically barring people from participating,” they said.

“We have such topics in society around trans people. Trans women are being murdered at a rate that’s a pandemic.  It’s not just about sports. It’s so much beyond that. I am so hopeful that these conversations every single time will just be pushing the needle forward and will be providing trans folks with a sense of hope.”

A lot of these conversations are beginning to happen in the media, but there remains a lot of room for improvement. Shortly after they came out, Quinn expressed disappointment on Twitter that several outlets, including several LGBTQ+ ones, used their deadname (the name a transgender person was given at birth and no longer uses) when reporting on their story. Quinn acknowledges that the media is also going through a learning experience when it comes to reporting on the transgender community.

“It’s something that they also haven’t had a lot of experience with,” they said. “It’s not our regular teaching in primary school to learn about trans folks and trans lives and trans language, or just language in general. It’s so important in terms of creating a more inclusive community that we start that through media and visibility, for sure.”

For now, Quinn will continue to play the sport they love in Sweden – and try to pick up the language.

“Oh gosh. I tried a couple of days on Duolingo. I’m only here for three months though, and for some reason I couldn’t make a dent in it,” they said with a laugh. “It’s a very difficult language to learn. I say, ‘hi,’ ‘bye,’ and ‘thank you’ quite well in Swedish, but beyond that it’s pretty limited.”