HALIFAX, N.S. - A stack of practice football gear might be made of padding and a jersey, but Kenny Cooley sees a milestone.
Cooley, a trans Grade 12 student at Halifax West High School and rookie football player, stepped out onto the field Monday night in his first game as wide receiver, his dad and girlfriend waving from the stands.
Although the 17-year-old said he loves the adrenaline of the game, fear almost kept him from signing up for tryouts last June - he was worried about any barriers, and how the team would feel about him.
“I was was super nervous and shaky. I mean you’re going into a group of guys that are a lot bigger than you,” Cooley said Monday at lunch time in the high school’s library, wearing the Warriors football jersey for game day.
“Then you get to know them and … they’re all open and just caring. They all just treat me as one of the guys.”
The idea of playing football had been in the back of his mind for a while before he decided to sign up, Cooley said, but it took an hour-long walk around the school to gather his nerve before putting down his name.
Although he had never played football before, Cooley said all summer he went to the gym and threw the ball around with family to get ready for the two-week training camp.
He also played hockey as a girl on boys' teams until Grade 10, Cooley said, so he wasn’t too worried about handling another contact sport.
During camp Cooley said he brought up the fact he was trans to his coach, who said he already knew and “it’s okay, you do you,” but, if he was ever uncomfortable or had issues, he should come talk to him.
Cooley often uses the guys' locker room, but can also use a separate one if he likes, since he said the one girl on their team already does that and it’s not a big deal.
After training camp those who make the team are handed practice gear. Cooley said getting the gear made him “so happy,” and he took it home right away to show his mom, who took a photo of him holding it.
“I was like ‘I finally did this.’ I had a goal and I achieved it, I felt like I passed a huge milestone in my life,” Cooley said.
While making the team has been positive, and he loves the Halifax West atmosphere since transferring there in Grade 11, Cooley things weren’t great at Lockview High School when he came out as trans in Grade 10 and lost many friends.
“I feel safe going in the hallways and everywhere else [here], where in Lockview I just didn’t,” Cooley said.
Principal Tim Simony said Monday it’s “refreshing” to be at a school where the natural flow of a student wanting to participate in a sport hasn’t had obstacles thrown in, since 15 or 20 years ago that wouldn’t have been the case.
It’s also important to celebrate when things are going well, Simony said, since so often trying to change people’s beliefs comes from responding to cases where people are hurt or struggle to be accepted.
“It’s the going well that starts to make things the normal expectation,” he said.
By telling his story and being open, Cooley said he hopes more people realize trans folks “aren’t weird” but just living in the wrong body, and break down stereotypes about what they can do in life - like play high school football, or become a firefighter.
To those who might call Cooley inspiring or brave, he said he’s not doing it just for himself but all trans people and LGBTQ folks who want to be involved in more sports or activities but feel afraid they’ll be harassed.
“You need to take the risk, because sometimes taking the big leap can lead to you realizing that it wasn’t a big leap at all. It’s just a fear,” he said.
Male high school hockey not open to trans students
Kenny Cooley may be happy to play on his high school football team alongside other guys, but other sports aren’t as open.
Cooley, a trans 17-year-old, plays for the Halifax West girl's hockey team although he identifies as a male.
He says the rules won’t let him join the guy's team “because I still have female organs,” and the barrier comes in because there’s also a female hockey team, so Cooley must play on that one.
Cooley said he’s “very okay” playing with the girls because he gets along with everyone and the coach understands.
“They accept me for who I am, and I know that they don’t look at me as a female, they look at me as a male, and they accept that,” Cooley said.
“It just would’ve been nice to be on the guys’ team.”