Tennis Lessons

At age 28, I began transitioning. But picking up a racket made my body mine.

Photo: Bobby Doherty
Photo: Bobby Doherty

I’m on a tennis court in Brooklyn on a Tuesday afternoon. My friend Hunter is 78 feet away. They toss the ball in the air, readying their serve. The ball flies toward me; I see it, I hit it, it zooms into the net. (It’s okay, I’ll get better.) I feel my feet in my Adidas, my face grows flushed, my legs begin to throb. Yoga is meditative, CrossFit is all body, but tennis is both soma and psyche, the perfect balance of muscle memory and mental agility. When those two things combine, it feels like sex but better. Here is the place where I feel most like myself, as in fully embodied, present, automatic. And here is the place where I most feel myself, as in the Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé song “Feeling Myself” — confident, cocky, full of swagger.

Until I began transitioning three years ago, I was not totally aware that I was missing something. Life, I thought, was meant to be a little anesthetized. Sex, I thought, was meant to be a little boring. Then one day, I woke up and felt, well, insane. My hands trembled. I thought I was going to end up in a mental institution. As the trans novelist Imogen Binnie has written, trans people often spend their early lives putting up mental walls around their identity. When the walls protecting me from the realization that I was trans crumbled, so too did my self-image and, along with it, any conceptualization of my body. All I was left with was a void — I was without mass, without presence. Mine was a body you could walk through.

As I transitioned, therapy helped me understand why I felt ghostly, but it did not save me from the feeling itself. Yoga helped me feel connected to my body, but being in rooms packed with cis women, I couldn’t help but think about my physical form in relation to theirs. Then, three years into my transition and six months into the pandemic, my friends Charlie and Precious told me they’d been trying to learn tennis and invited me to come with them to the courts sometime. Immediately, I bought a racket.

Transitioning is a process of slowly discovering one’s mass, of learning to replace the nothingness with the sensations that come with being alive. Because so many of us spend so long feeling dissociated from our bodies, exercise and movement end up being crucial components of our lives. Some trans people find embodiment through dancing or raving or sex. My friend Charlie Markbreiter likes to run. “My body was a thing that existed but that I had no relation to that I could understand,” Charlie says. “Now I feel like my body is this cool car that I can control, that I can drive around and impress people with.” For most trans people, the process of medical transition is in itself a form of self-embodiment, each pill or jab of a needle like staking a claim — This is mine. I get to do what I want with it.

Although you play against another person, tennis is a solitary sport. You stand far from your opponent, their face an abstraction. You focus on yourself. On Reddit and Twitter, trans women talk about wearing their first dress, watching it twirl around in the mirror and experiencing “gender euphoria” for the first time. Can’t relate. One of the first times I experienced gender euphoria was when I finally smashed a serve into the far left corner of my opponent’s service box and watched the ball leap over his head.

In 2021, 31 states have introduced or passed legislation that will restrict the rights of trans people in sports. Most of the bills aim to ban trans girls from being on teams with other girls and trans boys from being on teams with other boys. A bill in Florida would have allowed schools to inspect children’s genitals to confirm that their gender matched the sex they were assigned at birth; that provision was struck down, but the rest of the bill passed. It’s not a coincidence that sports are the tool being used to repress trans kids. The trans historian Jules Gill-Peterson notes that sports are one of the main avenues by which Americans craft a public self: the version of you that can be interacted with, that can receive love and praise, that can participate in American life. And more than in classrooms or at dinner tables, it is on baseball fields and basketball courts that kids first conceptualize their relationships to their own corporeality and their bodies’ relationships to others.

Before I found tennis, every interaction I had with a sport required dissociation. One afternoon, at age 10, I was at a swimming pool in the West Village. On the pool’s opposite end, boys played with an inflatable ball, throwing it back and forth. Standing in a corner of the shallow end, I spun my arms around, pretending to be a washing machine — the only solitary activity I could think to perform in water. Nobody around me could see what I felt — an agony so intense it’s like I was choking. My stomach was made of lead. My head felt as though it were being squeezed by pliers. It took me two decades to realize that what I was experiencing was gender dysphoria: a sensation of unbelonging in one’s body. The only way to survive that moment was for my corporeal form and my brain to split in two — for me to become a floating mind, incapable of pain or pleasure.

These bills are not, as many assume, motivated simply by an abstract phobia of trans people. By attempting to ban trans kids from playing sports with the gender they identify with, the states wish to litigate which people have the right to find safety, ecstasy, power, and purpose in movement, and which people are relegated to the shadows. If passed, the bills would enact a form of retribution more secret, more pernicious, than making arrests or busting into gay bars and breaking up our communities. They are subjecting children — who often lack a language to interpret their experiences — to the violence of disembodiment, the lifelong pain of being severed from one’s body.

This legislation won’t erase trans people, but it will force many into the kind of void I lived in for 15 years. When I was growing up, my ghosthood was most obvious to me in locker rooms and on ball fields — places where I had to confront my own body and its relation to others’. But the emptiness was always present, in classrooms and at prom and at friends’ houses and even alone in my room. All I wanted was embodiment, and it was the one thing that I, for so long, would not be able to find. Instead, I used drugs. I self-harmed because pain, at least, felt real.

I didn’t realize there was another choice until age 28, when I popped my first little blue estrogen pill, sitting at a bar with some friends in Philadelphia, a humongous grin on my face. And it wasn’t until my first time on the court, on a cloudy Brooklyn day, that I knew what I’d been missing all these years.

In the past few months, I’ve traveled to the Brighton Beach home of a large Russian man, a former tennis pro, to buy used rackets. I’ve tried to convert at least ten friends into tennis players, and when I ran out of friends, I scoured the internet for tennis partners. I have attempted to build something of a community around tennis — to share with others my joy at finding my body.

The last time I played, in Sunset Park, I realized how good I had become. I ran back and forth across the court, my muscles knowing where to place themselves, which arcs they should form without my brain needing to tell them. I was in control of my arms, my feet, my life. I lost. It didn’t matter. This was the feeling I’d craved forever — head empty, just my body operating at its best, a machine that is all mine. On most days like this, when I’m on the tennis court and the sun is shining or a spring drizzle is running down my face, I am ecstatically happy. Other times, I want to cry. I am mourning my life unlived.

Tennis Lessons and Learning to Feel at Home in My Body