Ben Christiason begins his morning run on asphalt, pounding the straightaway of a tree-lined suburban boulevard that looks plucked from a John Hughes movie. As the road curves, he trades pavement for the gravel of a trail at the edge of a cluster of baseball fields.
On this airless morning, the sun hangs low, radiating a sticky heat as sweat flattens Christiason’s normally coiffed hair. Performing balletic movements to string his iPhone through his shirt without losing rhythm, he whips off the perspiration-covered tee and tucks it into his shorts.
His bare chest isn’t exactly out of place on this busy Cedar Falls trail, but what is rare are the deep mauve marks forming two perfectly straight lines just under his pecs — the scars left behind from the mastectomy Christiason endured to remove his breasts.
The colored bands are a physical reminder of his emotional journey to a recent milepost: Coming out as transgender and, in the process, becoming the first known transgender high school athlete to compete openly in Iowa.
Popping out against his pale skin, the rich purple streaks are all that remain of Karna, the name Christiason ran cross country under for years until the toll of racing with a group of women while struggling with an internal male identity became too great. They are equally the marks of finally living life as he’d dreamed, and of enjoying acceptance from family and a good portion of the Cedar Falls community, an acceptance that gave him the confidence to rejoin the cross country squad — only this time on the boys’ team.
Christiason, 18, is one of a small but growing number of transgender athletes choosing to participate publicly in sports, experts said. But whether competing at an elite level or for a middle school team, transgender athletes often face a mixed bag of policies and laws and confront questions about perceived competitive advantages that come from their birth gender’s inherent physiological traits.
“Trans inclusion is the next frontier in athletic equality,” said Chris Mosier, a New York-based transgender male athlete who last month became the first transgender person to pose for ESPN’s Body issue.
“In the last three years, the conversation around trans athletics has accelerated,” Mosier said. About half of the sports world has adopted “trans-friendly policies,” he estimated, and the other half has not.
“While some of that (other) half has adopted discriminatory policies, it’s really that they haven’t stood up,” he said. “They have no policies, which leaves trans athletes totally unclear with what to do or what they can do.”