Transgender student finds community with men’s rugby

In the fall of 2021, August Donato, a first-year student, was expecting to be at Fordham University, where he had received a scholarship to compete on the Division I rowing team. Instead of thishe is at Ithaca College and plays on the men’s club rugby team – a sport he had never tried before being approached by the team in early autumn 2022.

Donato came out as transgender earlier this year and has been on testosterone treatment since August. His scholarship at Fordham was for the women’s rowing team, and the university does not offer a men’s team. Through NCAA RulesDonato cannot use testosterone treatment when competing on a women’s team, so he would have to choose between being on the team or being on the team open about his identity.

“It took me a while [to figure out what I wanted to do]’ said Donato. “I initially promised Fordham verbally, I even signed a contract. The contract didn’t go through, which basically saved my life because that’s what ultimately drove me to come here and actually make a medical change.”

Senior Nick Bikah, one of the rugby team’s captains, had nothing but praise for Donato. He said no matter what, Donato is just like every other member of the team.

“Everyone loves [Donato]’ Bikah said. “He’s smaller but still has the heart. Every time he gets hit, he still gets back up. He never whines about anything.”

Donato said he would have stayed at Fordham but could not afford the school without the sports scholarship. Even after he decided to go to Ithaca College, he had considered joining the men’s rowing team however, decided against it because he was so early in the transition process.

“[Rowing at the college] didn’t seem like the right environment for me,” Donato said. “Maybe I’ll go rowing again next year, I haven’t decided yet. Besides, I’m too short to row anyway.”

Transgender athletes in sports have long been a topic of discussion for the NCAA. The college had openly transgender students on varsity teams in the past and worked to be more inclusive in its policies regarding transgender athletes.

But the issue goes well beyond South Hill. In March 2022, Lia Thomas made headlines after winning the Division I national championship as a transgender athlete and sparked national debate. Athletes at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 also attracted international attention and more discussion.

Donato said it’s difficult for him to make his decision considering what he may or may not do after starting treatment, and said he doesn’t think other people need to make that decision.

“I think it’s kind of unfair,” Donato said. “Actually, I had to get out earlier than I wanted, earlier than I was ready. It was an adjustment period. But I knew if I signed a four-year contract, I wouldn’t be able to make the medical transition… and it was too difficult for me not to transition.”

Junior club president Sammy Harig said there are no rule changes or other differences at the club level when it comes to having transgender athletes on the team or in the league.

Although rugby is a physical sport, Bikah said he wants the campus community to know that anyone can get involved and he thinks players like Donato on the roster show that.

“I know there would probably be some people on the team who joined when they were [first-year students] who were uncomfortable,” Bikah said. “I think now that they see our whole club accepting everything, I feel like we’re going to get more people into it [join].”

Senior Steven Zucker, the other team captain, said head coach Annemarie Farrell plays a huge role in building the culture around the men’s team and maintaining a strong bond between all players.

“It really all depends [Farrell]; She’s doing a great job of enforcing that sense of community,” Zucker said. “And yes, rugby is a physical sport but it’s a lot of fun, especially when you get the hang of it and do it with the people you enjoy doing it with.”

Like Zucker, Donato said Farrell made an effort to make sure he felt supported on the team. Although Farrell was away for part of the semester – she serves as the team manager for the US women’s rugby World Cup team in New Zealand, which started Sept. 8 and ended Oct. 29 for Farrell with Team USA’s quarterfinal defeat — Donato said the two spoke earlier in the semester.

“[Farrell] is unbelievable,” said Donato. “She sort of pulled me off after a few practices and we talked about gender, which I’m comfortable with, things like shirts versus furs.”

Although shirts vs skins was something the team had been doing for years and is a common practice in sports, Bikah said it’s a simple switch that really doesn’t make a difference. Now athletes use pinnies or tuck in their shirts to indicate which team they are on in a scrimmage.

Acceptance within the team is mirrored by the rest of the campus, according to Donato. He said he feels like he can be himself in college, regardless of what sport he plays.

“Ithaca [College] is very open-minded,” said Donato. “It’s an open place where people can be who they want to be. … It’s a very acceptable place.”

The Ithaca College Center for LGBT Education, Outreach & Services held Events in October to celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month. The college has a 5/5 star rating on the Campus Pride Index for the integration of LGBTQ+ students.

Both Zucker and Donato said there were other members of the team who identified as transgender or gender non-conforming, but they declined to mention who, out of respect for their privacy. Zucker said the main goal for the team is to provide an enjoyable experience, and being inclusive and welcoming is part of that.

“It’s all about having fun,” Zucker said. “Winning is very important, but ultimately it’s about having fun and doing it with friends.”

Harig said the group is as tight as ever and he’s happy to have Donato on the team. The team stays close together throughout the season by spending time together and engaging in non-training activities.

“We still hang out, we pretty much have all the rugby guys hanging out together every weekend,” Harig said. “Everyone is always invited, everyone is always welcome.”

Regardless of what his college future holds, Donato said he wants to make sure every transgender athlete is making the decision that’s right for them. He has made the decision to quit varsity sport, but he said that doesn’t mean everyone should do it because every situation is different.

“If a person really loves their sport, where they want to shift the medical transition to play, and that’s cool for them, they’re still as valid as someone who decides to do a new sport to medical transition,” he said Donato. “Whatever your journey is, it is valid.”

Staff writer Tess Ferguson contributed to this story.

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