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Sport, or self: Harrison Browne’s impossible choice

To become the person he wants to be, Harrison Browne—a transgender player for the Buffalo Beauts—would have to put his hockey dreams on ice


 
Harrison Browne, on the bench for the Buffalo Beauts. (Photograph by Vanessa Heins)

Harrison Browne, on the bench for the Buffalo Beauts. (Photograph by Vanessa Heins)

This story first appeared on Sportsnet.

Harrison Browne hadn’t worn a women’s bathing suit in years. He sat in the hot tub in the backyard of his family home in Oakville, Ont., dressed in a sports bra and board shorts. His short, dirty-blond hair was soaking wet, and he was propped up on a fake rock in the tub when his father, sitting on a nearby chair, noticed that his daughter looked upset. “What’s wrong?” his dad asked. Browne fought through tears. “I’m not happy with my life,” he said. “I don’t want to grow up to be a woman, to be a mother, to be a grandmother. I don’t want that. And I can’t have that.” Hearing this, Russell Browne began to sob. “We’ll get you some help,” he told his youngest child, then known as Hailey. “We’ll find you someone to talk to.”

That was two years ago. “Everybody cries when they find out,” Browne says, taking a sip of water at a Starbucks in downtown Buffalo, N.Y. The 23-year-old looks across the table at his girlfriend, Carly Racusen, who has tears in her eyes. Racusen smiles and puts a hand on his arm.

Harrison Browne has shed countless tears of his own, but to say there’s a weight off his shoulders today is a colossal understatement. On Oct. 7, hours before he started his second season in the National Women’s Hockey League, Browne announced to the world that he’s a boy, making him the first publicly transgender pro hockey player in history. It’s his life’s biggest exhale. The Buffalo Beauts left-winger couldn’t believe it when he found out the league was on board with his identifying as a man. Hockey has always been where he’s felt most like himself, and never more than today.

Still, Browne feels incomplete. He wants to have hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery, but he can’t do that and keep playing professional women’s hockey. And so he is making a choice between the two biggest parts of his identity. He is sacrificing the chance to be who he really is so he can do the one thing that’s made him feel most comfortable while he’s stuck being a girl.


(Photograph by Vanessa Heins)

(Photograph by Vanessa Heins)

Browne was a figure skater first. A ballerina and tap dancer, too, because his mom, a lawyer and professional flutist, is big into the arts. “I did not fit in there,” Browne says, raising his light-blond eyebrows. At nine, he ditched toe picks for hockey skates. Three years later, in Grade 7, Browne told a friend: “I think I’m gay.” The reaction at his all-girls private school in Oakville wasn’t exactly accepting. “They didn’t realize what gay was, or what I was,” says Browne. “They started looking at me differently.” Going through puberty only made things worse. “I didn’t like what was going on with my body, but I thought my discomfort was me being gay,” he says.

In Grade 9, Browne read an article about a transgender woman, a Swede with blond hair. He went on YouTube and watched people document their own gender transitions. “That’s when it really clicked. It’s not that I’m just attracted to women, it’s that actually, in my mind, I feel like a straight man. Or boy.” Browne was 14. “I was scared,” he says. “You look down at your body and you’re wondering why you can’t change it. Why it doesn’t change itself, why you have to go through drastic measures just to be comfortable. I felt helpless.”

Only hockey felt like home, a rare comfort zone where Browne was an athlete, not a girl who wanted to be a boy. He made it his obsession. He didn’t go out with friends on weekends. He changed his diet. At age 12, he enlisted the help of a personal trainer as well as renowned skating coach Dawn Braid and two other on-ice skills coaches. “I didn’t realize how much of an escape it was for me,” he says. “That’s why I dove into hockey like I did. I dedicated my whole life to it.”

Harrison Browne. (Photograph by Vanessa Heins)

Harrison Browne. (Photograph by Vanessa Heins)

Before the start of Grade 8, Browne moved to Calgary to attend Fairview, a school that works with the National Sport Academy to make hockey part of its curriculum. He enrolled there despite the fact that he wasn’t an elite player by any stretch. “I got cut from everything,” he says, including his peewee AA, A, BB and B teams (he made C). But he started to develop in Calgary. By the time he returned to Oakville, for Grade 10, Browne had made his first A team.

He had also earned his first male name. At the private high school he attended in Oakville, Browne’s nickname was “Harry.” He’s not sure why, but friends and classmates came up with the name and it stuck, especially after his older sister picked up on it. It was Rachel who expanded the name, “because she thought Harrison Ford was cool,” Browne says. When Browne dressed up for prom, Rachel posted a picture on Facebook and wrote “Harrison” as the caption, one of the first times he remembers being referred to as Harrison so publicly. “I wore a blue… dress,” he says, wrinkling his face. “A dress! It was very soft, satin.” A pair of wedges and makeup—the last time he’d wear either—completed the look. “I was very confused. You should see the pictures,” he says, eyebrows up.

By then, Browne had come out (for the second time). “This is who I am: I’m gay,” he told his friends. He had his first girlfriend in Grade 11 and told his mom he was gay a year later. It was a first step toward making his identity known.

Browne was also playing the highest level of minor hockey, dreaming of playing for Team Canada, of getting a Div. I scholarship. He was 17 when he got a tryout with Canada’s U-18 women’s team, which he calls his “shining moment,” the only time he’d ever get the call to play for his country. “The phone rings and I pick it up and they’re like, ‘Hello this is–‘ and it cuts out!” Browne says. He ran barefoot out of his house, phone in hand, until he got into an area with better service and heard: “Pack your bags. You’re going to Sweden.” Browne fist-pumped and yelled in the street, ran back up to his house, put on his saddest face and greeted his family in the kitchen—he’s a renowned prankster. “I was like, ‘Aw man, guys… I made it!’” Russell picked his daughter up and spun her around.

The following year, Browne took a scholarship to Mercyhurst before transferring to Maine, where he felt he’d get more ice time. In his second year with the Black Bears, Browne started telling friends and teammates he was a boy. “She even tried to involve us—we tried to help pick names,” recalls Maine teammate Brooklyn Langlois, who has a hard time calling her friend “he” when she’s known him as “she” for much longer. Hunter and Hayden were among the names Browne tried on. “Somebody wanted me to call myself Peeta, from The Hunger Games,” he says. That didn’t fly. Eventually, Browne settled back into Harrison and Harry. “Hockey was definitely my safe space,” he says of that time. “Everyone referred to me in proper pronouns, everyone called me Brownie or whatever name I wanted to be called. In public, people didn’t really know what was going on with me.”

The school offered to change Browne’s name in their records and on the roster. “I wasn’t ready for that,” Browne says. “I didn’t want to hurt my parents.” He still doesn’t: Browne’s parents aren’t doing interviews, and that’s his choice. “It obviously isn’t easy for me to go about life, but it’s what’s going to make me happy. They’re starting to come to grips with that.”


(Photograph by Vanessa Heins)

(Photograph by Vanessa Heins)

Wearing shiny black shoes, grey women’s dress pants, a men’s extra-small purple button-up and a black trench coat, Browne emerges through two black curtains at ice level at the HarborCenter’s KeyBank Rink, bag slung over his shoulder. He dresses sharply, like you’d expect a pro hockey player would. He does not look the part of a man who makes $7,000 for a season, some $30,000 less than Sidney Crosby earns in a single day.

A couple of hours later on this Sunday afternoon, Browne and his teammates take the ice for the second in a two-game series against the visiting New York Riveters. Browne isn’t noticeable for his speed on the ice, or for his size (he’s a wiry five-foot-four, 120 lb.). He’s not going to dangle through a team and score a highlight-reel goal. But each of Browne’s shifts is a clinic in hard work. As his linemate Devon Skeats puts it, “He’s go, go, go, headfirst.” In one shift, Browne flips over an opponent, takes an elbow to the chin and falls to the ice. “Nice play,” the referee says. Browne shakes his head: “Are you f–king kidding me?” The game goes to overtime, and Browne doesn’t see the ice. But he’s first over the boards to celebrate with his teammates when Kelley Steadman scores the winner.

They needed that win, he says a day later, dressed in a grey sweater and dark jeans, with a lion ring on his left middle finger. The Beauts, who lost in the finals last season, are off to a slow start this year. So is Browne, who has just three points in eight games, compared to five goals and seven assists in 18 games in his rookie year. For a guy who has a team of four people working around him to ensure he is, in his words, “the best,” it’s not exactly encouraging. Every Tuesday, Browne makes the drive back to Oakville to work with his on-ice instructors and a weightlifting coach, extra training he gets in thanks to financial help from his parents. He could find a team to help him in Buffalo, sure. “But I’ve been working with the same people for a long time,” he says. “It’s a little uncomfortable being around strangers, going into an environment where people don’t know me and don’t know what I’m going through.”

Browne calls playing pro hockey in the NWHL a dream come true, even if the minuscule salary he receives means he can’t cover rent without help, even if some nights practices go as late as 11:30 p.m. to accommodate teammates who have day jobs. Hockey still feels like home: The league is now working on its transgender policy. And acceptance isn’t even the right word to describe the Beauts and their approach to their lone male teammate, the guy who’s meticulous about his hair (he cried after his last cut, which looked nothing like the picture of Ryan Reynolds he showed the stylist), who owns two ferrets named Brutus (he bit Skeats) and Sawyer (she conspired with Brutus to eat Racusen’s Fitbit), and who you’ll find knitting at the back of the bus on road trips (“There are feminine qualities to him, I would say,” Racusen points out.) “We’re immune to it,” says teammate Paige Harrington of Browne’s gender. “Wait, not immune, wrong word. But we’re so used to it. He is who he is. The only difference is he made it public.”

That’s the best part, if you ask Browne: He no longer has to come out. His grandmother found out she had a grandson because she read about it in the Oakville Beaver, then called him and left a voicemail. “She was like, ‘Hi, umm, Harrison’—and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” Browne says, grinning.

(Photograph by Vanessa Heins)

(Photograph by Vanessa Heins)

That Browne scored a goal in the season opener only punctuated his announcement that same day. Aside from being named to Team Canada, the goal is Browne’s career highlight, and he can recite the play detail by detail: “I knew she’d bite on the fake shot, so I pretended to go backhand.” But the best part came after, once the roar of the crowd died down. “They said, ‘His first goal of the season,’” Browne says. “That was so cool.”

Racusen cried in the stands, but still managed to catch the moment on video.

Those are the times everyone is aware Browne is a he. Day to day, like here, in this coffee shop, it’s a different story. He’s misgendered all the time. “Someone says, ‘This is her coffee,’ or, ‘What does she want?’” he says. “I don’t feel like myself to people viewing me. It’s not like now that I’m Harrison Browne, it’s perfect. I’m still in a female body.”

Browne says that when he transitions fully, he’ll be happiest. “Every stage I take to be more authentic,” he says, “is a step toward happiness. It keeps getting better.” In the meantime, he can justify waiting. “I don’t have my whole life to play hockey,” he says. “I’ve worked my whole life in sport; I’m the highest I can be without playing for Team Canada. If I had stopped short, I wouldn’t have been fulfilled.”

Physically, though, Browne says he’s stuck at the puberty stage. “I still have some growing to do.” It’s a lose-lose situation: Feel like an adolescent and play the sport you love, or give up on your sport to become a man.

The transition might come before Browne feels he’s done playing pro hockey, but as he points out, that wouldn’t make him any different from the women who retire to move on to other careers or focus on family. Browne feels a biological clock of sorts, ticking. Occasionally, he’ll have a dream in a male body. Then he’ll wake up and realize he’s himself. “I’m still scared,” he says. “It’s scary that you have to change things, that you have to go through surgery and put hormones in your body.” Especially for a guy who doesn’t even like getting needles at the doctor. “But I have peace with it now,” Browne says. “I feel a little trapped, but it’s something I can change. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not angry about it, I’ve accepted it.”

Walking around downtown Buffalo now, Browne grins thinking about what’s ahead. A deeper voice. A beard, he hopes. A little stubble, at the very least. “It’ll align everything,” he says. “To be seen in public for who I really am. To be in the body I should have. I can’t wait.”

As long as he’s playing professional hockey, he will, though. He has to.


 

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