There are people who do not want Andraya Yearwood to run. They are bothered by the sight of her. Angered by the thought of her.
The black scrunchie on her wrist, the ponytail down her back. The steely stare she offers as coaches, parents and fans hurl insults toward her at track meets, not caring that she's an earshot away.
The vitriol intrudes before races. Afterward. In her Instagram comments. They say she has a “biological advantage.” They say allowing her to run isn't fair. They do not recognize her as a girl. They insist she is a boy—a boy who shouldn't compete in the girls division.
When Andraya is on the track, about to burst out of the blocks, she doesn't hear this noise. Doesn't feel it. She travels somewhere else.
"I don't have to think," she says.
So she zooms. Pumps her arms harder, moves her legs more quickly.
The 100-meter dash is where she shines most. The last two seasons, she finished second in the state open in the 100, with a time of 12.29 in 2018. In 2017, her freshman year, she won a Class M title in the 100 and finished second in the 100 at the New England High School Outdoor Track and Field Championships. "Unheard of" for a first-year, according to her coach, Brian Calhoun.
Now in her third year competing for Cromwell High School, in Cromwell, Connecticut, she feels unfazed. Confident. Probably more than she ever has. "Because they don't want me to run, I have to run harder," she says. "I want to go to nationals in order to prove them wrong, to be like, You guys don't want me to run? But look, I qualified for nationals."
Andraya is a 17-year-old transgender girl. A Black transgender girl in a small town that is 90 percent Caucasian. A Black transgender girl in a world that is intent on policing and erasing girls like her.
She is perplexed by the lengths to which some people have gone to drill into her their underlying message: You're free to be yourself, just not here. Over there. Not with us. Over there.
The noise has been loud since her freshman year, when an adult man, whom she had never met, posted a video about her on YouTube. He spoke furiously into the camera, calling for her competitors to boycott. He titled his video: "How to Stop Andraya Yearwood from Beating Girls for Three More Years!"
It hasn't worked.
The sky is dark. Black-purple. On this Friday night in late November, the Connecticut snow is deep enough to sink a boot. Fresh sole imprints lead up to the bright red door of the home Andraya shares with her mother, Ngozi Nnaji.
Inside, Andraya is upstairs, tinkering with the white Christmas lights that hang above her bed. She's wearing a bright yellow cold-shoulder crop top with black jeans ripped at her knees. Her nails are painted white with silver glitter on her ring fingers—she wants rhinestones next time. Her smile is warm but cautious. She replies "yes" instead of "yeah," when answering questions. She tucks her braids behind her ears, nervously, every few minutes. She has a habit of doing this when talking to reporters: eager to say the right thing, afraid to say the wrong thing. Open and guarded all at once.
Back in June, she and her family appeared on Good Morning America in front of a national audience to speak about a petition that circulated to prevent transgender girls like Andraya from running in the girls division in Connecticut. Her voice was strong, firm. She encouraged other transgender girls to follow their hearts, to do what they want to do in life. What viewers couldn't see was the pressure Andraya felt when speaking out and when being singled out. It seized her. Squeezed her too tight.
Tonight, she is noticeably relaxed. As she looks out her window, she fantasizes about living somewhere far from here, about competing in college out of state. Maybe sunny California! Maybe even Mexico! Her voice brims with excitement. She loves airports and traveling. She's in the process of learning 13 languages, including Portuguese, Italian, Albanian and American Sign Language. She's taking AP Spanish. She is restless; the monotony of Cromwell, where she has lived since first grade, gets to her.
"In the school hallways, I just feel like a zombie," she says.
Cromwell is a small town with one high school, one middle school, one intermediate school and one elementary school. There is a diner; a mall 20 minutes away (Andraya loves the mall); low-hanging streetlights coated in snow; a Dunkin' Donuts every half-mile; and white, blue and cream New England brick houses, some of which have mailboxes out front for the Hartford Courant.
"She lives in a bubble," Ngozi says.
Andraya feels protected and safe—happy, even, in her bubble. She is genuinely supported, buoyed by love as much as she is burdened by hate. Andraya's father, Rahsaan, and Ngozi, who are divorced, have always accepted and loved their daughter. Andraya's three brothers and one sister and best friends and coaches and classmates have too.
They see her as her: a determined teen (she longed to do backflips, so she taught herself how within weeks and now flips across pavement) who is also stubborn (Ngozi used to have to sprinkle hot sauce, a favorite, onto Andraya's green peas because she refused to eat them), graceful (she is polite to her staunchest critics) and, above all else, highly motivated.
Ngozi and Rahsaan worry about what could happen when Andraya leaves Connecticut for college, if that's what she chooses. The bubble—the many layers of protection they labored to build around her—could burst.
They won't be able to control who she talks to, as they do now. They won't be able to prevent physical harm, as they may think they can now.
Andraya is grateful that she feels comfortable, accepted and safe at school. So when the noise online roars too loudly, she can turn her Instagram to private. She can power off her phone. That gives her some feeling of control. Of distance.
But the threat is still close. Always close.
Before her race at the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) 2018 State Open, Andraya walks over to retrieve her number near the starting line, where athletes gather before their heats. Only competitors and event staff are allowed there. Andraya comes upon two women. Parents from other schools, she presumes. They have their backs to her, so they do not know she is trailing closely behind.
"He shouldn't be running!" one of the women says.
"I know!" the other says. "Why is he running on the girls’ team? HE IS A BOY!"
And then the two women turn around. They look at Andraya. She looks at them. It is as if months pass between blinks.
"Why are you on the team?!" one of the women shouts at Andraya. "Why are you here?!"
Andraya feels something inside of her pounding. Fear. That's what it is. A fear no longer dormant inside her. Shock, too. She is shocked that these women—these grown women—are brash enough to say these things to her, a teenage girl. Not over Instagram. Not over Twitter. To her face.
What's to stop them from doing more? she thinks. In a matter of seconds, her brain begins the mental gymnastics of computing every potential scenario.
Their words could turn into actions.
"It was very scary, being in a position where someone could harm me at any given moment," Andraya recalls. "Whenever they wanted to."
The women don't harm her, physically, but the moment causes Andraya to contemplate giving up running. "Do I want to keep doing this? Is it worth it? I don't want to put myself in danger," she says to herself.
She finishes second. When she crosses the finish line, staff is there, like always, ready to escort her if needed. (The CIAC implemented a special protocol for Andraya.) Nobody knows about the encounter; nobody knows what Andraya heard before her race.
"It was very scary, being in a position where someone could harm me at any given moment. ... I felt so numb." — Andraya Yearwood
Some parents yell profanity at Andraya in the stands. A number of kids fire back.
"The kids began yelling back at them, 'This is our meet, not yours. What's wrong with her competing?'" says Karissa Niehoff, former CIAC executive director and current executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. "They supported Andraya."
Niehoff describes Andraya as typically handling herself with "consummate grace and class." But the confrontation with the two women is a visceral reminder that Andraya experiences threats and challenges that those she competes with and against do not have to face.
"I felt so numb," Andraya says. "I just didn't feel like I should be the person doing this. … It was all too much."
As she thinks through what's happening, she imagines another transgender girl going through a similar confrontation. Or one much worse. She doesn't want that to happen. She wants to help other girls, like her friend Terry Miller, another transgender girl in the area, who competes at a high school less than 30 miles away.
So Andraya makes a decision: keep running, keep sharing her story publicly.
As a child, she didn't know what the word “transgender” meant. Neither did her family. They just knew what Andraya liked to wear, and they allowed her to wear whatever she wanted. As a first-grader, she had a pink, glittery Disney backpack that featured princesses Cinderella, Belle and Sleeping Beauty. She loved trying on her mom's heels and wearing pink and purple fuzzy boots with little puffy pompoms on the front.
She started wearing wigs in seventh grade and skirts in eighth. Around that time, she told her parents she was gay. But later her therapist told her about transgender people, and that's when she realized who she was. She just never had the language to describe it until then.
"All along Andraya has been Andraya. It's one of the things people need to understand," says Coach Calhoun, who was also her eighth-grade language arts teacher. "This is not a phase. This is not a fad. This is not 'trying something.'
"This is a person's right to live their life as they truly believe they are."
Her parents embraced her, too. "There was nothing to it," Rahsaan says. "Your child is your child."
Ngozi felt the same way, but she was also concerned about Andraya's safety and mental health. "My greatest fear is not that she's transgender, but because of the lack of acceptance, that she becomes an addict, becomes suicidal, becomes victim to so many other things," Ngozi says. "I just won't allow that to happen."
There were other concerns too, given that violence disproportionately affects transgender people of color—particularly women of color. The killing of transgender people is a national epidemic, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Of the at least 26 transgender people who were shot or killed by violent means in 2018, 21 of them—81 percent—were women of color. About 300 miles away, in Baltimore, a Black transgender woman named Tydi Dansbury was fatally shot, left to lay unconscious on the side of a street. Not to forget some of the other Black transgender women whose lives were cut short: Celine Walker. Tonya Harvey. Amia Tyrae Berryman. Antash'a English. Keanna Mattel...
"As a Black male with Black kids, you're always worried about a time where a physical altercation could come up, regardless of who the instigator is," Rahsaan says.
Andraya's peers have been understanding. When she first told her close friends she was transgender in middle school, they were essentially like, OK, cool. You're transgender. Can we go to the mall now? Most of Andraya's schoolmates accepted that she was using the girls’ bathroom. Several teachers, however, did not. They complained to school administrators. The "solution" was to have Andraya use the bathroom in the nurse's office. She was still not allowed to use the girls' bathroom or girls' locker room.
"I thought, If they let me wear what I want to wear and dress like a female, that's enough. But it's not," she says. "It isn't."
When Andraya started high school, she and her family knew that she might run into opposition once she began competing. "We knew there might be some controversy," Ngozi says. The strategy at first was to not necessarily be proactive. Let things happen. Let Andraya go about her business.
But as cameras showed up to meets and as articles began to be written, the family changed course. "We were like, 'If there's going to be a story, let it be a story that we tell,'" Ngozi says.
Andraya began giving interviews to local newspapers, asserting her right to compete. She shrugged off her critics as making a big deal out of her doing what she simply loves to do. She resisted being defined by their perceptions. Kept running as they kept trying to limit her. Those 12 seconds that she flies down the track for the 100 are only a fraction of who she is and who she wants to be. Her favorite event is actually the high jump. She loves the feeling she gets while flying into the unknown, letting the wind wrap around her as she sails through the air. For a brief moment, while airborne, she travels somewhere else. A place where she can just be herself.
In June, the petition began circulating. It called for athletes to run in the division based on the sex they were assigned at birth, unless the athlete had undergone hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
"It blew my mind," says Andraya. "People really started a petition to not get me to run."
Bianca Stanescu, a parent in the nearby town of Glastonbury, started the petition. "I'm fighting for the principle of it," she says. Her daughter, Selina Soule, is a junior at Glastonbury High. Soule finished sixth in the 100-meter at the 2018 State Open. Stanescu contends that allowing a transgender girl to run in the girls division is an "injustice." That doing so is to give "special treatment." People like Andraya, she says, have a "biological advantage."
"We were like, 'If there's going to be a story, let it be a story that we tell.'" — Ngozi Nnaji, Andraya's mother
There are a host of genetic factors that can give an athlete an advantage, such as fast and slow twitch fibers, height. Environmental and economic factors are at play, too, such as access to training facilities.
"A level playing field is a fallacy," says Dr. Myron Genel, Yale professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology. He is a member of the International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission on issues regarding gender identity in athletics.
"There's so many other factors that may provide a competitive advantage," Genel says. "It's very hard to single out sex as the only one."
There is no proof that cisgender men are inherently more capable than cisgender women. According to an NCAA handbook called "Creating Positive & Inclusive Athletic Environments for Transgender Athletes," the fear that "transgender women will be able to dominate women’s sports without effort due to the inherent advantages men have over women" is "a new iteration of the old stereotypes that kept women & girls out of sports prior to Title IX."
Nationally, there are no uniform federal guidelines that dictate in which gender division transgender athletes must compete. Different states have different policies at the high school level. CIAC policy follows state statute; students are allowed to compete with the gender with which they identify. (HRT requirements are not included in CIAC policy.) However, Texas has a policy that only allows students to compete in the division of the sex on their birth certificates. Some states do not have policies at all.
"We're still not necessarily, across the country, doing a great job of providing equality," says Glenn Lungarini, CIAC's executive director.
At the NCAA level, transgender women may compete with cisgender women only after undergoing HRT for a year. (Ngozi declined to discuss whether Andraya has undergone HRT: "Her medical treatment doesn't define whether she's transgender or not," Ngozi says.)
Regardless, it is still difficult to quantitatively define what "fairness" in this context truly means. For example, fairness could be seen as following the rules. Stanescu told local affiliate WTNH News 8 in June that Andraya is “following the rules” and “doing nothing wrong,” since she is competing in accordance with CIAC policy. Then again, Stanescu wants to change the rules because she thinks they are unfair. She wants to prohibit transgender girls from competing against cisgender girls unless the former have completed HRT. Stanescu told WTNH that transgender girls who have not undergone HRT should be allowed to run against cisgender girls but have their times measured against cisgender boys. Of course, HRT has been shown to have effects beyond hormone levels, according to a study in the Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities. Researchers found that HRT resulted in physical changes to transgender women, which led to “a loss of speed, strength and endurance—all key components of athleticism.”
Hence, the question then becomes: Who ultimately gets to experience “fairness”? And is that even the right question to be asking?
"There is a difference between what is right and what is fair, and people have to decide which side of the fence they want to be on," says Robin McHaelen, executive director of True Colors, a Hartford-based nonprofit that provides services to LGBTQ youth.
"If she can't play, we are denying her all of the other benefits of participating in team sports, the things that have nothing to do with winning and losing," McHaelen says. "It has to do with developing teamwork, relationships, feeling like you belong, developing discipline."
"There is a difference between what is right and what is fair, and people have to decide which side of the fence they want to be on." — Robin McHaelen, executive director of True Colors
But like many of Andraya's critics, Stanescu focuses on winning and opportunity instead. She argues that cisgender girls will no longer win races if they compete against transgender girls and that transgender girls are taking away scholarships from cisgender girls.
That train of thought falls in line with some of Andraya's staunchest critics: Title IX advocates, who fought to give cisgender girls opportunity in sport. However, there is no evidence that transgender girls take away scholarships from cisgender girls. Andraya hasn't received an offer yet.
Stanescu insists her petition is misunderstood as a personal attack on Andraya and Miller, on transgender girls in general: "It's about the rule," she says. "It's not about them."
But it is about them. Stanescu's petition directly targets girls whose identities represent something some people are afraid of: no longer being the default, the norm.
The truth is, Andraya doesn't dominate. Not yet anyway. She has had success, but her 400 is still a work-in-progress. Her 100-meter times—including a 12.17 personal record—are just outside of major university marks. Coach Calhoun believes the mark is within reach. "It gives her something to compete for, something to strive for," he says.
To improve her times, she'll have to dig in. She's relatively new to weightlifting. She recently learned how to squat. How to summon all of her strength. How to crouch lower and spring back up, over and over.
She's always had the drive. She's always been a fighter. A survivor.
Andraya was born extremely premature at 24 weeks. There were so many tubes connected to her tiny body, which weighed one pound, 12 ounces. She had to stay in the hospital for six months. When she was released, she went home on oxygen and a feeding tube.
"Every day, you didn't know if she was going to survive," Rahsaan says. "The doctor said if she survives this, she will do great things because this will be the toughest fight of her life."
But the fight she is in now—a fight to be who she is—is in some ways just beginning.
Andraya takes a seat at the front of Askwith Hall at Harvard University. She's been invited to speak on a November panel called "The Intersection of Gender Identity, Race and Student Support."
She sits next to her mother onstage. She feels a little nervous but less than she has in the past. Once, she spoke at Wesleyan and was so nervous taking the stage in front of 100 students that she forgot to introduce herself.
This time, at Harvard, she feels more confident. Excited. Being at a university causes her mind to drift toward the future. She is receiving some recruiting interest from Harvard's track coaches, in addition to those at UConn, Springfield College and West Point. "They want me," she says. "They want me on their track team."
But the world outside of track? Far less accepting. Just the month before, in October, President Trump said his administration was considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, unchanging condition determined by the sex assigned at birth. This move is part of a larger concerted effort to rescind Obama-era policies that recognized and protected transgender people under federal civil rights law.
Andraya's first thought was Why? Why are people so intent on erasing people like her?
"Just because the government erases the word ‘transgender,’ that doesn't mean that we don't exist," she says. "That doesn't mean that I'm not still transgender."
She brings a similar tone to Harvard. The panel's moderator, Gretchen Brion-Meisels of the university's Prevention Science and Practice Program, asks Andraya why she chooses to speak out.
"I'm here today to advocate for transgender individuals," Andraya says, "and to allow them to be able to live in their truth without having to hide or be afraid."
Ngozi still worries about how her daughter will be perceived in college, how she will be perceived when she enters spaces far less accepting than Cromwell. Rahsaan worries about the immediate future, how Andraya will be treated while in Morocco and Spain this summer.
Andraya thinks about all of this, too, but in this moment, at Harvard, she is focused purely on the moderator's next question: How does it feel to be an activist? How does it feel to have a voice?
Something inside of Andraya stops cold.
Me? She thinks to herself. She had never thought of herself as an activist before.
Brion-Meisels offers a definition of an activist as someone who advocates on behalf of others.
Me, she thinks to herself, smiling. Me.