Much like football is a way of life for many in the UK, ice hockey is a cultural institution in Canada.
That was certainly the case for Jessica Platt, who grew up playing the sport – even to the point that she had an ice rink set up in her backyard. Really Platt competed in anything she could, also taking part in volleyball, baseball, basketball and soccer at various points throughout her schooling, but it was always hockey that was her main love.
Like many, she dreamed of embarking on a professional career in the game, but admits looking back that she did not have the work ethic at that point to make a real go of it.
However, despite always being confident in her ability, an internal battle was raging in Platt that played a large part in her stepping away from the game altogether at 18 years old – she was trans.
“It was kind of a natural quitting time – the organised leagues end for people around that age,” Platt recalled.
“That’s where people either start playing in a beer league, or play semi-pro or go to the NHL. It’s a natural time for people to quit playing hockey, and I think that I took it as ‘this is where I’m going to end’ and I decided to pursue happiness whatever it took.
“It gave me time to learn about myself, learn what I needed to do to transition and be happy. I didn’t have anyone that I felt like I needed to be, I didn’t have to put on a front anymore.
“I wasn’t surrounded by these hockey guys, and I just started slowly figuring out who I was and letting the person that I had been holding back for so long out.
“Male hockey culture is pretty toxic. Everyone seems to have to be tough, you have to be a “guy’s guy” I guess, so anyone who was seen as different when I was growing up playing hockey was made fun of.
“I grew up in a fairly conservative town, so that probably didn’t help. In my high school there was one out gay man, and people in the hockey team would make fun of him mercilessly – always to his back, because he didn’t play hockey.
“You hear how people talk about others who are different, and how other people talk about women, and you don’t want to stand out like that, to make yourself the butt of everything that they are saying.
“I got in, got ready, played the game, everything was great on the ice, and after the game I got out of my equipment and I was out of there.”
Growing up in a conservative area made the process of self-acceptance a tricky one for Platt. LGBT+ role models in general were lacking, and as is often the case trans visibility was practically non-existent.
She has previously said that she should have realised her identity long before she did, but with no reference point to speak of all that left was confusion and doubt at first.
Then came the issue of acceptance – once Platt had started doing everything in her power to find happiness within herself, she had to brace for a backlash from those in her local community.
“I knew that people are going to say terrible things, I had prepared myself for pretty much any eventuality so I knew what to expect in that way,” she admitted.
“There were definitely people who were not supportive, and very rude people were telling me that I would never be a ‘real woman’, I would never be what I wanted to be. There are always people who are going to talk like that, but the people who are important were supportive.
“It’s interesting to have no representation. When I was growing up, all I ever saw in the media was trans people being made fun of, being the butt of the joke essentially, boiling them down to a man in a dress, which is obviously not what trans women are.
“There was never any good representations for me to look to, so it took a lot of learning. I didn’t have a ton of people to look to and see them succeeding and living their life, that would have made me think I could do that too, that it was a path I could maybe go down. I had to do a lot of trial and error to figure everything out on my own.”
Just before having surgery to complete her transition, Platt got a job teaching children ice hockey and how to skate.
She may not have realised it at the time, but it would turn out to be just what she needed to get a taste of playing again, and she began to mull over a return to the ice, at times literally dreaming of playing again.
After recovering from surgery, she took the first steps by joining a summer league in her hometown of Sarnia, Ontario. At that point it was purely for fun, but as she improved week after week Platt decided to see how far she could go – and she ended up getting drafted to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, playing for the Toronto Furies between 2016 and 2019, when the league shut down.
There was still an element of nervousness about stepping back into the changing room scenario Platt had been so uncomfortable in as a youngster, but she quickly found those fears were totally unfounded.
“I was in a place where I was comfortable with my body, and I wasn’t afraid anyone was going to see anything different about me,” Platt explained.
“For the first few times, I was pretty nervous, but eventually it was no big deal, everyone just got ready to play hockey. Everyone was really nice, so that was great.
“There is a fair bit of LGBTQ+ representation in women’s sports, because typically I think that these athletes are more used to being seen as different.
“I think they are more willing to make their bodies look a certain way to play an elite sport, so they’re already seen as different. Training, and having a different body type, it’s really no big deal.
“There is a lot of pressure on women to look and act a certain way, and that might push them out of the sport, so because LGBTQ+ women would already be seen as different, it’s a little bit easier for them to dive head-first in to the sports world. It is a lot more accepting, open-minded and welcoming.
“A lot of the women I know who grew up playing, they grew up playing in men’s hockey. They were changing by themselves in a little storage room or something like that.
“They were already constantly on guard for being made fun of, just for being a woman playing hockey. They go through his stuff, so they are less likely to want other people to go through it I guess.”
The acceptance that faced Platt was a massive relief, and yet she was not out to anyone other than the necessary league officials as a trans woman.
That was a deliberate decision by the 31-year-old, who wanted to earn a spot on a team’s roster on her own merits, and not be seen as a diversity pick by a team looking for some good publicity.
Platt took the step to tell the rest of her squad on the same day she publicly posted about it on social media in January 2018, after having already earned a platform to be able to potentially make a difference by telling her story, becoming the second professional hockey player to come out as trans after Harrison Browne.
Before taking the leap, she spoke with duathlete Chris Mosier – who represented the USA at the world championships in 2016 and earlier this year became the first trans athlete to compete in Olympic trials – to get an idea of what to expect when her announcement went public.
“I saw Chris in a Nike commercial and he worked with You Can Play, which is an organisation that promotes equality in sports,” Platt, a You Can Play ambassador now herself, said.
“I had a couple of phone calls with him, and he gave me a really good idea of what to expect and how I should go about this.
“He really guided me along the way, and he told me that if I did this, I wouldn’t just be known as a professional hockey player, I would essentially be known as “The Trans Hockey Player”, because people love to label.
“He said I would have a lot of people saying horrible things about me online and potentially in person, and I would have to be prepared for these kinds of things. He gave me a lot of things to think about, and I decided that the good things outweighed the bad.
“I prepared myself for the bad, I always prepare for every eventuality, and the positive reactions definitely outnumbered the negative reactions so that was definitely very pleasantly surprising for me. It all worked out great.
“I had a lot of negative responses from men’s hockey fans who know nothing about women’s hockey and know nothing about transgender people, so that was kind of expected.
“I was expecting some kind of negative response from somewhere in the women’s hockey community too though, and it never came. My teammates were supportive, my coaches were supportive, the league was supportive, the league’s fans were supportive, the people I played against were supportive, it was awesome.
“It was really to make myself visible and show people that they can have the life they have always dreamt of. At one point I never saw a future for myself, but here I am now with everything I could have ever dreamt of. I want other people to see that they can have that too, they just need to get through the rough patch.”
A seemingly constant talking point when it comes to trans women in the vast majority of sports is whether they have a natural, physical advantage.
Only yesterday, World Rugby imposed a ban on transgender athletes at professional and elite levels, citing safety concerns with the physicality involved in the sport.
Across the board, there are a lack of examples that people can look at for evidence, or even to ask for their experiences of the reality of competing.
Platt, however, says there was a quick physical impact on her after she began hormone replacement therapy, and she believes that trans athletes can be unfairly put under the microscope, for good and bad aspects of sport, because of their identity.
“I started transitioning right at the end of the Ultimate Frisbee season and that year I had been one of the quicker, faster, one of the better players in the league,” she reasoned.
“The next summer, after being on hormones for a year, people that I used to be able to run faster than and jump as high if not higher than were completely outperforming me.
“That was a lot to deal with, because in my head I thought I was faster than them, that I could jump higher than them, that I was better than them, and my body just couldn’t do it anymore.
“The body really changes a lot because of HRT, and even now when I work out a lot I feel like I’m struggling to maintain muscle rather than producing more. It takes a lot out of you.
“In hockey it was essentially like starting again.
“There are always going to be people who have different body types and are bigger and stronger than other people, regardless of their gender or the gender they were assigned at birth.
“If I’m not mistaken there was a big controversy surrounding MMA fighter Fallon Fox, I think she broke someone’s orbital bone in one of her fights. People chalked that up to her being transgender, when in many MMA fights there are many injuries that are equivalent or greater than what she had done in one fight. She was by no means winning all of her fights either.
“I think if a transgender athlete is excelling, people put it down to them being born as a man because they have a pre-existing idea that men are better than women at sports.
“In reality, it could be the countless hours that a transgender athlete puts into being good at their sport. People will discount their hard work, their dedication to the sport, and just chalk it up to them being born as a man or something like that, while a cis-gender female who puts the same amount of work and dedication in will be lauded for how hard they work to be as good as they are.
“In general, I think people are okay with transgender athletes as long as they’re not too good I guess. You see it with Caster Semenya, who has higher natural levels of testosterone, but people deem her too good so there must be something wrong.”
For those who would like to see sport become a more inclusive and diverse place, the question then becomes how is it possible to change those attitudes.
In many cases sport can be behind the times, always trying to catch up with the progress that has been made in society in general, but it also has an international reach unlike many other industries.
So do the prejudicial attitude towards trans athletes have to change in wider society before filtering through to sport, or can sport be the catalyst in changing minds?
“It’s tough to say what we could do to change it,” Platt pondered.
“We have to change how people think, and how people view transgender people because I think a lot of people still view transgender women deep down as a man on some level, which they are not.
“There are some deep-seeded issues there that we need to work through, and I try my best to be patient with people when I try and explain it. Sometimes it gets the better of me, but I think education and people hopefully being open to changing their opinions based on the information provided to them, rather than being set in their ideas is the way forward.
“Unfortunately a lot of people seem set in their ideas, but we try to educate. Sport can help, but I think society needs to work on it.
“It needs to start at a grassroots level when people are learning growing up, and then it makes it’s way into the professional levels.
“The professional level in a way can influence how people think at a grassroots level, so they influence how the next generation comes up, and hopefully through that it fixes itself. There are so many complicated questions, but nobody really has a definitive answer for it yet. We just have our opinions and our thoughts, what we think is best.”