By Mariajose Fernandez and Isabel Pulgarin
For decades, the intense fight by female athletes for decent recognition in sports proved sports are not just for boys. Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Sha’Carri Richardson have pushed the boundaries of tennis, gymnastics, and track, inspiring college athletes to do the same.
Grace Simmons, a junior social work major, is on the women’s soccer team at Barry and believes women face more challenges than men in the athletics world.
“We constantly have to deal with being seen as less than and looked down on,” she said. “Being a woman in sports means breaking barriers, inspiring others, fighting to make things equal.”
Ella Wallfur, a junior business management major, also plays soccer at Barry and is adamant about equality across gender lines.
“Women should be able to make a living out of their sports in the same way as men can, and I hope that is a place we have reached in ten years,” she said. “I also hope that the equality in sports has reached even more worldwide, to places where sports might not even be a consideration for women today.”
The issues of equal pay and equal notoriety in professional sports, notwithstanding, a new issue has arisen over the last few years—the presence of transgender athletes in women’s sports.
Both Williams and Navratilova have expressed concerns about playing tennis against “biological males.”
In August, Navratilova, who is an openly gay tennis legend, called out the United States Tennis Association (USTA)’s transgender inclusion policy on X, formerly known as Twitter.
She tweeted: "Come on @USTA- women’s tennis is not for failed male athletes- whatever age. This is not right and it is not fair. Would this be allowed at the US Open this month? Just with self ID? I don’t think so…"
Florida law restricts student athletes to teams of their “biological sex,” prohibiting trans women athletes from joining women’s sports.
Despite this law, at Barry University, Von Sellers was the first trans cheerleader to make it on the cheerleading team.
From Fall 2020 to Spring 2023, she cheered for the Bucs from the sidelines and off campus with the nonprofit Cheer Miami to advocate for LGBTQ+ causes.
She was thriving. And still is. Only now, she is a student at Florida international University (FIU) after transferring there as a junior theater major and social work minor over the summer.
Her choice to leave Barry stemmed from a variety of reasons.
Sellers is from Jacksonville, FL., and is the second youngest of five siblings. She grew up in the foster care system after her single mother abandoned them when she was four years old.
She ended up living with her younger brother’s paternal aunt where she was physically, mentally and emotionally abused.
“It was very hard. I felt put in a shell. And I had to do what I had to do to survive,” she said. “When it comes to social work, I want to help kids who were put in those types of situations to where they’ve been put in the system, abandoned by their parents, put in these abusive homes.”
She came to Barry as a freshman during the pandemic in 2020 and soon transitioned into the woman she is today.
At first, she was nervous to try out for the Barry cheer team due to a lack of experience since her brother’s aunt, her guardian, didn’t allow her to cheer as a boy. She was worried that the cheer coach, Chery Patras, wouldn’t either.
“I literally told my friend, ‘Well, what if the coach wants me to put on some pants? What if the coach is weird? I don’t know,’” said Sellers. “So, she inboxed the coach, ‘Hey, my friend wants to try out, she’s trans’ — and the coach was like, ‘Girl if she wants to wear a skirt, she can wear a skirt.”
But does this openness apply to other women’s sports at Barry?
Associate Vice President and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreation Scott Smith told The Buccaneer that “at Barry University, we prioritize fostering an inclusive and diverse community that upholds fundamental fairness and mutual respect for all individuals.”
“Our policies and practices are guided by the Barry University Non-Discrimination Statement, which expressly prohibits discrimination based on various factors, including gender identity and expression,” said Smith.
Sellers recalls how the Barry cheerleading coach treated every cheerleader equally and did not instill different standards.
“If one girl got called out for not doing the toe touch, I’m gonna get called out for not doing the toe touch. Nothing was treated differently. I never got treated like a man, anything of that sort,” she said.
Cheer became a passion of hers, Sellers said, culminating in her earning the role of cheer captain her last semester on campus.
“Like I always say, cheer was what made Barry for me. I met a lot of people and it was really fun. That was the only thing keeping me, like, sane,” she said. “I got to be in a professional, big role to where everybody’s looking like, ‘Oh, she’s leading this.’ It was a great feeling. I wouldn’t give it up for nothing in the world. But all things come to an end.”
Sellers said outside of her cheer squad, her transition was not entirely accepted on Barry’s campus, citing incidents of faculty misgendering her.
“Constantly, I had issues with being addressed correctly,” said Sellers. “I had to register as an accessibility student saying I have something mental to where they have to send out letters to the teachers saying, ‘Hey, I want to be addressed this way…’ Like I shouldn’t have to do that because there is nothing mentally wrong with me.”
Nevertheless, Sellers does credit Barry’s Former Director of Accessibility Services Lina Villegas for supporting her and fighting for her every step of her transition.
While there are no other trans athletes involved in women’s sports at Barry at this time, according to a written statement by Barry’s Office of Communications, trans athletes should feel comfortable in trying out for student activities, including sports.
The office stated: “Respect and dignity for each student, including trans students, are core principles at Barry University. We have clear policies in place to ensure that faculty and staff treat all students, including trans and queer students, with the respect, dignity, and inclusivity they deserve. Our commitment to creating a safe and comfortable environment for all students, regardless of their gender identity, is unwavering.”
While there are still 18 states with laws prohibiting transgender athletes from participating in college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) adopted a new policy in January to determine transgender participation on a sport-by-sport basis by the sport’s national or international governing body.
The Buccaneer conducted a survey of 177 Barry students inquiring whether trans athletes should be allowed to compete in gendered sports. About 66 percent believe trans athletes should be allowed to compete in women’s sports, while about 33 percent disagree.
Sellers believes a lack of exposure and education on the trans experiences drives violence, prejudice and policies against transgender lives. She encourages other trans students to try out for college sports.
“I would tell people to just try. It doesn’t matter; as long as you put your foot down and acknowledge that you’re there—you have the skill, you have the talent—do it. Because you cannot let people dictate what you become and what you can do,” she said.