Jessica Platt's journey: How hockey helped a transgender player find herself
Platt, a forward with the Toronto Furies, is the first openly transgender athlete in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, and one of only a few anywhere within elite female sports, writes Rachel Brady
Photography by Michelle Siu
The women who play for the Toronto Furies were summoned to their dressing room in January for an important team meeting, and they had no idea why.
When the hockey players were all assembled, it was a player – not a coach – who stood up to address the group. Jessica Platt's voice trembled, as did the paper she held for guidance. The 28-year-old forward delivered the same brief speech she had already quietly given twice in confidence, first to a couple of representatives from the Canadian Women's Hockey League, and then to the Furies' coaching staff.
Now she looked upon a much larger group – all of her teammates – and began to tell the women something she'd been holding in since the Furies drafted her in 2016:
Platt spoke for just a few minutes, sharing a little of her poignant personal story with her teammates. A league representative was there to assure everyone Platt was abiding with the CWHL's policy on transgender players (she must maintain hormone levels typical of a female athlete). It was another step toward becoming the first openly transgender athlete in this seven-team professional women's league, and one of the few anywhere within elite female sports.
The 5-foot-8, 155-pound player was average size for this league, and her skills didn't stand out above others. Still, she worried some would look at her differently or dismiss her muscle or her speed as simple results of having once been male. Would they overlook her hard work? Would they understand the sweat she put in during recent years, running, cycling, weight training and skating?
The next steps included a news release, from the CWHL, congratulating Platt, sent out to sports-media outlets around the world and her own message, announced on social media. A whirlwind few weeks followed, full of photographers, news cameras and interviews with reporters from all over North America. There were a slew of messages and conversation on social media.
The Furies hadn't won many games this season, and now the spotlight would be on the team for reasons other than their hockey. As she spoke to her teammates, Platt saw comforting smiles. She felt happy, proud and emboldened – relieved she could finally stop worrying that someone might find out before she could tell them. She said she'd give them a few moments of privacy to digest it. Then she left the dressing room.
The players spoke privately for a while. Eventually handfuls of them followed her into the hall, offering hugs and congratulations, invitations to share more of her story over a beer sometime.
"I never expected to speak publicly about being transgender – I just wanted to live my life," says Platt, seated in the lobby of Toronto's MasterCard Centre for a lengthy interview before a practice. She tucks her long blonde hair behind her ears dotted with delicate crystal earrings, her fingers painted in blue nail polish.
"But I can't pass up the opportunity to help people. I think people should see a solid example of a transgender person who is following her dreams. I didn't have that kind of role model when I was growing up."
Platt was born male and grew up the youngest of three kids, with a brother who played hockey and a sister who figure skated. Learning to skate on the family rink in Sarnia from age 3 led to joining a boys' house league hockey program by age 5 and eventually on to many seasons of competitive hockey, travelling all over Southwestern Ontario.
"I loved hockey, but I was always very quiet and shy," recalls Platt, thumbing the Toronto Furies logo on her cell phone cover. "I remember one coach one time saying that it was surprising when I actually said something in the dressing room. I had a couple friends on the team each year, but I mostly kept to myself."
As she grew, Platt started to have interests different from most of the other boys and a lack of comfort within the atmosphere of boys' hockey, especially within the bro culture of the dressing room. She liked playing with dolls and felt more at ease being with female friends.
Platt found it tough to fit in socially during the high school years, but kept busy with hockey, school band, a job at Tim Hortons and another at the family's flower shop, projecting the appearance of a contented teenager. Her dad Richard saw a "happy-go-lucky kid with lots of friends" and didn't think twice about Platt always being the first player out of the dressing room.
As the feeling of being different and confused about her body intensified, Platt retreated from family, spending countless hours alone downstairs on the computer.
"I didn't know what it meant to be transgender at that point. I thought maybe I just have weird interests that I should keep hidden from everyone, but I needed to figure out what was going on with me," Platt says. "I had a couple of female friends I talked to about it back then. I would try to bring it up in subtle ways with them to gauge their reactions. I didn't feel I could trust the guys. I thought if guys found out the way I was feeling, they'd beat me up or make fun of me or tell everyone."
Platt began to read online about what it meant to be transgender, but couldn't imagine talking about it with an adult in a town she felt was really conservative. Body issues were causing Platt some dark, confusing, lonely times.
"I'd see myself in the mirror and knew that was not who I wanted to be," Platt recalled. "In high school I became more aware of what it was to be gay, lesbian. I had heard of words like 'transsexual' in the movies, but it always sounded very negative the way I heard it mentioned back then. But to me, the idea of being transgender didn't sound horrible at all. Now I know that I wasn't weird."
Platt took a few years off school to work, and played a year of recreational hockey before hanging up the skates.
Once enrolled at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo in 2010, Platt found comfort in gradually creating a more feminine look with clothes, a longer, straightened hair style and makeup.
She confided in a few close friends and roommates, and eventually built up the courage to share her new female identity with her mom and sister. They were accepting, but she asked them to keep it quiet for a while. Later, she let her mom tell her brother. Platt chose to tell her dad by e-mail, hoping he could digest it for a while before they spoke.
"She said she told me by e-mail because she didn't want to see a look of disappointment on my face, and I thought 'Disappointment? Oh my goodness, how could a parent ever be disappointed in you? I've never been anything but proud,'" recalled her father Richard Platt. "I admit, I was shaken at first. I'm from a different generation and I knew nothing about the process she was going through, and I had a lot of worries and I had a lot of learning to do about it. But you back your child no matter what. You want them to be happy and healthy. I've been in awe of her strength and determination."
Platt joined the Rainbow Centre at Wilfrid Laurier, and made friends in the LGBTQ community. She legally changed her first name to Jessica and began the lengthy process of transitioning her identity socially. She spoke to every one of her professors. She told people she wanted to be called Jessica and referred to in female pronouns.
"I told my core group of friends and family in person. For some others, I'd send an e-mail or Facebook message," Platt said. "I changed my name on Facebook and left it at that. It was kind of like, 'if you've got questions, ask me.'"
Acquiring hormone replacement therapy pills was more complicated than she imagined, mostly because she had no idea who to ask. She was bounced from general practitioner to psychiatrist to psychologist to endocrinologist over the course of a frustrating year before she finally got the prescription in 2012, mid-way through university.
"I liked seeing a more feminine version of myself emerge," Platt said. "I was growing my hair long. The larger pores on my skin were smoothing and my skin was softer and more delicate looking, more feminine. My features were softening. Changes happened very gradually, but it made me happy."
Platt had been rededicating herself to an athletic lifestyle with a fierce resolve, running, kayaking, biking, competing in duathlons and playing ultimate Frisbee. One of her part-time jobs included being a skating and hockey instructor, and she began to rediscover her love for the sport.
She lost a lot of weight after starting hormone therapy ("I had gotten chunky," she says with a laugh). She noticed as she was transitioning that her muscles got smaller and it took more work to build them. Her running speed dropped a little, too.
The last step was sex-reassignment surgery. Her mother travelled with her to Montreal for it.
"Before the surgery, I was terrified, but I just knew it was something I needed to do, and I had waited a long time," Platt said. "People always tell me it was brave, but for me, it wasn't a choice."
She moved back into her family home in Sarnia so her parents could help her with everyday life during the several months it took to recover. Bed-ridden at first, she slowly eased into walking again.
After the lengthy recovery, Platt was eager to rekindle that spark for hockey. She started playing in a local women's league. She loved the feel of skating again, and the once-great vision she had on the ice was returning. She was nearly 60 pounds lighter than she'd been when she last played on a rec hockey team – and she had never trained seriously for it back then. How good could she be if she actually trained as a hockey player?
She doubled down on her workouts and joined a more competitive league in Kitchener, where she had moved out on her own. She anonymously researched eligibility rules for a transgender woman to play in the CWHL and was confident she'd achieved the appropriate hormone levels needed.
"She really went after it," said her father. "The work ethic, the dedication to all those gym trips, she knew it was going to take a fantastic kind of effort."
Platt registered for the league's 2016 draft, and the Furies selected her in the 14th and final round, 61st overall. She hadn't played for a university program in Canada or the United States or internationally, like many CWHL players. Playing in this league was a tall order, but she was determined to try, even if it meant making the 110-kilometre trip between Toronto and Kitchener several times each week to play.
Platt, who also works as a cashier at a cafeteria in Kitchener, didn't make the Furies roster in 2016, but she was called up for four games. She made the team this season and has played in 20 of Toronto's 21 games, recently moving from defence to forward. She decided this season, she would use the platform to tell her story.
"We could see in her face how relieved she was to tell us," said Furies forward Carolyne Prevost. "I think the CWHL, and the larger women's hockey community, is one of the more accepting communities out there. We're all supporting her, and we very much have her back."
Platt sought advice from the You Can Play Project about how to choreograph it all, especially from Chris Mosier, a transgender man who competes for the U.S. Duathlon team.
She's received lots of media attention since she came out publicly on Jan. 11, and hundreds have reacted to her posts on social media. Among the lengthy flow of encouraging messages, there are a handful of negative, disparaging ones, too. Those sting, but Platt is steely in brushing cruel words aside. Instead she focuses on a touching message from Harrison Browne, a player in the National Women's Hockey League who identifies as male and plans to undergo the female-to-male medical transformation after retiring from pro hockey.
"You are saving lives @ JPlatt32. #TransAwareness," Browne tweeted.
Platt has scored two goals, including one last Saturday when the CWHL played a rare game in Sarnia as part of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada.
"She had a big group of family and friends at the game in Sarnia, and we went absolutely wild when she got the goal in her hometown; it was pretty emotional," said Platt's girlfriend, Kelly Hebner. "I'm completely in love with her, and you always want to see the person you love be who they want to be. She was doing that to a certain point, but she wanted to be a role model and to tell her story, so it's amazing to see her come out of her shell and do that."
Platt's parents travel from Sarnia to as many of her CWHL games as they can – enjoying being back in the rink and in the stands cheering again all these years later.
"I'm a worrier, and I was concerned when she wanted to speak publicly about her journey, because it can be a cruel world, and you don't know how the community may react, and you always want to protect your kid," said her father. "But I've been pleasantly surprised by people."
Back at the rink after the lengthy interview, Platt strolls to the Furies' small dressing room to get ready for practice as a photographer clicks along behind her. She's in a soft grey sweater with black jeans and boots, chatting with teammates wearing tuques and sweat pants. She greets a teammate's friendly golden retriever Charlie, who happily scampers about the room visiting lockers and having his fur ruffled.
"She's a quiet individual, so I worried all the interviews and the attention could be too much for her, but she's been very composed," said Furies goaltender Sami Jo Small, who has roomed with Platt on some road trips. "It hasn't changed anything about our team chemistry or how we feel about Jess as a teammate. The only thing we notice is she is dressed nice and has her hair done nice for the cameras and reporters lately, when she used to be in sweats and ponytails like the rest of us. But it's been great for her to tell her story."
Platt has tried to reply to those who have reached out to her on social media and hopes to keep using her voice.
"I'm much more outgoing now, talkative, positive, happy and confident," Platt says. "I'm the same person I've always been. I have always cared a lot about my friends and would do anything for them, I have always loved helping people, but my work ethic is much better now. Other kids will go through what I experienced, teens, adults, not just in sports, but in all different settings. You can be who you want to be, still follow your dreams and most importantly you can be happy."