FINDING THEIR TRIBE
by Kelsey Harper
Life changed for Ben Skinner the moment they realized that society’s rules on gender, and expectations of who they were and who they could be, were arbitrary. The catalyst that led to accepting their authentic, non-binary self? Rugby.
“Honestly, getting involved with rugby was kind of an accident,” they explain. “I became friends with a girl who I sat next to in my grade 9 homeroom class because both of us had no friends.”
“My classmate, who I had just met, said, ‘Do you want to go try out for the rugby team with me? I don’t want to go to tryouts alone.’”
So, Ben, who grew up playing competitive hockey at a high level, was open to the idea since the seasons didn’t conflict and it was an opportunity to meet new people.
"I'm going to try it; why not,” they thought at the time. “It sounds cool, and I was always a relatively aggressive hockey player, so maybe this is a place where I can get more of that aggression out and have some fun."
The transition to rugby, however, was easier in concept than reality. Ben, who was adept on skates, got beaten up, run over, and bloodied on the pitch.
“I had a terrible time actually playing because I was just learning, and I also was not the greatest athlete on my feet.”
Socially, however, it was a haven.
“I ended up making a bunch of friends, and things started to click in grade 10,” they share. “I was still pretty bad at the sport, I’m not going to lie, and I was really only there because the people I had met were fantastic people.”
"They're still some of my lifelong best friends, which is amazing. They became my family, especially in such a vulnerable time."
Ben’s love of the sport grew as they became increasingly connected and committed to the process of getting better every day. Rugby’s innate physicality provided a unique space for them to express themselves and push the limits of their body.
“There are aspects of rugby, especially being someone who is assigned female at birth, that draws you as a young person to the game,” they explain. “There are no other women's full-contact sports that are played the exact same way as the men's side of that sport.”
“That was part of what ultimately made me fall in love with it. Once I was starting to get a bit older and understand the game a bit more, I didn't have any other opportunities to push my body the way I was able to push it in rugby.”
“It's very unique in that sense because it's naturally aggressive,” Ben continues. “So, you tap into things that, as a person who's assigned female at birth, you're not taught to tap into very often.”
“I think that's part of the reason why women's rugby, in particular, is so special. It shows you the potential of your body that you otherwise would not discover because of the way our society has assigned functions to people that we perceive as female.”
For Ben, finding rugby was like finding their tribe.
The collectivist culture they came to love about the sport’s community brought a sense of arrival that aligned with their family values. Ben’s heritage is a mix of their father's Indigenous and Newfoundland roots, and being first-generation Filipino on their mother's side.
“Part of the reason that Filipinos and Newfoundlanders get along so well, even though they appear so different on the surface, is they both come from very collectivist cultures that value community and treating everybody like their family,” they explain.
“I grew up understanding the idea of friendship to be not separate from family. In the sense that you treat your friends like family because they are your family.”
However, this grounding set of values juxtaposed with some aspects of the conservative culture common in Newfoundland and the Toronto suburb where Ben grew up. From an early age, they struggled to reconcile their self-identity with the world around them.
“Being confused about my sexuality and my gender identity came along with that because I was never exposed to different kinds of people that I now know I’m part of,” they share. “I didn’t really understand, and it wasn’t something that we ever talked about.”
“It did cause a lot of confusion and a lot of pain.”
From their earliest memories, Ben, who identifies as pansexual, questioned their view of themselves. They were certain about their alternative feelings but unable to fit them into society’s expectations.
“I knew for a fact I was different right away. I also knew that I was not a girl when I was presenting as a girl and that I was being forced into the little girl box,” they assert.
“I knew that wasn't who I was.”
“When I was a kid, in my dreams, I would resemble more like a little boy than a little girl, which is very confusing as a child. And I would always say in my head, ‘Oh, you can pretend, but that's not real-life.’"
Ben kept their thoughts quiet and internal throughout their childhood, saying to themself, 'That's weird, don't tell people that.' This powerfully oppressive feeling, brought about through no fault of their own, had their physical and mental being at odds.
“I started to resent my body because I didn't understand what was going on in my brain,” they say. “I didn't understand the disconnection between my mind and my body.”
As a young person left alone to process this complex internal confusion, Ben experienced gender dysphoria. The severe distress this brought about, and with no way to cope at the time, left a lasting impact.
It would be years before they began to find salvation by accident.
“Rugby was the first place where I [not only] saw people who represented what I knew I was, but I saw them being accepted and taken seriously,” Ben explains. “I had never been exposed to an environment where being trans or being a more masculine woman was not just okay, but it was actually a great thing.
It was like, ‘That's awesome, you're a badass.’"
Representation is powerful, and in Ben's experience with rugby, this extended beyond the playing field through to the coaching ranks.
“Because I had played hockey, I was the only person of color on the ice most of the time,” they share. “Then, one of my first rugby coaches, when I started playing club, was a gay Black woman."
“Being coached by not only a Black woman, but a gay Black woman was, for me, a moment of, 'This is where I'm supposed to be, this makes sense, this is my tribe.'"
“That was it. I’ve been stuck ever since.”
Ben’s athletic prowess on the rugby pitch grew on pace with increased self-confidence and awareness that came with these transformative experiences. So much so that rugby became their focus at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, where Ben’s life began to unfold more openly and authentically.
“When I started university, I had my first serious relationship with another person who was assigned female at birth,” they share. “Then eventually, in a really strange way, I came out to my parents – it just kind of came out in conversation.”
The process of revealing their authentic self, while healing in some ways, also brought new challenges linked to Ben’s lingering struggle to fully accepted themself. Their moment of gender euphoria came from an otherwise mundane observation with a university teammate.
“They were an athlete who was four years older than me,” they explain. “They were well established, they knew who they were, and they now identify as non-binary.”
“They were the very first person who I had ever seen who was assigned female at birth and wore men's underwear.”
“That was one of the very first times where I realized that gender is completely constructed; it is completely arbitrary,” Ben continues. “I remember seeing this particular person and being like, ‘Oh my God, I can wear men's underwear if I want to.’”
Without context or understanding, the moment may seem silly. However, bearing witness to how their true self could finally fit into the world around them was a moment of power. For the first time, it was possible to bring their dreams and pretend thoughts into an authentic reality.
“In that moment, in my first year of university, I realized that I choose my own existence,” Ben shares proudly. “I don't have to pretend. I can choose to be what I want.”
“It's such a weird realization to come to because it seems so instinctual to me now, but it wasn't at the time. It was so backward not to follow the social rules that were given to me.”
“We’ve all had instructions, social instructions, and if you don't follow them, you're going to be outcasted, you're going to be a freak, you're not going to be successful,” they continue. “Those were all things that were ingrained in my mind until I saw a smart, successful, well-loved, athletic, wonderful human being, just bending all the rules.”
“That was a shining moment for me.”
Ben has since flourished in life and sport, elevating themselves to elite-level rugby. In 2019, they became the first openly transgender person to represent the Canada Ravens, Canada's National Rugby League program. Powerfully, this achievement and those to come stem from the space that rugby created for Ben to thrive.
“It's hard to motivate yourself when you feel lost and when you feel like something's not right or you're missing out on something. So, when I was able to find this wholeness and find the things that I felt like I was missing for a long time in rugby, I was simultaneously able to put more energy into my actual rugby career.”
Looking back, while the journey has been extraordinary and challenging, it has been distinctly more courageous. Ben’s learned perspective is empowering for anyone who aspires to take control of their destiny and break out of the expectations others set for them.
“I spent a lot of time, energy, and effort being distressed about things that I shouldn't have been distressed about,” they say. “It was a socially fabricated distress based on people trying to shove me in boxes.”
“When I was able to find myself and become more comfortable in the skin that I was in, I was able to show people around me who I was. It energizes you and takes that stressor away, and it replaces it with energy.”
This empowering shift from distress to positivity redefines what is possible.
“Something really important about knowing who you are, and growing as a person and learning to love yourself, is it gives you the energy to motivate yourself to reach for things that you would have never reached for.”
“Your self-love motivates you to reach for the things that you want.”
At a time when fundamental human rights are tragically politicized, and while Ben’s experiences are uniquely their own, hope lies in all people being able to relate with empathy and an open heart.
“We have different paths, we have different struggles, we have different obstacles, and we have different timelines, but we all want the same things,” they say.
“We want acceptance, we want love, and we want self-love. We want to look in the mirror and feel proud of ourselves.”
Yes, we do.
Ben is a pro athlete ambassador for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that works to 'dismantle the systems of oppression in sport that isolate, exclude, and endanger LGBTQI+ people.' ACTIIVST is proud to support their mission and donate 100% of the proceeds from purchases using the code: ATHLETEALLY.
Proceeds from every ACTIIVST purchase support cause-based and nonprofit organizations with a focus on equality, education, and physical and mental health. To learn more, click here.
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