As we prepare to welcome our community to San Antonio at week’s end for the 99th NASPA Annual Conference, we sat down with featured speaker Chris Mosier to talk about his roots in student affairs, the intersectionality of his many identities, and the passion for advocacy he hopes to inspire in our attendees when he takes the stage at #NASPA17.
We began with a question about his identity… as an athlete.
“I could tell you that I was an athlete since the age of four. I have always identified as an athlete for as long as I can remember… I really wanted to go and play basketball and my dream was to have MOSIER across my shoulders.
For different reasons, that wasn’t the path I chose, and a lot of it pertains back to my identity. At that time, I didn’t understand my identity as a trans person. I certainly didn’t know any trans people and I didn’t have that understanding of language.”
At the time, it was difficult for Chris to recognize the real reason why he wouldn’t compete in college basketball or in other sports: that he wouldn’t have felt comfortable on a women’s team. Instead, he busied himself with other on-campus activities so he would be too busy to think about his identity.
“Looking back on it now, that was really why I chose to do all these other things… I busied myself in college so I didn’t have the time to spend discovering my real identity.”
Life changed dramatically for Chris in his fourth year at Northern Michigan, when he had a mini- stroke that had catastrophic effects for him physically. During his recovery, however, he found himself wanting to push harder and go further than he had before.
“Going from being an athlete who relies so heavily upon their body to being in a position where I couldn’t run a mile – I was having trouble just getting up to go to class – my recovery process from that was, okay, here I had this super scary experience, now let’s see what my body can do.”
Chris began looking for the next challenge, started doing running races, including 5Ks and half marathons. Eventually he bought a bike and started swimming, which brought him back to his athletic roots. “Training for that first triathlon race was when I was like, ‘I’m an athlete.’ I regained my athletic identity.”
Graduating with a degree in graphic communication and an English minor, Chris initially went off to work as an art director for a newspaper in Los Angeles, but quickly discovered that it was not his ideal path. “Deadline life was not for me,” he said.
“It was such a challenge because it was my freshman year of life. I left school and I had lost my identity as a student leader and as a college student and I was trying to figure out who I was as a person.”
It was by reflecting back on his college experience that Chris found a new path to follow.
“I feel like I have that super common student affairs experience like, ‘I had such a great college experience… I want to be Dave Bonsall.’” Dave was, at the time, director of the Center for Student Enrichment, Northern Michigan University, and left a significant impression on Chris. “I don’t remember my professors, but I remember those student affairs experiences.”
These reflections led Chris to apply for student affairs programs, and he landed at Loyola University of Chicago, where he studied for one year before taking an ACHUO-I internship at Cornell. His first professional student affairs position took him to Marymount Manhattan College where he stayed for 11 years – first as a residence director, and then later as assistant director of residence life. While at Marymount, he took classes at New York University to finish his master’s.
Even then, however, he was still grappling with his identity.
“I was still not out at Marymount, and I entered grad school at NYU asking them to say he/him. I wasn’t really open about my identity as a trans person, but was living as a transman at school, but not at work. And when you live where you work, that’s a lot of life too, so it was really a complicated time for me.”
It was for the love of sport that he finally began the process of unpacking his identity and coming out. In 2010, he made the decision to start taking testosterone.
The 2010 Ironman Florida was the first race that Chris ran listed as a male, and was a “huge, defining moment” in his athletic experience. After that, he contacted the Advocate, writing a piece coming out as a transgender triathlete, and began his very public coming out process. In 2011, Chris became the first person to race the New York City Triathlon as male after having done the race as female, which led to the New York Times writing an even more widely-read piece on his life as a trans athlete.
Chris understands that he won’t ever be able to hide his identity again.
“I will forever be the trans athlete. Always. Because of that one time of posting it online, that one decision I made to be public about my identity.”
While the decision was not easy – he reflects that it took him nearly a year to make the leap – Chris knew the purpose of coming out was more significant than his own life.
Chris really found his advocacy voice in 2013, when he started the website transathlete.com.
“I was really driven by the idea of making sure that other people after me were not in that position. I just thought, I am so blessed and privileged in the fact that I had a stable job… I have a loving and supportive partner who encouraged me to go through this process to understand myself better, so I could become a better person. I’m white, and I recognize that I have a great deal of privilege there. And had transitioned to be a white man, who people perceive to be straight… So I basically inherited all this privilege and this social platform. I knew with that and the stability of my situation, I had an opportunity to speak where other people may not have that opportunity.”
In 2015, Chris made Team USA, and began his successful battle to overturn the rules governing transgender athletes in international sports.
“I knew that making Team USA in 2015 meant basically a year of talking about what’s in my pants. Because the whole policy was around the lower surgery requirements, internal and external lower surgery, full gonadectomy. I thought, as a human, that’s a human right violation, first and foremost. And that’s eventually what they said.
“There’s not just one way to be transgender, and not all trans people want to have surgery. Not every trans person hates their body. And additionally, I didn’t think that having an extra body part would make me a faster runner or stronger cyclist. It shouldn’t be something necessary to compete.”
Chris believes that sport can play a huge role in pushing forward social movements. “I think that sports [are] a vehicle for social change. That we’ve seen a lot of social change happen because … athletes have lead the way.
“This is why I totally love my new job and my work with You Can Play. We believe that athletes should be judged on their character and their desire to compete and their work ethic, as opposed to their sexual orientation and/or their gender identity. Very simply put, if you can play, you can play.”
Outside of the world of sports, Chris looks to young people, particularly on college campuses, to be a force for change in the world.
“I absolutely think that college is the place for social change to happen. Colleges and universities should be driving our social change. It can become really tense with the political climate and talks about politics, but what an amazing opportunity for us to learn how to better communicate across differences…”
“Our young people are guiding what has to happen and where we are going to go, and I’ve been really proud of the advocacy that’s happened on campus that’s been driven by students.”
Importantly, Chris points to the work that student affairs administrators do on campuses as needing primarily to support these students.
“We have a responsibility and an obligation as administrators to step forward and meet them at that change point. Because we can’t expect students to advocate completely for themselves. If that’s the case, we’re not doing our jobs.”
If administrators aren’t ready to begin advocating for their students, at least he says, they need to educate themselves. “A little bit of research can help someone get ahead so they’re not just relying on the LGBTQ people in their life to answer all their questions.”
Further, he emphasized the importance of language, and how training programs on campuses are vital to creating an atmosphere of safety, particularly for transgender students:
“Language is so incredibly powerful, and that’s one of the best ways that people can start to create change in environments — by simply changing their language.
“As a trans person, I was looking at conversations with colleagues … for clues that they would be inclusive. That they would be respectful. That I would be accepted... Language can empower people or it can take the power away.”
For administrators who aren’t sure where to begin, Chris says people should model the behavior they want to see by interrupting homophobia or transphobia, and not sitting idly by.
“If you are silent, silence is approval of whatever sort of discrimination or activity that someone may be witnessing. We need people to step up and say how it impacts them.”
“We shouldn’t have the pressure of having just LGBTQ people advocate for themselves. The way this message really gets put forward is through the help of our allies and our partners. Our accomplices in this mission.”
When asked about what he is excited about for the 2017 NASPA Annual Conference, Chris laughs: “NASPA holds a spot in my heart and also, I’m super excited to be there because I feel validated for the times that you all rejected my program proposals.”
Chris was an active member of NASPA when he worked on campus, particularly in the (then) GLBT Knowledge Community, as the chair of transgender inclusion.
“My history in higher education and my work in colleges and universities and my passion for helping young people has not left as I’ve pursued this new career in athletics and in advocacy.
“I’m really excited to speak to the people who are working with young people every day, people who I worked so closely with in the past because I know what it’s like to be on the inside of a college or university.”
“It’s more important now to show up as ourselves and show up for other people because of the world that we live in.”