The Power of Water: Trans-only Swimming Groups

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[Art and Writing by Chris Timmins: he/him]

This piece was originally published in Something in the Water, February 2020.

Content warning: Mention of violence against trans people.

There’s something so deeply comforting about being in a pool, just floating and simply existing, without having to hold yourself up. I love the chlorinated smell, the feeling of cool water against my skin and the rhythmic nature of swimming strokes. When I was a child, swimming was my favourite thing to do; I got my level nine swimming certificate three times, not to brag. I would pretend to be a mermaid, diving into pools to rescue precious treasure (teaspoons), we would have pool parties together, (jump-cut to me, purposely falling off the inflatable, making a massive splash in the water below). As I grew older, my love for swimming never changed, but my relationship with my gender did, as well as my awareness of how others perceived me. These realisations meant that I no longer felt safe in the overtly gendered space of the swimming pool.

Everything about swimming is gendered, from the changing rooms to swimming costumes, it all requires that you fit into the neat binary boxes of M or F. Not to mention the bigotry and transphobic violence aimed towards people who don’t visibly conform to stereotypical ideals of what “men” or “women” should look like. This changed the swimming pool for me. Instead of a place of fun, it became a place of great vulnerability and fear, somewhere where my whole existence was questioned. When I talk about this with my cis friends, they have often never thought about this issue at all, which shows how ingrained trans exclusion is in our society. Maybe there are more pressing issues of queer liberation than whether I can get in a pool, but it’s hard to be completely excluded from something that brings me so much joy and that so many people can just take for granted.

Last year, I facilitated a trans-only swimming session, allowing myself and my community an opportunity to reclaim the space for ourselves, without fear of discrimination or exclusion. It felt so powerful and radical to be in that pool, sharing the collective joy of a simple experience that many of us hadn’t done in years; and to be occupying space, not only in the water but within our bodies and selves too. Trans bodies should be celebrated, we are frequently told by our cis-normative society that we should shrink ourselves; that our bodies are not “enough” – but that is not true at all. Being surrounded by so many incredible trans people, so many unique and beautiful trans bodies, was a really empowering moment for me, and helped me to see the strength within myself too. My transness has never aligned with the typical narratives of our experiences that are made to be palatable for cis ears; I don’t feel as if I was “born in the wrong body”, I just feel constricted by other people’s perceptions of me. Being able to play and move in the water, in a trans-only space where I knew I wouldn’t be judged, allowed me to really become closer with myself and notice the beauty in the way my body moves, which, nearly a year later, still helps me to feel more confident and whole.

Trans-only spaces are crucial to help create community and solidarity among trans people and provide time for us to just exist, without having to perform or prove ourselves to anyone else, and trans swimming events are an extremely important part of this. I hadn’t been swimming in nearly six years when the trans swimming event took place, but as soon as I got into that pool, the water felt like home – enveloping me and holding me like an old friend. Much like the relief you feel when you get to spend time with those you love, water holds you in the same way – letting you feel weightless and able to let go of the baggage you carry around every day. Everyone deserves to experience that collective joy and unity in the water, surrounded by people you care about and reclaiming a space for yourself in the world.


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