Breaking the Surface with Schuyler Bailar

By Emma K. Talkoff, Crimson Staff Writer
By Courtesy of Gregor S. Bailar and Courtesy of Terry Hong

Schuyler Bailar ’19 slices through the water with practiced grace. Halfway down the pool, he breaks the surface in a smooth breaststroke, shoots to the end of the lane, and then stops.

“Did you get it?” Bailar calls over to the photographer perched at the edge of the pool. She clicks through the rapid-shutter images of Bailar on her DSLR: below the blue surface, nearly meeting it, just breaking, arms drawn back before the explosive first stroke, diving under again. Bailar wants her to capture the transitional moment just before his body breaks the pool’s surface tension, when he says a bubble of water will form over his head like a transparent helmet.

This is at least their sixth attempt. So far, no bubble.

“Let’s try one more,” the photographer suggests.

For Bailar, this is just the most recent session in a long string of photoshoots and interviews. If he seems practiced, it’s because he’s used to this—both being in the water, which has always been a place of peace for him, and being in the spotlight, which hasn’t always been so comfortable.

Bailar is the first openly transgender athlete in any Division I NCAA sport. He’s struggled with body image, eating disorders, and dysphoria, but today, showing off in the pool, all of that seems distant. It’s not: If Bailar is confident and comfortable in front of a camera today, it’s because he’s worked hard to get to that point, and because of the impact he believes his attitude will have on others.

By Cynthia Guo

“I’ve spent so much time learning to love my body and learning to be confident in my body, and learning to carry myself with self-love and self-confidence,” Bailar says.“I’m vulnerable in front of the camera because I want to show people that you can be. You can be proud of your body even if you had an eating disorder, even if you’re trans, even if all these things.”

Sydney C. Altschuler, a Lesley University student working on a fine arts thesis, is the photographer crouched beside Bailar today at Blodgett Pool. Altschuler’s project focuses on individuals who have changed her thinking in college, and Bailar is the first transgender person she has ever met.

In many ways, transgender people are more visible now than ever before, both at Harvard and nationally. In Massachusetts, an anti-discrimination bill branded “Trans Bill MA” passed into law in July 2016. Bailar had served as part of a Transgender Visibility Panel to advocate for the bill, which protects the rights of transgender people in public spaces including restrooms and locker rooms, before the Massachusetts state senate.

Bailar’s wall is full of pictures of colorful skies and sparkling water.
Bailar’s wall is full of pictures of colorful skies and sparkling water. By Cynthia Guo

Bailar has become a kind of public figure, and moments of private reflection are something he covets. He journals extensively, sometimes writing poetry and stories. He can’t walk anywhere without noticing beautiful things: the orange leaves on a tree he walks by every day, or a tumble of dark clouds over the Charles. He says he’s fascinated with things that change. Capturing these moments in between—the first lightening of the sky at dawn, leaves on the cusp of falling—is an obsession. His phone is full of pictures of colorful skies and sparkling water, as are the walls in his bedroom. On the plane trip back from a conference last week, he snapped pictures of the reddening sky over the wing for an hour straight.

These days, Bailar must practice a delicate balancing act. His status as a role model for younger transgender and queer athletes and students has prompted him to constantly negotiate a balance between public and private, deciding just how much of himself to share.

‘A Different Journey’

It’s hard to say exactly when Bailar started swimming.

He remembers getting into the pool as a toddler, but Gregor S. Bailar, Schuyler’s father, says Bailar swam with his mother before he could walk (“Paddling along like a little penguin,” the elder Bailar describes with a laugh).

Before long, the pool became both a haven and an obsession, a place to work out emotions while protecting himself from the world outside.

Years of early mornings, long practices, and intense swim meets culminated in a standout high school career: Bailar, then swimming for his school’s women’s team, set 10 team records. He also helped to set a national age group record as part of a four-person Nation’s Capital Swim Club team that included future Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky.

Bailar grew up in Virginia and attended Georgetown Day School from kindergarten through 12th grade. His best friend from high school, Emma R. Murdock, describes the school as a liberal, accepting environment—albeit one in which “there really wasn’t a trans conversation happening.”

Early pictures of a young Bailar depict a smiling, short-haired kid in cargo short and baggy shirts, a style close to (if “less fashionable” than, he points out) his current one. Those pictures, says Bailar, represent some of his happiest childhood years—when he dressed towards the gender identity he felt even as it remained unnamed. Still, Bailar often felt anxious: He avoided unfamiliar situations in which he would feel obligated to identify his gender, or defend his use of a women’s restroom.

“Everybody perceived me initially as male, but at the same time there was this… thing of like, ‘but I have to tell,’” Bailar says. “It was really uncomfortable for me, because I knew everyone would perceive me as male first—which was what I wanted… but I also felt like I had to tell them that I wasn’t a boy.”

Bailar was recruited to Harvard’s women’s swimming team in the spring of 2013, and accepted the spot. After graduating, though, he decided to defer his enrollment at Harvard. He had struggled with eating disorders and other mental health issues for years, and it was time to address them.

In June 2014, Bailar entered treatment in Florida for his eating disorders, temporarily setting aside his swimming career. Though the treatment was initially meant to address issues unrelated to Bailar’s gender identity, a therapist encouraged Bailar to consider the possibility that his complicated relationship with gender might be a factor.

That year, Bailar met a transgender man at a gender identity workshop, and something clicked. The encounter gave him the vocabulary to articulate what he had always felt. That day, when Gregor Bailar picked him up from the workshop, Bailar tearfully told him that he thought he was transgender.

“I could see in his eyes he was worried about a lot of things,” Gregor Bailar says, recounting the moment. “So we just stood there, and I said ‘I love you,’ and we cried, and we just stood there. I think it was even a rainy day,” he adds with a laugh.

“It was a very melancholy moment, but at the same time, a very happy moment,” Gregor Bailar says. “If you’ve ever had a person you know in that deep self-questioning or troubled state...all you want is for them to come through that with a better sense of who they are, and a better outlook on life, and an ability to be hopeful.”

Schuyler Bailar began asking others to refer to him using male pronouns, and discussed his gender identity with a widening circle of friends and family. In the fall of 2014, he met Murdock in New York, where they made an appointment for Bailar to cut off his long hair.

As he moved out of treatment, Bailar considered exactly what being transgender meant to him, and how he would reconcile these new truths about himself with his swimming career at Harvard. In November, 10 months before he would arrive at Harvard, he informed women’s swim team coach Stephanie Morawski that he was planning to undergo top surgery, removing his breasts and mammary glands, but still planned to swim for the women’s team. That arrangement would have meant navigating a difficult balance between his life in and outside of the pool.

But after Morawski consulted with men’s swim team coach Kevin Tyrell, the game changed. In February, Harvard gave Bailar the opportunity to join the men’s team when he arrived at campus in the fall. After some consideration, Bailar accepted. He had always thought that he would have to decide between swimming and being fully himself, but that was no longer true. In March 2015, Bailar got top surgery.

Early pictures of a young Bailar depict a smiling, short-haired kid in cargo short and baggy shirts, a style close to (if “less fashionable” than, he points out) his current one.
Early pictures of a young Bailar depict a smiling, short-haired kid in cargo short and baggy shirts, a style close to (if “less fashionable” than, he points out) his current one. By Courtesy of Gregor S. Bailar and Cynthia Guo

It was a difficult move to explain to his high school coaches. On the men’s team, the fiercely competitive Bailar would no longer be setting speed records. “I think it was hard for me to say why I would give up being such a good female athlete for something so ethereal as happiness,” he says.

But the decision was personally liberating. It allowed Bailar to swim “authentically,” as Gregor Bailar puts it, even if that did come at the cost of speed records and first place medals in the pool. Bailar describes the decision to swim with the men’s team as one that saved his life; “the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Choosing to swim for the men’s team meant Bailar could be himself at all times. It also meant he could undergo testosterone treatment, something which wouldn’t have been possible had he stayed on the women’s team (NCAA bylaws dictate that if Bailar remained on the women’s team while undergoing testosterone treatment, the team would have been designated “mixed” and prohibited from competing in the women’s NCAA championship).

It would also inevitably bring Bailar into the public eye, a role he took seriously.

“I told myself and my dad and even the coach, if I do this, if I choose the men’s team, I will be as open as possible about it,” Bailar says. “I didn’t mean I was going to go screaming to every media source, ‘This is who I am.’ But if it came to that, I would.

“I wanted people to know that it happened, and I knew that it was going to be a different journey,” Bailar continues. “If I was going to do it, I wanted to make sure other people could do it, too.”

‘Who I Am’

Inked onto the left side of Bailar’s rib cage, just below the long pink scar from his top surgery, is a sentence of tattooed Korean. The sentence, which Bailar roughly translates as “take care of your parents,” is one of several deeply personal tattoos which Bailar has acquired since graduating high school.

Like the other marks on his body, the tattoo tells a story. Bailar had already come out to family and friends over the course of his gap year. By May 2015, he was out on Facebook, and starting down the path towards a wider audience and advocacy role. The world was meeting him as he was.

With one notable exception: Bailar still kept his newfound gender identity from his conservative, Korean grandmother, who Bailar and his mother “were pretty sure was going to disown [him].”

“I literally told everyone in the world, and I blocked her on Facebook, and I told everyone who knew her not to tell her,” Bailar says. As someone who tended to put family first, Bailar agonized over the thought of coming out to his grandmother, who “showed no inkling of acceptance.”

Still, for Bailar, keeping his identity a secret from someone so important in his life wasn’t an option. Of all the times Bailar would come out and come out again in his life, this was the one he had worried about the longest, and the most.

Finally, Bailar and his mother gave Bailar’s grandmother a letter explaining his gender identity. Her reaction surprised them both.

“First, she said, ‘I knew that.’ The second thing she said was, ‘OK, now I have two grandsons from your mother.’ And my mom burst into tears because we were so relieved,” Bailar says. After the initial acceptance, Bailar’s grandmother extracted a promise: Bailar could “be a son, a husband, a brother, a man,” she said, but Korean culture dictated that daughters take care of their parents. Bailar’s mother had taken care of Bailar’s grandmother, and Schuyler would have to do the same for his own mother—son or not.

“I was like, ‘Dude, I got you! I got you,’” Bailar laughs. “The point is kind of like, don’t forget where you come from.” The tattoo on his torso is in his grandmother’s handwriting.

It was a pivotal moment for Bailar. “I was so relieved. I had built up almost my entire life that my grandmother was never going to accept me for who I was,” he says. Instead, the moment became a reminder of the strength of the love in his family, and an affirmation of his decision to be direct with the important people in his life.

The tattoo on Bailar’s rib cage, which contains the Korean characters for “mother” “father” and “filial piety,” serves as a reminder of the strong bonds that exist in his family. It is his grandmother’s handwriting.
The tattoo on Bailar’s rib cage, which contains the Korean characters for “mother” “father” and “filial piety,” serves as a reminder of the strong bonds that exist in his family. It is his grandmother’s handwriting. By Courtesy of Sydney C. Altschuler

For Bailar, telling stories like this one isn’t just personally gratifying. It’s also an important part of the more public role he’s come to fill over the past couple of years. Bailar hopes that talking about his tattoo and the unexpected peace he found with his grandmother can serve as encouragement for other young people afraid to come out to conservative relatives—“it shows that it’s not impossible” for transgender and queer children to reconcile with adults who may seem intolerant.

Sharing messages like this one are part of what motivates Bailar. When he decided to swim for the men’s team at Harvard, Bailar and his family knew that he’d attract attention, at least in the swimming world. But they’d had no idea that his decision would bring so much publicity. In the weeks following Bailar’s decision, media outlets began to pick up his story, and soon interview requests were pouring in. Gregor Bailar stepped into the role of unofficial agent, fielding near-daily requests and seeking out resources for parents of transgender kids.

After participating in a few smaller stories, Bailar and his family decided to accept just a couple of requests: Bailar appeared on “60 Minutes,” and, later in his freshmen year, “Ellen.” After the episodes aired, Bailar began fielding dozens of emails from people he had never met, a “huge influx” that he found “jarring.”

It was also scary, Bailar says—not all of the responses were positive. But Bailar saw the attention as an opportunity to raise awareness of issues affecting transgender people, and a chance to serve as a role model for queer youth.

The media attention had an impact on his day-to-day life, as well. While the only people watching “60 Minutes” were his swim teammates and the grandparents of his friends, Bailar jokes, “Ellen” had a broad impact at Harvard—now, everyone seemed to know his story.

“There was kind of just a dropping feeling of, ‘Oh, people know who I am,’” Bailar says.

Choosing to Stay

Bailar sees his public position as one informed by his complicated personal journey. In high school, Bailar realized he was attracted to women and came out as a lesbian; now he identifies as a straight man. Growing up, especially in high school, Bailar was socialized as female, though that designation never aligned with his conception of himself. In addition, he says that his Korean-American identity adds yet another dimension to his understanding of the world. As a result, he’s been perceived in variety of ways, and says he can empathize with a number of identities other than his own. It’s one of the things he values most about the difficult journey that brought him here.

“Not a lot of people have lived as two genders,” Bailar says. “And while I never identified as a woman, I was definitely treated as one.”

But that empathy can bring challenges. In Bailar’s first weeks and months after openly transitioning, he was at times overwhelmed by navigating spaces and behaviors he had previously been excluded from.

“My whole world had changed. Everything was different, and I had to relearn a lot of how my brain worked, and how I worked,” Bailar says. “And then I got surgery, so my body was different, I was wearing a different suit and everything was just different.” Swimming, which had always had a comforting sameness, felt frighteningly unfamiliar. For a while, Bailar considered leaving the team.

In skate parks and locker rooms and on the street, Bailar was suddenly privy to new behaviors and language. Comments about women’s bodies felt particularly “abrasive.” Once, other men had objectified him and criticized his body. Now, he was hearing friends talk that way about women, with the difficult knowledge that just months before, their words could have been directed at him.

Ultimately, Bailar adopted his own personal strategy for dealing with misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and the other forms of discrimination that he had encountered and continued to encounter in each new phase of his life. He says he came to recognize that the derogatory language he encountered was a symptom of wider societal problems, and something that he wanted to address rather than shying away from.

“You’re not going to make a difference by leaving, you’re going to make a difference by staying,” Bailar reasons. Instead of leaving situations which made him uncomfortable, Bailar hoped to build personal relationships and change minds that way.

Bailar has built an extensive online presence, documenting his transition and espousing body positivity on Instagram, Tumblr, and a variety of other platforms. The videos, images, and words published on these sites are deeply personal and intimate, tracking the moments and milestones of Bailar’s transition in detail.

Across those platforms, Bailar receives a plethora of comments and requests—so many that he can’t read them all, let alone respond.

“It’s humbling, but it’s also kind of weird, because… there’s just no way I can know that many people,” Bailar says. “I’m very built around relationships and knowing people, and I really value personal connection. People tracked my life very intimately for the last two years, and I know zero about them.”

Testament to Change

It’s Wednesday morning. Bailar sits in the back of an Uber on the way to the airport, headed to Indianapolis for an NCAA diversity conference. He’s been up since long before sunrise in order to squeeze in a workout at the pool before the trip. He’ll have to miss class for the next couple of days, but he’s used to this kind of disruption; conferences, speeches, and school visits are now a regular part of being Schuyler. Later, he confesses that he wasn’t completely sure what the topic of this week’s event was until he was sitting on the plane (it turned out to be the intersection of religion and BGLTQ inclusion in athletics, which he found eye-opening).

A year out from the media storm of Bailar’s freshman year, things have cooled down a bit. Between his social media presence, advocacy, and near-constant press requests, though, Bailar’s time is stretched thin. For a self-described introvert, it’s a lot of time spent interacting with the world, and talking about the complicated process of understanding and verbalizing his own identity. The scrutiny can be intense.

These days, deciding which media opportunities to accept and which to decline is a matter of choosing battles. Bailar’s parents like to remind him of a piece of advice he once received from “Grey’s Anatomy” star Ellen Pompeo (who he met on the set of “Ellen”), who frequently receives heartfelt requests for attention and help from fans: You can’t save everyone.

Bailar prioritizes opportunities for advocacy that he believes are going to “make a difference”: speaking at schools, and reaching out to students struggling with their own gender identities. Bailar hopes that by talking directly with students—sometimes, being painfully open about his own struggles—can provide the next generation with transgender role models and opportunities for self-examination which he lacked growing up.

Bailar has always found the water to be a place of reflection. “I always feel like I can think about the most things underwater, almost like dreaming,” he says.
Bailar has always found the water to be a place of reflection. “I always feel like I can think about the most things underwater, almost like dreaming,” he says. By Megan M. Ross

“When he was going through his most challenging times, there really just wasn’t any—he calls it vocabulary, around trans issues, trans people,” Gregor Bailar says. “There just weren’t any examples that were out there that were real in his world.” As a result, today Bailar and his father make an effort to choose advocacy opportunities which will allow Bailar to serve as the kind of transgender role model he never had.

In September 2016, Bailar delivered a speech as part of the newly inaugurated diversity and inclusion board of USA Swimming, the governing body for club swimming (generally the track taken by swimmers who end up at the Olympics).

“It meant a lot to me, because I always thought swimming was going to be the thing that held me back from really expressing myself. That’s one of the reasons that transitioning or coming out has always been really hard for me,” Bailar says. “I always thought swimming was going to be the place where I had to hide things.” The fact that Bailar could talk about his identity to the top administrators in the swimming world, he says, was a “testament to how much the world is changing.”

Bailar has used the media attention focused on his story to become a role model for transgender youth. But that attention isn’t without serious drawbacks.

In our first meeting, he showed me a typical Instagram of himself: flexing for the camera in his swimsuit. “No one wants to write a story about him,” he says. Instead, stories and accompanying images tend to dwell on the years Bailar spent in high school, a time in which he felt pressure to present himself in a more feminine manner.

That focus, Bailar says, tends to reduce his story, and transgender narratives generally, to a moment of dramatic physical transition. In fact, as Bailar and his father both like to emphasize, the many different ways of being transgender are all more complicated than that, involving a complex combination of factors that go far beyond physical changes.

At Harvard, Bailar has found solace in spaces and identities where he can exist without explanation.

“I don’t have many spaces in the world where people don’t know my entire history, and I like to be taken for who I am in a moment in that day, sometimes,” Bailar says. “That doesn’t happen too often right now in my world, because everyone knows my story.”

On Monday and Wednesday, he descends into the basement of William James Hall for work in Irene Pepperberg’s avian cognition lab, where he works with African grey parrots. (At our second meeting, Bailar proudly shows me a picture of himself with a massive bird perched on each arm. “They’re dope. They’re fun. They’re also really annoying sometimes.”)

“I’ve made a point of not bringing all my outside ‘blah blah blah’ into the lab, because it’s kind of like a little haven,” he says. His boss at the lab, says Bailar, “just knows me as this kid, and I kind of like just being this kid.”

Almost Like Dreaming

It’s Sunday, and we’re back at the pool. Bailar sits on a diving block, curled around himself. He looks out over the pool. One wall is dominated by the names and times of top swimmers—had he joined the women’s team, his name might have been there. But there’s a different kind of victory in this.

“He’s said a million times that it’s its own glory and it’s a huge reward to be swimming as his true self,” Murdock says. “Maybe [it’s] not the track he thought he would be on in high school, but it’s definitely a more true place that he’s standing in.”

These days, Bailar focuses on shifted goals. In the pool, he slowly moves up the ranks, setting his sights on individual swimmers and picking them off one by one.

The future holds uncertainty, but also possibility. Bailar could imagine delivering a TED talk, or writing a book, someday. He’s considering forming a group for out and closeted trans students at Harvard to come together and learn from one another.

Like Pepperberg’s lab or the banks of the Charles River, the pool is a place where Bailar can reflect but also escape from himself. Even on his recent overnight trip to the conference in Indianapolis, he found time to swim twice—partially to stay fit, but also, he says, because he needed a respite from the rest of the world. Water brings with it a different kind of physics, he says, a special gravity that transforms heaviness into speed. It is transparent, yet shielding: Underwater, Bailar is safe from the rest of the world, from all sound, from his own eyes.

“I think out of the water, it’s very easy to reflect on your body and and think about your body. I’m constantly seeing parts of my body, right, but underwater, you just see. You just see the water."

“It’s kind of selfless in that moment, as in, you don’t have a body, almost,” Bailar says. “I always feel like I can think about the most things underwater, almost like dreaming.”

After all those years, it’s still here in the midst of the intensity of swimming that he finds the most calm. The pool is a place where he can be everything at once: self-reflective and complicated, but also singularly focused on excellence.

Sitting beside the arena of some of his greatest battles, Bailar grabs his phone to find a poem he wrote over the summer about swimming. He starts to read.

“Underwater I am just me, like I’ve always been.”

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