Campbell helps transgender and nonbinary swimmers feel comfortable and welcome jumping into a pool
Rook Campbell stood on the pool deck in front of a couple dozen of his teammates in 2019 wearing his least favorite thing in the world: a standard women's one-piece swimsuit. He was nervous but expected a positive response for what he was about to say, which was that he was going to have top surgery and would be back at the pool in four weeks wearing something much more comfortable: a men’s swimsuit.
Campbell spoke for a few minutes at workouts he attends with the two clubs he swims with, West Hollywood Aquatics and Southern California Aquatic Masters. After he was finished speaking, people thanked him for sharing his personal gender journey and told him a story about someone they knew who was coming out. He remembers one teammate crying.
“People didn’t have awkward looks,” says Campbell. “They felt moved as humans. They looked vulnerable, and it felt very special. People were listening with all of themselves. It didn’t feel judgmental.”
Campbell, 44, is a professor at the University of Southern California, for which he teaches a variety of courses, including contemporary issues in sport, sport and social change, and transgender issues in sport. He’s always been an athlete, from skateboarding as a kid to getting a rowing scholarship to USC to becoming a pro cyclist in the U.S. and Europe after graduation.
As a kid, Campbell lived his own private truth. “I felt like I was waiting for my parents to tell me they lied to me and I was a boy,” he says. He didn’t see his gender as a conflict when it came to sports until later in life when Campbell, who learned to swim at 34, was trying on a woman’s bathing suit in a store. “With swimming, there was an obvious clash that I was unable to tune out,” Campbell says of the specific attire for swimming. “I was OK with it and then suddenly I wasn’t.”
In 2018, Campbell made the decision to transition and started taking testosterone. This was one of those “ah-ha” moments because by doing so, he’d just disqualified himself from women’s racing forever. “I thought it was amazing,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is extra.’ Here I am willingly giving up a sports identity.”
In July 2019, he had gender-affirming top surgery. Campbell only decided he would go through with this when he became a parent. He and his partner, Jocee, who he’s been married to since 2013, have three young kids.
“In becoming a parent, suddenly I was in this whole new gendered world that was not how I ever walked on the planet before,” Campbell says. “I was invited to ‘ladies nights’ and there are mom groups. No one had ever called me that and it was horrible.
“I don’t really know how I moved around the gendering world [before then] and maybe that was [because of] sports. But suddenly becoming a parent you get a barrage of it. It was jarring. I was disoriented. I wasn't trying to fit in, but it was like I was and didn't mean to.”
Campbell didn’t want to have this contradiction. He wanted to be true to himself and live out the lessons and values he’d eventually want his children to see and embody.
In telling his family and friends of this life-altering decision to transition, Campbell created a project for everybody. First, he explained what was happening, that he was going to start taking hormones but that other things about him, such as his love for cappuccinos and the Los Angeles Clippers, wouldn’t change. He asked those close to him to write him a story about change they’d experienced in their own lives or how they’ve personally known transformation. Some people sent profound stories of breast cancer or brain surgery, some wrote poems.
“One of the things about Rook is that he’s so participatory,” says West Hollywood teammate Kim Menaster, who wanted to be friends with Campbell as soon as she met him. “Even with his transition, it was like an art project. He wants to involve everybody in it and have people contribute their thoughts and feelings.”
The day Campbell addressed his swimming family, he simultaneously introduced the LANEMATE Project. This was a personal and playful way of coming out to a lot of swimmers at once with the vision to better welcome folks to sports by removing hurdles such as gender-defining swimsuits or locker rooms.
Doing this wasn’t intimidating with the, as he calls it, “goofy and fun” West Hollywood, a historically gay club that came together in Southern California in the 1980s as a place for swimmers during a time that was difficult for people in the LGBTQ community. Introducing LANEMATE to both of his clubs was a chance for all of his lanemates to get to know Campbell and invite them to support him.
“You can spend hours with people, and we ‘know’ each other and have all this knowledge of how you are as a swimmer and what your personality is like in the morning,” Campbell says. “But I was like, ‘OK, I should probably let them know I’m going to have this surgery and come back.’”
Campbell passed out swim caps with gender pronoun checkboxes on them while telling everybody the story of how he came to this moment. Campbell took up swimming while doing doctoral research and working on his dissertation in Paris. He quickly fell in love with how he felt in the water, and the pool became a place where he could tune out the dysphoria that he had to wear “this excessively gendered thing that was not me,” he says. He followed that by explaining that he would be having surgery and would love it if everyone would check off how they identify on the caps and post photos or videos on Instagram and tag him so that he can experience the pool while recuperating from his surgery.
Campbell describes people being incredibly receptive, positive, and beautiful. He was humbled when the pool manager hung one of his LANEMATE caps on the wall in his office next to Olympians who have trained there. Campbell had made the topic of transgender approachable rather than taboo.
“For Rook, the bravery it took to come back was inspiring,” says Southern California Aquatic Masters Coach and 2000 U.S. Olympian Rada Owen, who coaches Campbell when he swims with her club. “To walk on a pool deck in a swimsuit—I mean we’re all conscious of our bodies—and address a team and say, ‘When I come back, I’m going to be wearing a male suit,’ and then dealing with the whole locker room issue, I can't even imagine what that’s like. I’ll have his back no matter what. He’s free to be him.”
Owen says when Campbell came back from top surgery, nothing felt different; it was just “business as usual.” He did switch from the women’s locker room to the men’s, and although he says that was a bit nerve-racking, the actual process was anticlimactic.
Campbell, following a suggestion from one of his West Hollywood coaches, asked West Hollywood teammate Jon Garrison to accompany him into the men’s locker room for support during a Southern California Aquatic Masters workout. Garrison, who has a background working with LGBTQ youth, was flattered.
“If it were me, I would just want a buddy to break the seal with,” Garrison says. “It’s the unknown. ‘How are people going to treat me? What’s the experience going to be like as someone who wants to exist in the same space but doesn't know if I can?’
“As soon as we were in there together, I felt him relax. He was like, ‘I’m good.’ I didn’t know what I expected to happen, but it was very chill.”
A few months after Campbell’s surgery, he organized an event with his club called LANEMATE x WH20, a swim clinic for transgender and nonbinary athletes in the community to feel comfortable, welcome, and safe jumping in the pool. Campbell and Menaster made special swim caps for the event that read “LANEMATE x WH20” on one side and “Swimming is for all genders and bodies” on the other. They also made the locker rooms gender neutral for the event.
The pool was split in two, with one half a traditional swim practice and the other devoted to teaching people how to swim. The West Hollywood members who participated as coaches went over strokes; Menaster put herself in charge of teaching people how to put on their caps and goggles.
“Getting to enjoy my own spaces with pools and teammates and my new body, it was really cool to be able to share it,” says Campbell, who thinks he’s the only active and out trans swimmer on West Hollywood. “I really hadn’t been part of a larger trans community on the ground in particular or even involved in a queer community, so tapping back into that in a grassroots way was so nice to see people doing these things. It wasn’t really grandiose, just simple. And it took a lot of work, time, thoughtfulness, and imagination.”
Campbell, who hopes to have more LANEMATE events after the coronavirus pandemic, doesn’t think about the impact he’s made on his club. He just wants to be part of West Hollywood, make the pool more hospitable and inclusive, and make his teammates aware of the hurdles for people in the queer and trans communities.
Campbell, who identifies as a trans guy and is transmasculine, nonbinary, and uses he/him and they/them pronouns, sees how his life makes an impact on his students at USC because they share it with him. But sometimes it’s not so obvious.
Owen has worked with a 22-year-old transgender swimmer for 15 years. She was comfortable swimming with Owen in her backyard but refused to go to a public pool. At first, Owen and her student’s parents didn’t know why, but when she came out at age 19, it all made sense. Similar to Campbell, Owen’s student didn’t want to go to a public pool because she didn’t want to wear a male suit and feel naked.
She and Campbell were transitioning around the same time. When Campbell first heard about her, he gave Owen a zine (a collection of his thoughts and feelings in animation form) that he made for Owen’s student. Inside was a cartoon with a caption that read, “I had to wear a female suit and it was uncomfortable.”
“I thought that was a great way to simply explain to people what's going on in [Campbell’s] mind,” Owen says.
Owen’s student was touched. After seeing the zine and hearing how Campbell’s story mirrored hers, she became more accepting and now wears a swim shirt and jammers and is more comfortable swimming in public. Owen says that when her student goes back to college, she plans to swim at the university pool.
“Without knowing her, Rook helped her accept that, ‘I can do this, and it’s going to be OK,’” Owen says.
Says Campbell: “It is a real gift. It’s motivating and validating in terms of when you give something into the world and realize it sticks its landing.”
- Human Interest