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First Openly Transgender Professional Team Athlete Retires

Mar 17, 2017
Originally published on May 8, 2017 3:12 pm

To Harrison Browne, hockey has always been a pivotal part of life. He's been in the rink for the past 15 years and currently plays for the Buffalo Beauts, a professional hockey team in the National Women's Hockey League.

Last October, Browne came out, saying he identified as male, which made him the first openly transgender professional team sport athlete in the United States.

"I started to feel a really big disconnect between my personal identity and my professional identity," Browne says. "Whenever I would hear my name announced ... I just wanted to align it."

He had come out privately to his friends and family while in college, and in his second year in the NWHL, he felt comfortable to make the statement publicly. In the months since, he says, the support has been overwhelming.

"My teammates, my coaches and the league did a great job of just treating me like a regular teammate."

Even though he identifies as male in a women's league, he sees himself as just an athlete.

"Every time I go to the rink. I'm an athlete," Browne says. "I don't think of myself as a woman. I don't think of my teammates as women. We're athletes, we're teammates and we're friends."

Since coming out, Browne says he has received tweets and other messages of support on social media from fellow transgender athletes, who tell him "they are so thankful that there's somebody out there that did what they couldn't," he says.

"I'm glad that I broke down a wall," he says. "I'm glad that I was able to help people in need."

Earlier this week Browne announced his retirement from professional hockey and is looking forward to transitioning after the season is over. Under NWHL rules, players who are transitioning are ineligible once they begin hormone therapy.

"I want to start transitioning and seeing myself in the mirror the way I see on the inside," Browne says.

Browne's season could come to an end soon as the Buffalo Beauts take on the New York Riveters in the semi-finals of the Isobel Cup playoffs Friday night. But he's not thinking about that.

"I don't think it's hit yet, but it definitely will hit me once the buzzer goes," he says.

After the season ends, Browne will continue to work with the NWHL as the leader of the inclusion board. He hopes that going forward he can be an advocate, speak at conferences and help athletes feel included.

Until then, Browne is focused on playing his best hockey, and winning a championship.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to bring you a sports update now from the world of professional hockey. A lot of eyes this season have been on a player named Harrison Browne, partly because of moments like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: All alone - scores.

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: Oh, my goodness - what a breakaway goal by Harrison Browne.

MARTIN: But Browne has gotten more attention because he is a transgender man who plays in the National Women's Hockey League. That makes him the first openly transgender athlete in American professional team sports.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, until October, Browne was known publicly as Hailey Browne. And then on the day Browne's Buffalo Beauts opened their season, Browne announced that he was transgender and would start transitioning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRISON BROWNE: I started feeling comfortable with the commissioner, with my coaches and my teammates. And I just felt like I needed to do this for myself to feel comfortable playing in my professional life. Every time I go to the rink, I'm an athlete. I don't think of myself as a woman. I don't think of my teammates as women. We're athletes. We're teammates. And we're friends.

INSKEEP: Browne says support from his teammates and the league has been overwhelming.

MARTIN: Regardless, he's decided to retire at the age of 23, after two professional seasons. League rules don't let players undergo hormone therapy, including taking testosterone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWNE: I do want to start my life. I do want to start transitioning and seeing myself in the mirror the way that I see on the inside.

MARTIN: Browne is already planning his career off the ice. He'll pivot to a career in sports business, starting as an adviser to the National Women's Hockey League.

INSKEEP: But his playing career is not over yet. He's going to lace up his skates one more time tonight when the Buffalo Beauts play the New York Riveters in the league playoffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWNE: Once the buzzer goes, all I'm focusing on is my next shift and my next period. I'm not really focusing on my upcoming retirement. I'm just focusing on playing my best hockey, and hopefully, we'll win a championship.

INSKEEP: Harrison Browne, first openly transgender athlete in American professional team sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOLCANO CHOIR'S "BYGONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.