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Bearden finds her true self as transgender athlete

Good Dirt

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Jillian Bearden competes for a purpose. - COURTESY JILLIAN BEARDEN
  • Courtesy Jillian Bearden
  • Jillian Bearden competes for a purpose.

Jonathan Bearden smashed his foot to the floorboard and felt his car accelerate as he traveled south on Interstate 25 toward his home in Colorado Springs.

He had no intention of arriving there.

Bearden had carried a heavy secret practically his entire life, and the burden had become too much in December 2014. Dying, he figured, would be better than living a lie. It was time to go. He increased his speed to 90 miles per hour. He'd picked out music to die to, a techno version of "Beautiful Things" by Andain.

"I just wanted to turn the wheel," Bearden says. "I was seconds away from ending my life."

How many people confront such dark moments and never come back? Bearden, now 35, said it was like staring at a wall, and the wall was his soul. And at the moment when he tensed to make that decisive turn, he saw a light penetrating the wall. That split-second vision saved his life.

"That light was my mom ... her love for me, or her angel. I don't know. But I realized I needed to tell her this secret," Bearden says. "It snapped me out of it. I told myself, if my mom didn't accept me, then I could get depressed again and do it."

For the first time, Bearden shared his story with another person. He told his mother that from about age 6 — perhaps much younger — he had identified as a female. He had wanted to wear his sister's clothes. He wanted long hair and pierced ears. He longed to play on the girls sports teams and to be a Girl Scout. In high school he wore girls clothes under his clothes "so that I could feel comfortable in my own skin."

His mother, of course, accepted him. And Jonathan Bearden began the process of becoming the transgender Jillian Bearden, a female cyclist and runner determined to help other transgender people meet the challenges of daily life, and create awareness about the transgender issue.

The next steps ... Jillian told her wife, Sarah, who helped her find a psychiatrist specializing in helping transgenders. They attended therapy sessions and "worked on our relationship and this idea that there was going to be another woman in the house," Bearden says. They are raising daughter Anna, who calls Bearden "Mama." Bearden also has a son, Conor, who still calls her "Dad."

"That's completely fine with me. I don't want to take that from him. But with him calling me Dad in public, my cover is blown," she jokes.

Hormone therapy followed and Jill began to change physically. The drugs blocked her natural production of testosterone while estrogen and progesterone were introduced. Blood tests now reveal that she has about half the amount of testosterone of a normal woman.

"I'm emotional, I cry easily. I get moody. Biologically, things have changed," she says. "But this is who I am."

Then came the frightening moment when she told the world. "People don't understand how difficult it is when you come out," she says. "Some say it's your choice to be gay. But no, you don't [get to choose]. It is made inside you. I tried to change it so many times."

She found acceptance. Of all the people she told, and there were many, only three struggled with her decision.

Throughout her life, she loved cycling. Not long ago she was a strong, accomplished male rider in the Ascent Cycling Series mountain bike races. USA Cycling allows male-to-female transgender riders to compete in sanctioned races, as long as their hormone levels are kept at prescribed levels. Bearden was invited to join a women's cycling team and says the riders have been accepting and supporting. She does well in races, but she is not the fastest girl on the course.

She stepped to the starting line in April for the XTERRA 12K trail race at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, where she finished second in a battle with elite runner Amanda Lee of Boulder. At the time, Lee did not know she was racing against a transgender woman.

"When she caught me on part of the race course, I asked her name," Lee says. "I thought she had kind of a deeper voice. After the race we talked a little and then we became Facebook friends."

Lee says some women runners may be angry about racing against, or losing money to, a male-to-female transgender, but she wants to race against the best. USA Track and Field requires that transgender athletes have sexual reassignment surgery, and that — in the case of male-to-female changes — testosterone levels are low, in order to compete in USATF events. Most running races are not sanctioned by USATF, meaning there are no rules about transgender participation and eligibility as a male or female runner will largely fall to the discretion of individual race directors.

"I think that requiring surgery is really inappropriate," Lee says. "It's super-expensive, so they're basically saying that only transgender athletes who have a lot of money can compete."

Bearden says she has lost muscle mass and easily becomes exhausted while competing. The energy reserves she once enjoyed as a male cyclist have disappeared.

But the competition is secondary. She says she has won the real race, the race to be herself. And she wants to help others. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide, a grim statistic that Bearden understands.

"That is extremely high, of course, but if I would have committed suicide I would not have been a part of that statistic because I hadn't told anyone how I was feeling," she says. "How many people die and we never know the reason? I'm still here, and I hope that through my story others can learn that it's OK, there are roadblocks, and everything is not peachy. But I want to help that one person who may try to take their life."

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