Schulyer Bailar, the first openly transgender Division I swimmer shares his love for the color pink, the importance of his Korean American identity and his relationship with the LGBTQ community growing up.
“I remember looking down at my chest and seeing how flat it was, even with all the bandages. I burst into tears.”
YOUTH and ROLEMODELS
Where did the inspiration for the name Pink Manta Ray come from?
Manta rays are my favorite animals. Pink comes from an Audrey Hepburn quote that I have tattooed on my arm. The quote is, “I believe in pink,” and is part of a longer quote. I think Hepburn meant that to believe in pink is to believe in the wonderment of childhood – fairy tales and rainbows. When we’re young, we wonder at everything. It’s all new and amazing. I think growing up causes us to be jaded. I don’t want to lose the wonder. Similarly, pink is like grey – between two colors. Instead of black and white, it’s between red and white, and in literature, red is anger and passion while white is innocence and purity. Pink is a synthesis of the two. Lastly, pink was my favorite color as a kid. Then I learned that pink was associated with girls and I began rejecting everything pink because I didn’t want anyone to see me as a girl. But the reality is that pink is not a girl’s color. It’s just a color – that I like. This is a sort of reclamation of the word.
Do you remember your first crush?
Celebrity or in-real-life? Celebrity – the oldest memory I have of a crush was on Carmen in the Spy Kids series. In real life, I think my first crush was one of my childhood friends. I told her years later after the feelings had long since passed. She and I are still close friends.
What role and influence does your identity as an Asian American serve and how do you celebrate your heritage?
Being Korean American is a very important part of who I am. My Korean grandparents have always lived five minutes from where I grew up and we saw them at least once a week. My babysitters were all Korean and spoke almost exclusively Korean to me. I went to Korean school on Saturdays. I have always wanted to learn about my Korean side. I love Korean food (who doesn’t though!) and tried to learn the language as best I could. I think I have a lot of Korean values and traditions ingrained in me. It is also very important to me that I am mixed. I exist between cultures and although this can be isolating (I am never Korean enough to other Koreans, and I’m never white enough to other white people) it is also incredibly enabling to have the benefit of the influence of two cultures in my upbringing.
You’re the first openly transgender NCAA Division I swimmer and the first documented Division I transgender man to ever compete publicly as a man. Understandably you’ve mentioned you had no role models growing up. Did you have at least any culture outlet that allowed you to connect with the LGBTQ community?
Early in my discovery process, I found that Instagram had a good number of trans people that I could search through using hashtags and such. I made an Instagram as I was coming to terms with my gender identity and this was the first place I asked for male pronouns. The first place I tested out what saying “I’m transgender,” sounded like to me. I connected with other transguys and began to find community and kinship. This was huge – potentially lifesaving. I am so thankful for the people I’ve connected with over the internet. Some of them are my closest friends and fiercest supporters.
Do you have a Go-To track for exercising?
Exercising typically means swimming in which case I am not listening to music. Sometimes we have underwater speakers – but I really dislike these. I love the quiet of the underwater.
“Aim to share your perspective, not change theirs. I think storytelling is incredibly powerful and can ignite change.”
ACTIVISM and SWIMMING
You’re a celebrated activist devoting significant time speaking to students, sporting institutions and educational administrators. What’s one call to action that you advocate that we can all do to inspire change and remedy and misconceptions about trans athletes, paving a more loving and accepting path for trans people?
In all situations that could potentially foster misconception or misunderstanding: be clear, be confident, and be compassionate. Aim to share your perspective, not change theirs. I think storytelling is incredibly powerful and can ignite change. Arguing or yelling, not so much.
Growing up you didn’t identify as a talented swimmer, yet at age 10 you were already competing at the 2007 Potomac Valley Junior Olympics. Where did you draw your strength and motivation to continue on this journey on becoming an elite athlete?
I love swimming. I have always loved the water. I was largely driven by my love of the sport. I think my competitive drive originates from personality traits as a competitive person but was also greatly influenced and developed by mentors around me including my parents and my coaches who always encouraged me. I never felt any sort of doubt of what I could do from the people around me. I was excited by the possibility of greatness (as well as terrified of it) and that, combined with my love of the sport, drove me to never stop and gave me the strength and motivation to continue.
Via your instagram (@pinkmantaray) you regularly posts updates of your physical transformation. Post your “top” surgery, do you remember the moment and how you felt taking your first shirtless selfie?
When I woke up from top surgery, the nurses had lost my earring and were looking all over for it. I remember looking down at my chest and seeing how flat it was, even with all the bandages. I burst into tears. The nurses tried to reassure me that they’d find the earring and I said, “No, no, that’s not it.” They looked puzzled. “I’m just… so happy,” I choked out. My dad was with me and he held my hand as I grinned and cried.
What would you say to someone who is dealing with mental health issues and struggling to communicate to friends and family that they identify as transgender?
Communication is multi-faceted. The tone and angle you take are just as important as the words you choose. Be confident, clear, and compassionate. People will receive you the way you present yourself. I always remind myself that it took me 18 years to figure out that I’m transgender and then tell someone. I can give anyone I’m telling more than 18 seconds or 18 minutes or even 18 months to understand, to process. Of course I hope it doesn’t take them 18 years as well, but I think granting people the space to process, to not understand, to have doubts and concerns on their own, is so important to their experience of your journey. I believe this compassion is vital to setting oneself up for acceptance.
How has your relationship with health and fitness developed over the past few years and is there a particular exercise that kills you in the gym that we should be doing?
My relationship with health and fitness has become much more balanced in the past several years. I struggled with an eating disorder in high school that drastically affected my health in a negative way. These days I spend much more time thinking about what my body needs than I did before. I am still a competitive athlete, of course, and I push my body every day in training to be the best it can, but I think I have learned to listen to my body in ways I never did before. In terms of a specific exercise – everyone’s body and ability levels are different so I don’t think I have any specific exercise to offer. I do think body weight routines are underrated, though, and planks / pushups / pull ups and their variations are fantastic.
“…pink is like grey – between two colors. Instead of black and white, it’s between red and white, and in literature, red is anger and passion while white is innocence and purity. Pink is a synthesis of the two.”
What have you learnt about yourself this year?
Something I learn every year: I am unbelievably resilient.
Goals for 2018?
Don’t get complacent. Continue to learn about myself. Continue to heal in the places that need healing. Work harder in school. Connect more with my grandparents. Figure out what I would like to do post-graduation. Learn how to use my new camera.
Do you have any future projects that you’re currently working on?
If you consider planning for post – graduation a project for the future, then yes! I’m fairly sure I want to go to either med school or clinical psychology graduate program and both of these require work I must do currently. Otherwise, I’m mostly just focused on school, swimming, and my speaking!
What would you graffiti on the back of a toilet door?
Fight Life or Live Life.