MISSOULA, Mont. — If Juniper Eastwood is feeling particularly motivated on a training day, she’s up at 6 a.m.
She eats a banana and plugs in a podcast before taking off on an 11- to 12-mile run. She should stretch, but is often short on time. After a shower and getting dressed, she heads to work as a camp counselor for a youth empowerment program.
Eastwood’s routine is similar to that of other college athletes practicing in the offseason. She has to prepare for grueling cross-country practices while balancing work or school.
Eastwood was assigned male at birth, but identifies as female. She’s transgender.
On Aug. 31, the 22-year-old will compete in a cross-country meet in the women’s division for the very first time. She’ll be the first Division I trans athlete to compete in her sport.
“(I’m) nervous and excited. Nervous for what that means and how people will react, but excited because I haven’t competed in 15 months, and excited to get this started,” Eastwood told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Eastwood is a Belgrade High School graduate and has been competing in men’s cross-country and track since middle school. She was a standout athlete in high school and won state titles in multiple men’s races. She earned athletic and academic scholarships to attend UM.
Eastwood spent three years running for the men’s cross-country and track teams. In 2016 and 2017, she ran the best times of anyone on her team at the Big Sky Conference championships. At her last tack meet in 2018, she placed seventh in the 1,500 meter conference championship race. She was, by all accounts, a competitive and successful male runner.
However, during the fall of her third season competing for UM, Eastwood came to terms with an internal struggle she’d had since elementary school. She no longer wanted to live and compete as a man when she knew she was a woman.
By the rules
Nearly a decade ago, the NCAA first adopted a policy to guide the inclusion of transgender athletes in intercollegiate sports. The organization serves as the governing body for college athletics. It outlines policies that address everything from academic standards to fairness.
The 55-page policy draws expertise from a wide variety of academic and medical professionals. It requires a transgender athlete who has transitioned from male to female to take testosterone-suppression pills for 12 months before competing.
Eastwood is in full compliance. She said she has lost muscle mass, endurance and is slower since taking the hormones suppressants.
Brian Schweyen, head coach of the University of Montana’s track and field program, describes Eastwood as a “very talented” and driven athlete. The kind that any coach would want to work with, he said.
Schweyen said he fully supports Eastwood’s decision to compete on the women’s team. He said that while some may question the fairness of the situation, the NCAA makes that determination, and he trusts the decision.
Tom Wistrcill, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, said as long as universities follow NCAA guidelines, the conference supports and encourages all athletes to compete.
Schweyen said the upcoming season will require open-mindedness and empathy from all involved.
“There will be mistakes made and lessons learned. But those lessons will be fantastic,” Schweyen said.
Coming to terms
When Eastwood first decided to begin her transition, she decided to quit competing.
“I felt kind of stuck. I had done this running thing for so long and was pretty miserable doing it, because I was pretty miserable in men’s racing,” Eastwood said.
Eastwood had to take a break from running sophomore year due to an injury and began feeling the weight of what she had been hiding. She had known for years what it meant to transition, and knew that’s what she needed.
Her love of competing held her back from taking the plunge.
But when Eastwood didn’t have the distraction of practices or meets while injured, she became depressed. She began engaging in what she called unhealthy behaviors. She was self-medicating with alcohol and said she spent nearly every day wallowing in despair.
Depression and subsequent self-destructive behavior is not uncommon for trans people. A study published by the American Psychological Association in 2019 found that people who identify as gender or sexuality minorities, like transgender or bisexual, reported significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety than people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Hitting rock bottom helped Eastwood make the decision to transition.
“I thought, ‘Hey, this is super dangerous, maybe there’s a healthier option and maybe I need to take strides in doing that,’” Eastwood said.
At first, Eastwood said she was relieved to have made the decision to quit the team. It had been a burden for so long, and she could see “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
But then track season came, and Eastwood was running well. And it reminded her of why she loves to compete.
Eastwood did her research and found the NCAA’s trans athlete policy on her own. She realized she could have both, her true identity and the sport she loves.
“I felt like I still had more years in me, and that I would regret it later on if I didn’t at least try to do what I am doing,” Eastwood said.
She said it was nerve-wracking to tell her team her decision. But for the most part, teammates were supportive, and at worst, indifferent. Eastwood asked them to start using she/her pronouns and call her Juniper, or June. She picked out the name, after the tree, because she loves nature and being outdoors.
When you know, you know
It was maybe fifth or sixth grade, Eastwood said, when she began questioning her identity. She used the internet as a resource and found the term “transgender.” She felt it was an apt description of what she was feeling.
But Eastwood was living in small-town Belgrade and knew what it meant to be different in a place like that. She could see how other LGBTQ kids were treated in school, and didn’t want that for herself.
To this day, she still feels like it was the best decision to keep her true feelings a secret.
“At that time, I wanted to (transition), but I also got into running at the same time. And you know, in Belgrade, Montana, you probably get to do one or the other. You don’t really get to be an athlete and the one really different person in school,” Eastwood said.
She chose running.
Eastwood said she began actively thinking about and pushing the boundaries of gender norms in middle school. It was a small consolation for living as a boy, but it was something.
It started with subtle changes, like wearing clothes Eastwood perceived to be more feminine. She liked the look of low-top converse shoes, and preferred to spend time with friends who were girls.
“Basically, what I did in middle school was express myself up to the point that people wouldn’t doubt me. So be as feminine and androgynous acting as I possibly could without people picking on me,” Eastwood said.
Running has long been Eastwood’s crutch in dealing with her internal struggle. She said high school was easier because she was a successful athlete. It was an identity that made her happy and was accepted by the outside world.
Frank Jacques became an assistant coach for Belgrade High School’s cross-country team when Eastwood was a junior. The two got along right off the bat, and Jacques was impressed with her commitment to the sport.
“I felt really fortunate to be around her. To be around a high school athlete at that level. It was pretty exciting,” Jacques said.
At her peak, Eastwood was the fastest high school athlete in the state – out of any class. She was being recruited by a number of colleges.
Eastwood confided in Jacques after she made the decision to begin transitioning and still compete.
More than a year after that conversation, Jacques said Eastwood is the same person she was in high school – still competitive and driven and thoughtful and kind. But he sees a new calmness to Eastwood’s demeanor.
She seems more at peace, he said.
“I feel that sense of liberation when people do something as courageous as this, and I’m inspired by that,” Jacques said.
Jacques said he knows not everyone will feel the same. He said he is worried for the pushback that will come with Eastwood running in the women’s division. But at the same time, he said, it’s important culturally to struggle with tolerance and diversity.
“You either understand that and accept it, or be afraid,” Jacques said.
Eastwood is not the first trans athlete to compete in college or professional sports.
When Chris Mosier earned a spot on the men’s national sprint duathlon team, he was the first female-to-male, trans athlete to compete on Team USA. He challenged International Olympic Committee policy and competed in the Sprint Duathlon World Championships in Spain in 2016.
Schuylar Bailar competed in Division I swimming for Harvard and was the first female-to-male, trans athlete to compete in a Division I sport. He has since graduated and become an avid advocate for LGBTQ rights and inclusion.
CeCe Tefler is a track and field athlete who competed in the hurdles for Franklin Pierce University on the men’s team in 2016 and 2017. She took a year off to begin hormone treatment and came back in 2019 to compete on the women’s track team. Telfer earned an NCAA Division II National Championship title last spring.
While these athletes have been lauded for their accomplishments, they’ve also had their fair share of backlash and criticism. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that Tefler’s success was a “grave injustice.” He believed Tefler had an unfair advantage because she was assigned male at birth.
Beth Hubble is a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor at the University of Montana. She said ideas that challenge the status quo can be hard to swallow.
“I think gender is fundamental to how our culture defines itself, and anything that challenges that is scary,” Hubble said.
Hubble said the best way to accept change is to talk about it and humanize it. She said Eastwood is doing just that. By being visible, Eastwood is personalizing what it means to be transgender and helping to change public perception of the issue, Hubble said.
That’s one of Eastwood’s goals for the season. She does want to run well, but said she isn’t as fast as she used to be, and that’s not the point. She said she’ll count this venture a success if it makes it easier for other trans athletes to compete in the future.
Eastwood wants others experiencing what she went through to know they’re not alone, and to tell them there are options.
“You shouldn’t have to give up what you love, to be who you want to be,” Eastwood said.