Kye Allums, the NCAA’s first Div. 1 publicly transgender basketball player, is starting conversations never before held in the sport.
By Cyd Zeigler
“A name is just a bunch of letters, but the letters make up a word and the words that make up my name have so many more emotions behind them,” Allums said. "My old name, that’s just not me. When I hear Kye, everything feels okay, everything is right.”
For the last 20 years, Kay-Kay Allums had appeared to the world as female. She was born with the anatomy that other women have. Her mom tried to dress her in only the most feminine clothes. But inside was a man waiting to burst out of the female body he was born in.
On Nov. 13, Kye Allums will introduce himself to the NCAA basketball world at the Best Buy Classic in Minneapolis in a game against the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. When he steps foot on the court, Allums will be the first publicly transgender person to play NCAA Div. 1 college basketball.
Allums grew up in the small town of Hugo, Minn., a half hour north of Minneapolis. Head coach Mike Bozeman scheduled the tournament appearance as a homecoming for him, long before he transitioned to male. The junior guard’s inaugural game identifying as a man will also be the first time he has played in front of his hometown crowd. While Allums is making a change now, most of his family and friends will recognize him as the same old Kye.
Growing up, Allums was a tomboy. The oldest of four kids, he would often say he was a boy despite being born a biological girl. Around age 12, he realized that no other girls behaved or dressed the way he did, so he adopted some of the trappings of other girls his age: Putting on make-up, wearing skirts and dresses. After just a year of putting up a feminine front, it was back to the tomboy clothes and wondering why he just didn’t fit in.
“I’ve always felt most comfortable dressing like a boy, but my mom would take all of my clothes from me and she’d force me to wear girl clothes,” Allums said. “I’d bring sweats and basketball shorts and put them in my backpack. I’d just change every day when I got to school, and I had to change back before I went home. It was annoying, but it was the only way I could go to school.”
In high school, Allums met other people who acted and dressed like him: They were lesbians. For the next few years Allums identified as lesbian, finally fitting into a group that he could define. As he progressed deep into his teens, despite their similar dress and manner, he realized he just didn’t fit with the lesbians at his school either.
“I used to feel like trans anything was really weird and those people were crazy, and I wondered, ‘How can you feel like that?’” Allums said. “But I looked it up on the Internet and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m one of those weird people.’ And I realized they’re not weird. It’s all in your mindset and how you think.”
Early in his sophomore year, Kye began to emerge. When people referred to Allums as “she” or “girl,” he was quick to correct them. He distanced himself from the name Kay-Kay.
“When people refer to me as ‘girl’ or ‘she,’ it doesn’t sit well with me,” Allums said. “That feeling you get when someone pisses you off, that feeling you get when your stomach gets hot and it aches, that’s what it feels like. And that’s how I know I’m not supposed to be a girl. If I was, I’d be walking around like everybody else, getting make-up and doing my nails. But it doesn’t sit well with me.”
It was during his sophomore year that Allums told some teammates he was a man inside a woman’s body. At first, they didn’t believe him. They joked with him about it. But Allums was serious, and when he is on a mission everyone takes notice.
“We were all just talking, a bunch of teammates, and he said that he’s a guy,” said teammate Brooke Wilson, one of Allums’ closest friends on the team. “At first I didn’t understand, and then he explained that sex is how you’re born and gender is how you identify yourself. Then I started to understand.”
Allums began to correct everyone who referred to him with female pronouns; everyone, that is, except his head coach. The person Allums feared telling the most was Bozeman. Comments from the coach about religion had made Allums feel a little uneasy. He didn’t think his head coach would ever be able to wrap his head around the idea that he was coaching a man on a women’s team. Eventually, the internal pressure to be himself became too great for even Allums’ stubborn strength to repress.
“I was gonna have to hide a piece of me that was really important,” Allums said. “All my teammates knew. I don’t like keeping things from coach; I’m a very open person. It got to the point where I decided I wasn’t going to go through a whole season with my coach not really knowing me, even though I knew it would probably make him feel uncomfortable.”
The moment of truth came one day in June when Bozeman tracked down Allums in his dorm room to talk about another issue. When Allums eventually turned the topic to his transition, it became a difficult conversation. Allums explained, as best he could, that he was a man and had always been a man. When Bozeman asked Allums if God made a mistake, he didn’t know how to respond. It wasn’t going well. But at some point in the conversation, the tone changed.
“Why would you think I wouldn’t have your back?” Allums remembered Bozeman asking. “I’ve had your back through everything. Our relationship has grown from nothing to this, and now you think I’d just turn my back on you because you told me this? No. I love you and I’ll always be here for you.”
A request made through the university to speak to Bozeman was denied. Instead, Bozeman released this statement: “The George Washington University women’s basketball program, including myself, support Kye’s right to make this decision.”
Allums realizes now he should have known better than to assume the worst from his coach.
“Everybody’s pretty much accepting of everyone on the team. Everybody is different,” said Wilson. “We’re teammates, we’re like family. It’s a bunch of brothers and sisters. Everybody brings their life and issues to the family.”
In this basketball family, Allums has become the eccentric big brother. He’s the only player whose major, Interior Design, is artistic in nature. And when teammates get new boyfriends, they have to run them by Allums for approval. Having grown up taking care of his younger siblings, it’s a role that comes naturally.
“If you mess with one of my teammates,” Allums said, “you’re going to have to deal with me.”
Approaching his first women’s basketball season as a man has its potential dilemmas. At the top of the list is the use of locker rooms. While women’s teams have traditionally used the women’s locker room, Washington, D.C., law ensures individuals “the right to use gender-specific restrooms and other gender-specific facilities such as dressing rooms… that are consistent with their gender identity or expression.”
Candace Smith, spokesperson for George Washington University, said, "The university will work with Kye and Kye’s teammates on these issues."
Some opposing fans will be licking their chops to hurl other names at Allums. He has already heard taunts from fans for years: With a masculine build, opposing fans regularly try to insult him, calling him a “man.” What those fans don’t know is that Allums relishes it.
“I love it,” Allums said. “I say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ It makes me feel better about myself to hear them call me a man.”
As Allums’ teammate, Wilson doesn’t expect to hear anything the team hasn’t already had to handle.
“They say things about me, they say things about coach, they say things about everybody,” Wilson said. “We’ve been through it all.”
Allums, who started 20 of his team’s 28 games last year, said it’s rare that he hears smack talk from opposing players. According to NCAA spokesperson Jennifer Royer, players are expected to adhere to the NCAA’s code of conduct on the court, and transphobic language falls under that code.
“In addition to educational sessions at the NCAA Convention, Gender Equity and Issues Forum, and other conferences and seminars, [the NCAA] Constitution addresses the principle of sportsmanship and ethical conduct, which outlines the NCAA’s expectation that student-athletes and others associated with athletics programs will adhere to values such as respect and civility,” Royer said.
At some point, questions will come as to whether Allums should be allowed to play on the women’s team. Losing his scholarship was a real concern for Allums just six months ago as the task of fully expressing himself while still playing basketball seemed overwhelming. As he’s educated himself, that fear has dissipated.
In October, the National Center for Lesbian Rights released a report called, “On The Team: Equal Opportunity for Transgender Student Athletes,” in conjunction with It Takes A Team. The report was developed with the help of many subject-matter experts, including the NCAA. One recommendation of the report is for schools to adopt polices that “focus on maximizing inclusiveness, rather than restricting students’ opportunities to participate based on their gender identity or expression.”
According to Royer, as long as Allums does not accept hormone treatments, he is eligible to participate in NCAA women’s sports.
“As the NCAA continues to examine best practices for transgender student-athlete participation,” Royer said, “the member schools are advised to consider the gender classification of student-athletes’ state identification documents, such as driver’s licenses and voter registration, to determine appropriate participation.”
Allums is further protected by Washington, D.C., law, which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.
The issue remains a complicated one for many to grasp. One coach who asked to remain anonymous said he might have a problem if a team in his conference had a player who identified themselves as a man. The reasoning: Because Allums identifies as a man, everyone should treat him as such and he should be playing men’s sports. Still, Allums’ education is on the line, and he has a scholarship to play on the women’s basketball team. No such scholarship has been extended for him to play on the men’s team.
“There’s not just a one-sentence answer,” said former NCAA basketball head coach Helen Carroll, who co-authored NCLR’s trans-athlete report. “It’s much more complicated than him being a man so he should play men’s sports. Kye as an athlete should have an opportunity to play sports. Period. What that looks like gets complicated because Kye is a transgender athlete.”
Allums has been aware of NCAA regulations for years, and he’s made plans around them. Circled on his calendar is the last possible date he could play in an NCAA game, in April 2012: That’s the date he can begin hormone treatment. Between now and then, he does plan to have sex-reassignment surgery next summer before he plays out his senior season.
“The only thing I can’t do is take testosterone,” Allums said. “And I don’t need that anyway. I probably naturally have more than some of the guys on the guys’ team. If I get surgery, it doesn’t affect my play, it doesn’t enhance anything, I’m just taking something off my body, like if I lost a finger.”
Through all of this, Allums continues to struggle with the “trans” identity. He doesn’t understand why he has to be labeled by some people as “transgender” or “transsexual.” He sees nothing wrong with the label, and his days of viewing trans people as “weird” are long behind him. But at this point in his life, he sees himself as a guy, not “female-to-male.”
Allums does have a regret on his journey. It came when his head coach asked him if he thought God had made a mistake. He’s given that question a lot of thought, and he wishes he could have given a better answer.
“God didn’t make a mistake,” Allums said. “I was meant to be like this for a reason. Clearly my life is going to be different from anyone who was born a biological male, because of what I’ve been through. And I was meant to go through all of this.”