Love, Hate, and Dysphoria – My Relationship to Public Forum Debate

CONTENT WARNING: graphic descriptions of my experiences with transphobia and gender dysphoria

Once, I stayed up until 4 AM cutting cards. My mom told me that I was addicted to debate that morning, which I have been thinking about ever since. I have constantly been asking myself why I continue to do this activity, despite the fact that I hate it. My answer to this is always paradoxical – despite hating debate, I love debate. To try and rationalize this to myself, to try and explain this paradox, I’ve decided to just put all my thoughts on paper. Here they are.

First, I want to talk about “professionalism.” In octafinals of a major bid tournament, we (a trans first speaker and a brown female second speaker) matched up against two cis men. We lost that round on the flow, the flow judge voted against us, and we deserved to lose the round. I am not angry that we lost that round. What made me furious, the reason that I just can’t stop thinking about this round, was the RFD given by the lay judge that voted for our opponents. We were told that at the end of the day, our opponents had been more professional than us. That was it. My issue isn’t with the fact that this judge did not understand the flow – I don’t expect a parent judge to understand the flow. My issue is with a far broader and more structural issue with lay debate – what the fuck is professionalism?

What does it mean to be professional after I’ve been misgendered? What does it mean to be professional after I’m cut off in cross? What does it mean to be professional after I’m told by a man that he doesn’t have any questions for cross because he has already beaten me? What does it mean to be professional when I get called disgusting for the way I dress or my makeup or the way I perform?

Is professionalism when I put on a suit? Let’s talk about public forums clothing norms. To dress professionally is to wear a suit, a tie, some nice loafers. You stand with your back straight, you smile at the camera, your broad shoulders and puffed chest displaying the masculinity of a man who will answer cross questions and calmly decimate the opponents case. I’ve done it for years. The last time I put on a tie for debate, at a local just a week before the day I am writing this article, I put on my jacket and reached for my eyeliner. I looked up at the mirror and dropped it. I didn’t see myself looking back, I saw a man looking back. My hands shook and my face heated up. It was as if my body was hypersensitive but I couldn’t feel anything at the same time. I stumbled back and hit the back of my head on my bathroom wall. My head was spinning now and I just slid down the wall and sat there, staring at my sink.

“He can really wear a suit, can’t he!” my dad says.

No. No she fucking can’t.

For those of you who haven’t experienced dysphoria, it’s not just a little “I wish I was a girl!” For me, it is more like “I want to peel my skin off and never be perceived as a man ever again.”

My first two rounds, my head is buzzing. I try to debate but all I can think about is how the words leaving my lips aren’t mine. The hands waving in front of me aren’t mine and the hair in my eyes isn’t mine. I look at my hands and don’t see my rings, my favorite rings, my beacons of femininity that I wear in every round because I just want to be anything besides a fucking man.

I’m crying now as I write this because it just hurt so fucking much. The clothes we wear aren’t just pieces of fabric – they are how we are perceived and I’m so done with being perceived by this community. I don’t want your mom to listen to me and tell me if I spoke well enough for her.

By summary of my first round at my first round of my local, I realize something. I can win this round, but not as Sean. I can’t speak quickly or raise my voice or wear flamboyant clothes and makeup. I have to be calm, masculine, deep. I have to be my father. 

We won every round.

I check tabroom to read my ballots. I’ve taken my tie off and I’m shirtless and I’m wearing my rings again and I’m talking to my romantic partner and I feel like it was worth it. I open up the RFD. The judge’s comments for Asmi: 


“Good job pulling across your partner’s dropped responses (it helped that he called out the dropped responses and pre-empt during grand cross).”

He. He. He. He. He. He. He. He.

He called out the dropped responses. He preempted the frontlines. He was good in grand cross.

But it wasn’t me that did that. It wasn’t Sean who uses they/she pronouns who likes playing Overwatch and reading philosophy and hanging out with her friends and drinking tea and eating green apples and baking with their stepmom. It wasn’t fucking me, it was some man in my body saying those words and making that preempt. And winning that round.

That fucking tie broke me. A piece of fabric. It just broke me.

My mouth is dry now and I’m crying too much. My hands are shaking and I keep messing up the spelling. I can’t stop thinking about the face that I saw in the mirror that day.

This year, I’ve often been able to just raise my camera angle above my shoulders. But what about next year? What happens when I look that parent in the eye and shake their hand? Even worse, what happens when they see me?

I suppose that’s the wrong question. They don’t see me.

It’s not just the clothes. It’s being misgendered. Constantly. It’s being misgendered 4 times in a round at Georgetown, and after correcting them, getting misgendered another 13 times. 

It’s having a parent judge at UK vote against queer healthcare because we only talked about the queers.

It’s seeing a screenshot of a clouty prep group say about me, “we’re gonna nuke him.” They knew my pronouns.

It’s being called disgusting. It’s being hacked against. It’s being looked down upon. It’s being made fun of for reading pronoun theory. It’s being called unprofessional.

It’s being a lot of things. And it’s definitely not a place of being Sean.

Debate has pushed me to the brink. It’s made me cry, it’s made me think about why the fuck I still exist. So I guess you’re wondering why I’m still here.

I don’t know. I don’t know why I still do debate and I don’t know why I haven’t left and I don’t know why it hurts so much to stay but it hurts even more to leave.

Maybe it’s because I’m competitive. Maybe it’s because I have faith that the community will improve. Maybe it’ll help me get into college and maybe it’ll help me make some friends.

At the end of the day, debate is the only thing that I have ever been good at. I can’t play sports or instruments and I don’t get amazing grades. I justify my existence in this activity with wins and bids. But I’ve found that no matter how many rounds I win or how many times I bid, it doesn’t hurt any less.

I usually end these things with a call to the community, something that I want to see happen. I won’t this time because I just don’t know what needs to happen. I don’t have an answer anymore and I don’t have the energy to find one. I just hope that you hear me.

All I hope is that you see me as me.

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