Harrison Browne defies easy categorization. As the first professional hockey player to come out as transgender, Browne has had to navigate the gender binary in a conspicuously public way. But through his dedication to sport, Browne has found both a way to assert his truest identity and to build a platform to advocate for greater LGBT inclusion.
Last year, Browne made headlines when he announced his retirement from the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) at 23 years old so he could begin his transition. He made headlines again when he decided to put off his transition so he could return to play centre for the Metropolitan Riveters, who just won the NWHL championship on March 25. Xtra spoke with Browne about finding his identity through sport.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been playing hockey for 15 years. Were you always really competitive?
I’ve been competitive in any sport that I’ve played. I started hockey when I was nine, but I played soccer a lot growing up, and a bunch of other sports — anything I could get my hands on. I was a very competitive kid.
When I was 18 years old, I made Team Canada for the [Under-18] team, and I was in the championship in Stockholm, Sweden, playing against the US, wearing the maple leaf. We ended up losing that game, but it meant a lot to me to get to that point, playing at the highest level that I could.
Tell me about getting the call to play with the NWHL. What did it mean to you to get the opportunity to play professionally?
It was huge. Growing up, there was never a professional league for me to aspire to play in. Once I heard about the NWHL I thought, “I need to play in this league, I need to do this, this is so important to me.”
Just having that opportunity, signing my first professional contract, being paid to play the sport that I love, being paid to do something that I absolutely love to do, it’s a huge honour.
At what point did you begin to transition?
I always felt like a man, I felt like a boy growing up, but I didn’t have the words to put to it. I’d never heard the term transgender, the term trans man, before.
I was able to find the vocabulary for that when I was about 14 years old. That’s when I realized what I was, but I started coming out publicly and socially transitioning when I was in second year of university. I changed my name, I’ve asked my friends to use male pronouns, but I made it public last year in my second year of playing for the NWHL so that everybody knew who I was.
[When I joined the NWHL] I hadn’t publicly transitioned, so legally I went by my birth name. The press and the media had no idea who I was, so they just automatically used female pronouns in my first year of playing.
It didn’t really feel any differently. I’d been living my life that way for 22 years. I was just going through the motions again. But I never really felt myself. I just had a numb feeling toward being identified as something that I wasn’t. But ultimately I got sick of it, and I made the steps to come out publicly in my second year.
How does it feel to be a trans man playing in a women’s league? Is that ever challenging for you, mentally or emotionally?
I really only feel uncomfortable outside of the sport. When I’m in the sport, when I’m playing, when I’m surrounded by my teammates, I view them as my teammates. I’m treated as a man by my coaches, by my teammates, by my opponents, so that part is fine.
It’s when I have to explain to a bystander that I play in the NWHL. It’s a little bit of a confusing conversation to have with someone who doesn’t necessarily know my story. They just see me as a trans man, they’re like, “how are you playing in this league?” But it is what it is, and I’m making the best of it right now.
Does the media attention add any pressure on how you play?
I just want to create more awareness for trans individuals. I want kids to see me in a documentary or an article and say ‘oh that person’s doing that, I feel connected to that, that’s how I feel, and now I’m not so alone.’
There’s no pressure on me playing, there’s no pressure on me as a person. I don’t have to come out to people any more. For the most part in my environment, people have heard who I am, people know my name, people know my preferred pronouns, and not just from me telling them, but from reading my story or seeing me on television. That’s actually made my life a lot easier.
You’ve said that you’re becoming who you’re “meant to be” in ways other than the physical process of transitioning. For a lot of trans people, not having the surgeries or hormones is a great source of anxiety. How did you come to accept yourself that way?
I think asserting myself as a pre-transition trans man, I have a little bit of a different route than most people that are in my shoes. Everybody has a different transition, everybody has a different story. For me, I was able to really gain this confidence with myself without seeing these physical changes. It’s just feeling these changes in my mind and being seen as the person that I am without having to have the physical changes. It’s freeing in a way.
I still feel a little trapped in the body that I’m in, but I’m as free as I can be. And it’s empowering to say, “I’m this thing, this is who I am, I don’t need to do something.” I don’t need to be visibly different to assert myself this way or be seen the way that I want to be seen. It’s how I want to be seen and who I am on the inside that is being seen by a lot of different people. I never thought I’d feel comfortable without having to physically transition. Growing up I thought that’s what I needed to feel whole, but it isn’t. I feel not 100 percent complete, but I feel about as complete as I can right now.
Physically transitioning is something that I do intend to do at some point. But for now, the rules in the NWHL and my sport, I’m barred from doing that, which is OK, but I do see myself doing that in the future.
You’ve also said you want to be involved in more advocacy. How do you see yourself doing that?
I think I’ve made some good steps this year. I came out last year, and that was something that I needed to do. But now this year people know who I am, know who I stand for, and I’ve been able to use that platform and have people reach out to me.
I’ve been able to go to the NHL All-Star Game and talk about LGBTQ inclusion with fans and players. But I now do more public speaking at colleges and I spoke at a trans wellness conference in Buffalo earlier this year. That’s something I want to keep doing, public speaking, public appearances, to just stand as a trans individual and advocate for LGBTQ inclusion in sports. Partnering with You Can Play has really opened the door for me.
How much longer do you see yourself playing?
I’m not sure. Right now I’m loving the game, my team’s doing great, we’re vying for a championship, so I’m having a lot of fun with that. I’m just taking it year by year, game by game, just seeing how I feel, seeing when I want to make my next steps in my physical transition or when I want to retire. Right now I don’t see an end on my horizon.