Transgender Teen Runner Breaks New Ground in Alaska

By Marc Raimondi

It's all over now.

The negative headlines. The press conferences. The constant blitz of attention. Gone.

Nattaphon Wangyot, "Ice" to her friends, can now return to life as a normal teenage girl.

Two weeks ago, Wangyot's mere participation in Alaska's state track meet drew controversy. Wangyot is an 18-year-old transgender female. Her presence in the girls 100m and 200m races brought protestors. The conservative group Alaska Family Action called a press conference to vocalize what they believe was an injustice--that someone born male should not compete against females.

Wangyot, now a week out of graduation from Haines High School, said she is tired of dealing with those targeting her--and maybe a little frustrated and happy it's all over, too.

"They were talking about my family, so I didn't like it," Wangyot told MileSplit. "But right now, I have a lot of people supporting me, so I'm gonna forgive them. I'm gonna let it go. I'm not gonna do anything. The negative people, if I tell them anything or I explain to them, they still don't listen. I don't know what else to do about it. I just let it go. Right now, I'm just gonna forgive them for everything."

That's the approach Wangyot has taken throughout the past year; ever since she decided to try out for sports at Haines to make new friends. 

Wangyot left Thailand in 2014 to join her mother, Tukta Panyawong, in Alaska. She has known since she was five years old that she is female, even though she was born a boy. When she first moved to the U.S., Wangyot went back to dressing like a boy because she thought she would fit in better. It didn't work. A few months later, she started wearing girls' clothes to school again.

"If I didn't tell them right [then], they were going to know soon," Wangyot said of her peers at Haines. "I want to tell them I am a trans and I have nothing to hide from you. I want to tell them everything."

Wangyot didn't want to suppress who she really was anymore. This past year, she asked the school about competing in athletics. Recently, the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) passed a rule that each school can decide whether or not to let transgender athletes compete with the gender they identify with. Haines had no problem letting "Ice" play with the girls in volleyball and basketball.

Haines superintendent Rich Carlson said there was no backlash against Wangyot in her local community. Not everyone agreed politically with letting her play, he said, but no one spoke out against her, either. 

"I expected at least a little bit of resistance from the community," Carlson told MileSplit. "Haines is a small community, and they can be a little conservative. There wasn't any of that at all."

Carlson said Wangyot has a good heart, and her attitude has been superlative from the very beginning. There is nothing easy about doing what she has done, but she "Ice" has handled it all exceedingly well, he said. 

"She's a young lady that is difficult not to support," Carlson said. "The staff here, the community, I'm not going to say that everyone is in agreement politically with transgender issues, but the vast majority of the community was in support of 'Ice' the person."
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It wasn't until track season that the attention intensified. Wangyot went from a team sport to an individual sport, and the question of whether or not she had an inherent advantage because she was born male came up. Beginning in volleyball season in the fall, Haines assigned extra chaperones on road trips--one of whom was specifically supposed to shadow Wangyot. Carlson said it "wasn't really necessary," because there were hardly any issues from opposing players, coaches or parents.

"We found that communities for the most part and certainly the other kids, the competitors and her teammates, really supported her," Carlson said. "They were really supportive of her. It wasn't that big of a challenge until track."

An extra chaperone was on hand two weeks ago at the state meet in Anchorage. But when Carlson heard about the Alaska Family Action press conference and a dozen or so protestors, he hopped on a plane himself. 

"To be perfectly honest, I had not anticipated the level of that," Carlson said. "To hold a press conference, I think was a little over the top."

AFA president Jim Minnery claimed there was inequality in the situation if Wangyot was given a roster spot over females who were born females. 

"We are here today as a voice from the community to ensure that female athletes are not denied the playing opportunities and scholarships otherwise available to them and to make the playing field even again," Minnery said, according to the Alaska Dispatch News. "Allowing students to play on teams of the opposite sex disproportionately impacts female students, who will lose spots on track, soccer and volleyball teams to male students who identify as female."

Carlson said everything Haines did was in line with Title IX and the school made sure of it legally before deciding to let Wangyot compete. 

There is, of course, the common argument that someone born male has physical advantages over those born female. That was brought up at the state meet, as well.

"I don't know what's politically correct to say, but in my opinion, your gender is what you're born with," state meet competitor Peyton Young told the Alaska Dispatch News. "It's the DNA. Genetically, a guy has more muscle mass than a girl, and if he's racing against a girl, he may have an advantage."

Many studies disagree and rules allowing transgender athletes to compete with the gender they identify with have become more common. In the Olympics, a transgender female can compete with and against those born female if they are on hormone therapy. Wangyot has been on hormone therapy for years.

Still, transgender rights remain a divisive issue in the United States. It wasn't easy for Panyawong, Wangyot's mother, to accept initially, either.

"At first, it was really hard for me to see my son--because she was born to be a boy--it was very hard to see her changing this way," Panyawong told MileSplit. "But for me, I lived in the U.S. for 11 years. I have some friends who are gay and lesbian. For me, it's very open. They said, 'You know what, they have to be who they are.' You have to be good people. You can be who you are as long as you're a good person."

Panyawong understandably gets upset every time she reads or sees something negative written or said about her daughter.

"I read some comments about, 'I feel bad for Ice's parents,'" Pangyawong said. "For me, I don't feel bad for myself. I feel proud of my kids. I feel proud of myself [as someone] who accepts my kids for who they are. I don't make her try to be who I want her to be."

Wangyot, who finished third in the 200m and fifth in the 100m, is hoping the attention she has received will help other transgender teens--and maybe transgender athletes, too--come out and be open about who they are.

"I want to help them," Wangyot said. "I want to support them. Just tell [people] who you are, because transgender is not like you wake up, 'Oh, I'm a girl, I'm a transgender.' It happens [over the course of] a long time. But people don't understand."

Panyawong tells her daughter she cannot make them understand. Wangyot has taken that to heart.

"I forgive them for everything if they're saying bad things about me," Wangyot said.

Now that the state track meet is over, "Ice" is out of the spotlight. She wants to take a year off before going to college, and is currently working as a pastry chef at a local Thai restaurant. 

Wangyot's cause as a transgender pioneer is likely for life. She's resigned to that fact, but not impeded by it. 

All "Ice" wants to do is assist those like her and anyone else who needs it. Even the people who have spoken out against her--maybe especially them. 

"It's my future," Wangyot said. "In my dream world, I want to support and help all people, not just transgender. All people."

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