Trans male fencer Bobbie Hirsch is ‘making history’ at Wayne State University

Christina Hall
Detroit Free Press

Bobbie Hirsch advances across the hardwood gym floor, lunging forward with a foil in his right hand to touch his opponent in an attempt to score.

In pairs next to him, fellow members of Wayne State University men’s fencing team practice in Detroit, just a day before a couple of them leave for the NCAA championships in North Carolina.

Hirsch has been fencing for eight years, beginning when he was 11 years old.

But competition for the transgender male athlete has been different this school year.

It's felt different.

“It was awesome,” Hirsch said of his first regional competition in September. “Everything kind of like clicked. … I was able to put in, like, so much more effort. ... It just felt right. It felt more like, 'OK, this is where I’m supposed to be.' Like this feels more natural.”

Bobbie Hirsch, 19, a biology major from Huntington Woods, left, pinches his mother, Lauren Hirsch's cheeks in between practices with his Wayne State fencing teammates Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in the Wayne State University Matthaei Center. Hirsch, a transgender man, joked about his mother's pride-themed Coach purse Òshe insisted on buying something that screamed ally as the two shared a laugh.

The 19-year-old from Huntington Woods, Michigan, fenced on Wayne State’s women’s team as a freshman last school year. This school year, the sophomore is fencing on the university’s men’s team.

Competition "was so clearly lightened up and happier and joyful,” his mother, Lauren Hirsch, recalled of her son’s first competition on the men’s team. “And that has continued throughout the season. It brings me joy to see you happy and comfortable just by making this switch from women’s to men’s.”

'We care about students as individuals'

Candice Turner, Wayne State’s deputy athletic director/senior woman administrator, has been with the university for 15 years. She thinks Hirsch is the first transgender athlete to compete for the university during her tenure.

She said his example “gives me hope” and sets the stage “that inclusion is the only way.”

“I think that’s gonna tell students across Michigan we care about students as individuals,” Turner said.

The NCAA, which regulates collegiate athletics, doesn't set as many rules for transgender men in athletics as for transgender women. Some argue that trans women have performance advantages over cisgender females.

In the latest example, the World Athletics Council last week announced it would exclude trans women from top female track and field competitions and records if they went through puberty as males. World Aquatics put similar rules in place last year.

Nineteen states have laws banning transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project. It stated the laws are most frequently applied to K-12 schools, but in some cases include college sports.

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The Washington Post reported on March 21 that West Virginia is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to allow it to enforce a 2021 law permitting only those whose genetics were classified as female at birth to play on girls teams. That case centers on a 12-year-old transgender girl.

“It’s mind-boggling that people try to legislate trans people out of existence,” Bobbie Hirsch said.

Bobbie Hirsch, 19, left, and Camron King, 18, participate in a pre-fencing practice game at the Wayne State University Matthaei Center Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Hirsch, a transgender man, has been accepted by his coaches and teammates.

‘I need to be on the men’s team'

Roz Gould Keith, founder and executive director of Stand With Trans, based in Farmington, Michigan, said it’s mentally, physically and emotionally good for kids to play sports, and “any time a child who wants to play a sport is denied, they’re taking away an opportunity that’s going to allow them to thrive.”

She said stories like Hirsch's show "that it is possible that you can pursue your dreams.”

“Trans people are just like everybody else, and they have the same desires and goals. Why should they be held back from pursuing what they're good at, pursuing their passions? Because of their gender? Identity?” she said.

Bobbie Hirsch said his transition to the men’s fencing team “wasn’t terrible.” He qualified for the NCAA Midwest Regionals earlier in March, finishing 14th in foil.

He and his parents said his transition to the 14-member men's team was made easier thanks to his head coach, Slava Zingerman, and the athletic staff.

“I think I emailed Slava or I talked to (him) and said like, ‘I need to be on the men’s team. Like, I really want to be on the men’s team.' And he was like ‘OK,’ ” Hirsch recalled last week while sitting with Zingerman and his parents during an interview at Matthaei Center at Wayne State.

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“I remember this conversation, and I said ‘like listen, I want to you be happy. And whatever makes you happy, I’ll support you,’ ” Zingerman said. The coach said his main goals are to build a culture on the teams where everyone feels “home, welcome, happy. I think when the athletes feel this way, that’s when there are good results (that) will come up.”

Lauren Hirsch, of Hunting Woods, left, speaks her son Bobbie Hirsch, with her husband Jonathan Hirsch before Bobbie practices with his Wayne State fencing teammates Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in the Wayne State University Matthaei Center. Hirsch, a transgender man, has competed both on the women's and now the men's teams. Hirsch shares his journey with the Detroit Free Press.

Jonathan Hirsch said other parents who have known his son his entire fencing career have told him they’ve never seen Bobbie Hirsch so happy.

“And it’s true,” Jonathan Hirsch said.

'I just buried it for years'

Bobbie Hirsch said he started to realize he was transgender in middle school. He said he was on a car trip to or from a tournament when he broke down crying.

Bobbie Hirsch, 19, of Huntington Woods, poses in his fencing uniform Wednesday, March 22, 2023 in Detroit. Hirsch is a trans male athlete on the Wayne State fencing team and shares his story about what it has been like to transition.

“I was like ‘Oh, my God, I think I’m trans,’ ” he recalled of the moment.

“And then, I buried that. I just buried it for years.”

He said he was a senior in high school, in lockdown because of COVID-19, when he would have panic attacks at the most inconvenient times, including once during a fencing lesson.

He said going to a new therapist helped him accept that he was trans. That occurred in the middle of his senior year, graduating in 2021.

Lauren Hirsch said around her son's junior year in high school, Bobbie Hirsch declared himself “like nonbinary, gender fluid.”

She said not long after signing the NCAA letter of intent to be on Wayne State women’s fencing team in his senior year, “he came to us and said: ‘I’m a trans man.’ ”

Lauren Hirsch said she believes the bravest thing her son has done was emailing Zingerman and asking to move to the men’s squad.

Bobbie Hirsch, 19, a biology major from Huntington Woods, middle, joins his teammates to change into their fencing uniforms before practice at Wayne State, Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in the Wayne State University Matthaei Center. Hirsch, a transgender man, is embraced by his coaches and players alike.

“I am so grateful,” she told Zingerman. “As a parent, I am so grateful that your response was ‘OK. No big deal. It’ll take work, but we’ll do it.’ ”

Bobbie Hirsch lost a portion of his athletic scholarship, but still had an academic one. Zingerman told the Hirsches last week that he had money left from the men’s scholarships and recently approved another $2,600 toward Bobbie Hirsch’s athletic scholarship.

“That’s amazing,” Jonathan Hirsch said. “It’s a big deal. It’s a huge deal. We’re grateful.”

“At the end of four years, Bobbie’s going to be able to, God willing … say that ‘I was a scholarship athlete in the NCAA,’ ” Lauren Hirsch said.

'He’s definitely making history'

Quinlyn Morgan, a senior from Kansas City, said he has known his teammate Bobbie Hirsch for about three years through the university and practicing at one of the local fencing clubs.

“He seems a lot happier. He seems a lot more like himself at practice, so that's the main thing,” Morgan said.

Quinlyn Morgan, 22, a senior graphic design major, left, fences with teammate Bobbie Hirsch, 19, a biology major from Huntington Woods, Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in the Wayne State University Matthaei Center. Hirsch, a transgender man, has competed both on the womenÕs and now the menÕs teams and has been supported by teammates and coaches.

He said last year Hirsch “kind of struggled with, like, accepting awards and stuff for women's events because, like, that's not who he was like on the inside. So, it made sense. He seems a lot happier this year. I think he’s handled everything well.”

“I mean he’s definitely making history,” Morgan said. “It’s super cool to see. I can, like, look back on this and be like, Bobbie was one of the first people. I was on that team with him.”

The differences between men's and women's locker rooms

Bobbie Hirsch said he has been on medication for anxiety and has faced mental health issues. But since he came out as trans, “it’s steadily gotten better.” He said he is able to fully express himself, and to receive the health care that he needed “has helped me tremendously.”

He and his family said he underwent top surgery in May 2022 and began taking testosterone during the summer.

He legally changed his name to Bobbie James Hirsch. His father, a lawyer, helped with the process, and his mother suggested names.

Bobbie Hirsch said when he first came out, he was misgendered. He said some of his teammates knew him before he transitioned and hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. It took some time for them to make the switch. He said one former teammate made a couple of jokes, but “we like sorted it out.”

Bobbie Hirsch, who is on a pre-med track with a biology major and queer studies minor, said he has employed new strategies on the men’s team, which is faster and more physical. On the women’s team, he said, it was more methodical.

He said going from a women’s locker room to a men’s locker room was a big change. Talk in the women’s locker room was about emotions. There were a lot more jokes in the men’s locker room, which he had to get used to.

Bobbie Hirsch, 19, a biology major from Huntington Woods, works out with his Wayne State fencing teammates Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in the Wayne State University Matthaei Center. Hirsch, a transgender man, has competed both on the women’s and now the men’s teams. Hirsch shares his journey with the Detroit Free Press.

One thing stayed the same.

“We’re both smelly. Everyone stinks,” he said with a laugh.

But Bobbie Hirsch said he doesn’t go into other schools’ locker rooms. He uses restrooms to change his clothes and freshen up after a competition.

“I don’t know people on other teams. I don’t know how they are as people,” he said.

One supportive adult can 'change the course of their lives'

Keith, of Stand With Trans, said the challenges facing transitioning and transgender youths today are different than a decade ago. Now, the challenges are more about acceptance, such as using the correct name or pronoun; accessing care with sometimes long waits to see a gender specialist or mental health professional as their caseloads are “exploding” — and financial challenges to pay for that care.

She said just one supportive adult in the life of a trans youth can "change the course of their lives.”

Jonathan Hirsch said patience and love are key. In his son’s case, the fencing community and his family, which includes Bobbie Hirsch’s two older sisters, Alyssa and Gabi, who also are fencers, have been a blessing.

“Sometimes in the early going, they may doubt the support that you’re giving them. Let’s say you screw up on the gender. You make a slip-up. And you correct yourself, but sometimes they feel it as a slight. They take it personally. And you just have to be incredibly patient. You can’t get mad at their frustration. You can’t try and correct them. You just have to let them figure it out,” Jonathan Hirsch said.

Lauren Hirsch said that in addition to unconditional love and support, it’s important transgender youths and transgender athletes have professionals to talk to and that they aren’t forced “into what you want.”

“Let them go to where they need to be. Just keep them safe in the process,” she said. “The kid’s gonna lead you to where they need to be. … Find your people that will build you and your child up."

“This is their truth and their life, not ours. They are and will always be our kid. Even when their name changes, they’re still our kid. And what’s important is they know unconditional love.”

'You need to find people that love you for you'

Turner at Wayne State said it’s imperative for transitioning or transgender athletes to have conversations with coaches early in the process, as coaches are the ones who recruit and review their scholarship equivalencies.

Bobbie Hirsch agrees.

“If you want to compete, make sure you research everything. Play everything by the book,” he said. “And if you can’t, talk to legislation about it. You should be able to compete in the category that you want to compete in. And if legislation blocks you from that, that needs to change. It’s damaging to youth to block them from something that they so desperately want to do.

“Find people outside of sports that you know and love. You can do something that you love with people that don’t like you. You can find joy in the sport. But you need to find people that love you for you.”

He encouraged trans athletes to talk to prospective coaches and teammates and “do a thorough vibe check” to get a sense of people on the team.

“Go with your gut. If something seems off, then it probably is. And you don’t want to be put in a situation that will negatively affect you,” he said.

“People know that trans people exist. … We’ve always been here. We will always be here.”

Contact Christina Hall: Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.