WASHINGTON - Two-time National Women’s Hockey League All-Star Harrison Browne hung up his skates in March 2018 for a life-altering change and a dream of inclusion.
During the 2016-17 season, Browne, then 23, signed a one-year contract with the Buffalo Beauts. In October 2016, he came out publicly as a transgender man; becoming the first out transgender player in any professional team sport.
“Yes, I am the first,” Browne said on Tuesday during a visit to American University to share his story with a group of LGBTQ student athletes, allies, and advocates. “But hopefully, there will be more after me.”
The 2018-19 hockey season is his first in retirement and his first without hockey in decades (he played college hockey at the University of Maine). In cities like Washington, where the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Caps are the talk of the town, the lack of participation can feel disorienting.
“My whole schedule has been laid out for me since I was nine years old,” Browne joked. “It’s weird to have so much free time.”
But in some ways, visiting D.C. feels like a trip down memory lane, a promise of something new.
“Seeing the Cup ceremonies, and all the fun that the team had, the fans rallying; I definitely see a lot of passion in Washington. I used to be Washington fan, actually. I loved Ovechkin growing up. I thought that his grit was so inspiring. I tried to emulate some of my play based on him.”
Since choosing to come out to closer friends and family in his college years, Browne has exhibited a different type of grit and courage.
“I hated hearing my [birth] name in the dressing room. I hated hearing everyone referred to as ‘ladies’. It was those little things that kept chipping away. It wasn’t a particularly hard moment. It was a lot of things that built up.”
His public transition from female to male in 2016 was social at first, and involved changing his name and pronouns with the league. Though overlooked, social transition can be crucial. Having others, especially teammates, validate your identity can be integral to self-esteem.
But in the way of physical transition, Browne was at an impasse.
The NWHL, like many other leagues and governing bodies such as the National Collegiate Athletics Association and International Olympic Committee, employs blanket anti-doping restrictions that include any form of hormone treatment, including injected testosterone.
“It’s fair,” Browne said, “but it was still frustrating.”
His choice? Either quit hockey and begin hormones, or wait to begin physical transition until after retirement.
Through a partnership with You Can Play, the largest organization supporting LGBTQ equity in sports, the NWHL drafted the first set of guidelines for trans individuals looking to enter a professional league. With the support of the organization, he decided to delay his physical transition.
Browne returned, “pulling a Brett Favre”, with enthusiastic support from his teammates and LGBTQ hockey fans. He won another Isobel Cup as a member of the Metropolitan Riveters in the 2017-18 season.
“I know the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. But this story very much was.”
Since then, he’s cultivated a YouTube channel documenting his transition, leadership roles with You Can Play and the NWHL’s governing board, and an active social media presence affirming trans fans and athletes.
Looking forward, Browne aspires to work in sports entertainment, marketing, or community outreach.
“My dream job [is] to tie hockey to a greater meaning. I’m really passionate about that. We need more openly LGBT people in front offices, on coaching staff, on teams. I think those stories need to be brought out more.”
But Browne recognizes that the lack of personal connection in hockey’s approach to inclusion can loom over the institutional changes made so far.
“As much as the NHL [promotes] You Can Play, uses pride tape, uses rainbow gear – Somebody doesn’t feel safe enough to be themselves. And there’s obviously something that needs to be done about that.”
Though no NHL players have reached out to him so far, Browne expressed that he’d be “more than happy to have those conversations” if he ever gets the chance.
Personal connection can be crucial to begin the process of changing people’s minds.
“Every time I share my story, I’m spreading awareness, and that humanizes me, humanizes the community’s experience. If someone can put a face to a story, they can feel more connected to the issue.”
Browne hopes that for the next generation of athletes, there will be more opportunities for success outside of the binary.
“Sports teach so many life lessons. The more players who set an example for boys growing up, the less that [hatred] will thrive in hockey culture. The more progressive the community can be, the more opportunity there is for people who feel different to play and learn.”