One of the fascinating Twin Cities community members featured in City Pages' People 2015 issue. Check out our entire People 2015 issue.
By the time Zeam Porter steps up to speak to the board of the Minnesota State High School League, the 17-year-old gender-neutral basketball player is fed up.
Zeam is about 10th on the list to testify at a hearing in October about whether MSHSL should adopt a policy allowing trans athletes to play on the team that corresponds with their gender identity. Before Zeam's turn, transphobe after transphobe insists the policy insults the Bible and poses a danger to other students in the locker room. The religious camp, wielding signs denouncing trans children as abominations and sex offenders, far outnumbers LGBT activists. And they are loud.
A lone student walks up to the board — 20 deadpan older folks who had just entertained a flood of fiery anti-trans speech. "I was angry, and I was so hurt. By the time I got up there, I was like my testimony's not going to mean anything," Zeam says. "I'm up here feeling like I'm having a panic attack, heart racing, because these people would rather see me dead, it seems like, than play on the court with their child."
Zeam was born in Minneapolis as a girl, but never fully felt like a girl. Growing up confused about which bathroom to use and with an attraction to other women fed long years of self-hatred prior to the 10th grade, when Zeam finally came out as trans. Despite resolving to set all gender distinction aside, Zeam realized that schools themselves still insisted on following students' birth gender when it came to sports. Basketball or a new-found identity: It was impossible to have both.
"My love for basketball made me believe that I could handle being on the wrong team. That was wrong," Zeam said tearfully before the MSHSL board. "Constantly being misgendered and being called the wrong name took away my soul when I already feel like I don't have my body."
Zeam was the only trans student to address the board that day.
Afterward, Zeam says, it was pure despair that inspired a heartbreaking speech about being browbeaten and bullied over nothing more than the desire to play ball, a video of which eventually made the rounds on national media. In December, MSHSL voted to pass the transgender athletes policy, lending Gov. Mark Dayton a brief platform to blast the "ludicrous" hate-mongering attending the entire process.
Though the policy change was an unprecedented triumph for trans rights, it'll be a while before actual student athletes start transitioning to the team of their choice. In a way, the move would be a public coming out, something that promises hushed giggles and side-eyes from classmates in even the most outwardly liberal of Minnesota's high schools.
Zeam is a junior this year, and no longer on the basketball team. Somewhere along the way, from growing up playing pickup with the guys to winning Most Improved Player on girls varsity last year, Zeam learned to love the court as the single outlet where instead of female or male, identity whittled down to just a number. Yet fighting for the rights of trans athletes and being hounded with intense transphobia turned the sport sour.
The policy change will go further for the freshmen still thinking about coming out.
Achieving minor celebrity status in the high school halls comes with support and ridicule in equal doses. Even so, it's a stark improvement from the outright bullying of middle school, when a chorus of "dyke" followed wherever Zeam went and an addiction to self-harm racked up mental health bills.
Now advocates have been calling from every corner of the country, and more importantly so are estranged family members. Basketball aside, Zeam is thinking about a career in motivational speaking.
"I wish I could tell my past self, when I was giving the testimony, that a good outcome is going to come out of this," Zeam says. "And sometimes I am jealous of the younger kids. I'm like, man, I wish we could trade places because I wish I could have had that choice."