For Darrien McWatters, life has always included hockey.
Since childhood the longtime Summerland resident and 20-veteran of the local volunteer fire department has loved the sport —playing, officiating and coaching.
However, it was after deciding to become the person on the outside that she was on the inside two years ago that McWatters saw how much the sport — and its community in the Okanagan — would become apart of her true identity.
As a 45-year-old parent of two teenage boys, she first told close friends and family about two years ago that she was transgendered. It eventually led to the beginning of her physical transformation.
Hockey, came a short time afterwards when she was invited to play in the South Okanagan Women’s Hockey League.
“It felt amazing, it brought something back from my past that I’ve always been passionate about,” said McWatters, whose father is the late B.C. wine legend Harry McWatters. “Then being accepted and playing in the women’s league, I am now legally female, but I just haven’t had the surgery; it was very affirming, it’s like ‘yes, this is where I belong’ and it’s just amazing with all the ladies around and their support.
“Just the feeling that it brought to me; a friend of mine said it’s like bringing a part of your old world that you loved into your new world and combining them and that’s a pretty lovely thing. I’m the same person on the inside that people know, now I just say I’m in a prettier form,” she said.
McWatters recalled the first few times she went to the arena.
Only one other person on the team knew she was transgender and nobody else realized.
“So that’s pretty much affirming right there that the ladies thought I was a biological female and even when they found out they were just nothing but supportive they said, ‘We love how passionate you are about the game and you really love being here,’” she said.
She has recently received a particularly unique invitation to join the international Team Trans hockey team for a weekend of games as part of the Friendship Series hosted by the Madison (Wisconsin) Gay Hockey Association.
McWatters decided to take this opportunity to raise some money for the cause and more importantly, raise awareness about the transgender community.
“So I thought let us make this bigger. There’s a lot of people in the community that are transgender who may not have a voice or the support I do in my world,” she said. “I want to use my voice and my visibility to make it feel like a lot more normal world for others.
“Even if I only help one person it will be worth it.”
She is looking especially forward to meeting others in Wisconsin with similar stories as hers.
“We’re all transgender or gender non-conforming,” said McWatters. “An entire team that (through) one way or another we are connected in our lives and have gone through different journeys, but similar journeys; we all the love the game whether we’re new to it or been involved in it for 30-some years.”
As one Team Trans player put it: “As soon as you put the jersey on, nothing underneath it matters.You are just a hockey player.”
In addition to playing hockey, McWatters referees minor hockey, men’s and women’s rec leagues, and also coaches kids.
Having been an on-ice official has helped her deal with any negative comments about gender issues.
“I’m a hockey referee, so if that doesn’t make you have thick skin, nothing will,” she said with a laugh.
For McWatters, the realization of her gender identity was a gradual process and not without some very real struggles which continue today.
“The transgender suicide rate is the highest of any community and it can be a tough battle, but I think I can do more by being here and be more support for my kids by being here,” said McWatters, her voice going quiet. “Often it’s not about me, it’s about being something bigger than I can be and I have to remember that every day and that’s a big part of being invited to Team Trans, it’s not about me it’s about what more I can do and what more I can represent for others.”
She added the support of family and friends has helped carry her through those tough times.
“For them, it’s just about my happiness, even my kids said: ‘As long as we see you happy,’ and I guess I’m genuinely happy,” said McWatters. “Now I’m just genuinely happy I found what personal happiness by actually just loving yourself. I still struggle but we all have struggled every day.
“My journey is still fairly new and I’m still learning a lot about myself. We all have our own story, our journeys there may be similarities but I can only speak for myself and this is my story, and my life and I hope it makes it easier for people who are struggling.”