On Dec. 18, thousands of bodies pack the streets in the predawn heat for the Ameris Bank Jacksonville Marathon. For those not participating, it is a spectacle of awe and circumstance — an army of numbers and shadows and individual passions.
Few know that standing in the midst of it all is Erin Taylor, a newcomer to the oldest marathon in Jacksonville, and the first transgender woman to openly compete in the event. Her aim: to be the first transgender woman to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
Kicking off at the Bolles School on San Jose Boulevard, the marathon is known as the fastest course in the South, but on this day, unseasonable heat and humidity add to the challenge. Before it even begins, many marathoners yield to the conditions and scale back their ambitions to the half-marathon.
Naturally, Taylor is completely at home defying the odds and, unwilling to back down from the difficult elements, she stands poised and ready for the start of the marathon. For the next three hours, 42 minutes and 15 seconds, Taylor battles the weather and muscle fatigue all the way to the finish.
Her efforts put her first in her division and 16th overall out of the event’s 142 women. Unfortunately, she did not qualify for the Boston Marathon, missing her qualifying time by just two minutes.
According to Taylor, “I was on pace until around mile 18; that’s when the heat and humidity hit.”
Officials later said that the conditions had added around 10 minutes to most finishing times, costing many marathoners a chance to potentially qualify for Boston. Taylor remains unfazed, and already has plans in motion for her next marathon, the 26.2 With Donna Marathon on Feb. 12, another Boston qualifier.
“The main reason why I’m running and making it a goal of mine to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which has never been done before, at least not openly, is to bring a spotlight on the transgender experience. Maybe, in the past, someone snuck in there, but they never openly acknowledged they were transgender. This time, I’m doing it publicly,” Taylor told Folio Weekly.
“I want change. Not only change, I want a new perspective. I want to focus attention on the plight of the transgender person who is being segregated into death. We have a society that condones abuse against people like me, and it is unacceptable. This is why I am seeking a spot in the 2018 Boston Marathon, because we deserve to be treated equally and fairly and this is my platform to show that.”
Taylor began running at an early age, long before she focused on enlightening the world to the predicaments faced by many transgender people.
“I started running as a teenager because my identical twin brother was a runner and I wanted to spend all my time with him,” said Taylor. “He was an All-American runner, a five-minute-mile runner as a seventh-grader and everybody saw star-potential in him.
“I was his twin, but I was nowhere close to as good a runner as he was — but I was able to use running as a way to deal with the struggle I was enduring, and running definitely helped. I think everyone who knew me at that time would say that I was very reserved and quiet, just a very shy kid.”
Taylor’s mother, Laureen Harris, agrees. “She was very shy, very feminine and always tried to keep to herself,” said Harris. “When I look at pictures of her then, in retrospect I can see what she was going through and how hard it must have been for her … . When I see her in those pictures, I don’t see a boy, I see a girl. I see a young lady standing there, trying to fit in with what society says should be normal.
“In that respect, life was a constant struggle for her. She was constantly under threat of being bullied or abused and I’ve always been adamantly supportive of her. But of course, back in the ’80s, these were things you just never talked about, so I had to quietly support her.”
“I remember from a very early time, looking in the mirror and not seeing who I really was,” said Taylor. “I remember asking why God gave me my brother’s face. I’m a girl, not a boy. And of course, neither society nor my family were acknowledging that. All through high school, I knew that I was a girl in a boy’s body — I just didn’t know how to tell anybody.”
Gradually, Taylor fell into the role that society had carved out for her. “In a way, I lost my identity,” she said. This led to extreme depression and sadness, and eventually multiple suicide attempts. “Growing up in the late ’80s, there were no support networks or help groups. Things were much different.”
Throughout high school, in an effort to overcome depression and confusion, Taylor turned to running as a way out of her secret anguish, even if the relief was only temporary.
“I spent a lot of time running because I had a lot of trouble with understanding who and what I was, and why I was the way that I was,” said Taylor. “Given this, I fell in love with running, or at least the process of it.
“I learned what it was like to put in the work to get the reward. I was not a natural runner, but eventually I became a great runner and learned the important life lesson of what it means to work for something. It was the only thing in my life that I could control, that I had near absolute control over. Running provided an escape for me. I was able to come alive through it.”
As a sophomore in high school, Taylor found she had a natural ability at the steeplechase, a course in which runners must clear hurdles and jumps.
“I wasn’t the best runner, but I was definitely above average. Interestingly, my high school track coaches found that I was an exceptional steeplechase runner. The funny thing is, you could put me next to the fastest distance runners on a flat track with no obstacles and I would lose every time.
“However, if you put me on a steeplechase track with those same runners, I would beat every one of them.”
In fact, Taylor was so good, she was accepted two years in a row to nationals, where she once placed eighth in the steeplechase event.
“It was apparent to me that having those barriers on the course acted as the great equalizer, which allowed me to compete with the best in the nation,” said Taylor.
After graduating from high school, Taylor decided to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I just wanted out of my community,” said Taylor. “I grew up in a small town in Idaho. It’s ultra-isolated and it was a time when there were no cell phones, no Internet — and it was Idaho, of all things. I just did not fit in and there was nowhere for me to go.
“So I saw the Marine Corps as a way out. Of course, one of the things that was a strength for me was my physical fitness; in fact, I excelled above all others.”
During her time in boot camp, Taylor beat every other recruit, 507 in total, and received the Ironman Award for her efforts. Recruits have the title of Ironman bestowed upon them when they achieve the highest physical fitness test score in the company.
“However, the one thing that worked against me was that I was very soft and feminine. Naturally, I was an easy target for abuse in that hyper-masculine environment,” Taylor continued. “Unfortunately, I was only in the Marine Corps for about two years.”
While serving her country, Taylor says she was hazed and raped and horrifically beaten for being a “faggot” and for being too feminine. Taylor says she was eventually honorably discharged in order to prevent further abuse.
“My service was actually cut short because of this abuse that was propagated against me for being who I am,” said Taylor. “Now you can openly serve as a transgender. Had I known what I was at the time, I would not have had a problem.”
After the hitch in the Marines, Taylor decided it was time for another change, and ended up as a missionary in New York City for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also called Mormons. “The one thing that always drew me to the Mormon faith, despite its doctrinal beliefs against those who have a different gender identity or sexual orientation, is the concept of pre-existence.
“In other words, we exist before we are born into this physical vessel as male and female spirits. For me, this answers the question of why I was born into a male body but have always felt female.”
While living in New York above Sylvia’s Soul Food restaurant on 125th and Lenox in Harlem, spreading the good word, Taylor had what she calls a “powerful and transformative experience.” For the first time in her life, Taylor saw a transgender woman in the flesh.
“I didn’t even know what a transgender was at the time, but I saw a transgender woman and went running at her. I ran right up to her, grabbed her by the arm, scared the living shit out of her, and started crying.
“I remember saying, ‘I’m just like you,’ and from that moment on, I knew I wasn’t alone.”
After completing her mission, Taylor attended The University of Utah on a full scholarship, studying business and interning with former governors Michael Leavitt and Olene Walker. Despite her scholarship, Taylor did not finish her degree, leaving school with around 70 credit hours completed.
“I ended up falling into a number of careers that required a degree, but I was always that one person who excelled beyond all the other employees with degrees. Thankfully, I was able to find success without a degree in positions that usually required one.”
In 2010, Taylor inexplicably began experiencing memory loss and physical deterioration. “Nobody could figure out what was going on,” said Taylor. “I was blacking out, my frontal cortex was shutting down, my body had stopped producing testosterone and I was just really struggling.
“My doctor at the time decided that I needed more testosterone, so I underwent testosterone therapy and basically started going crazy. My body just didn’t want it. I eventually came here to Florida about two years ago to help my mother, who has been battling cancer. It was during this time that I had my moment of realization, my moment of clarity.”
According to Taylor, there is a moment in every person’s life when they realize that they can’t be anything else than what they are. “We have to be true to ourselves,” said Taylor. “Even if that means making others upset or angry. At the time, I had been keeping the truth of who I was a secret, and I just couldn’t do it anymore.
“I couldn’t continue living this lie, and I eventually found myself staring down the barrel of a gun only one year ago. I had every intention of taking my own life. And in that moment, I found that I was looking for a reason to live, because I just couldn’t pretend anymore. I couldn’t pretend anymore that I wasn’t female. I was just so tired of it all.”
Amazingly, what saved Taylor was a video by Shannon Scott. Scott had originally produced the video for The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit organization founded in 1998, providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people.
“It was her video alone that prevented me from committing suicide,” said Taylor. “I even sent her an email thanking her for helping me get through this, and she eventually reached out to me and helped me learn to love myself and become an active force in the human rights campaign.”
Since her brush with with suicide, Taylor has made it her life’s vocation to bring awareness and understanding to countless men and women who are suffering the same fates and circumstances with which she is all too familiar. This entails not only running for her cause, but bringing the fight to the very steps where the Jacksonville City Council meets: the St. James Building, aka City Hall.
Taylor is a frequent speaker at City Council meetings and has lately been focusing her attention on expanding Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance to include protections for the LGBTQ community. This is no small feat, especially because the bill has been struck down by the council twice in the past, the first time by vote and the second time by withdrawal. Protecting the LGBTQ community from discrimination is one of the biggest issues facing local politicians this year, and Taylor is already formulating a strategy to persuade the council of the bill’s necessity.
However, on a larger scale, Taylor also sees her chance to bring national attention to LGBTQ issues, and transgender people in particular, by becoming one of the first transgender qualifiers, alongside Amelia Gapin and Grace Fisher, for the 2018 Boston Marathon. And beyond that: qualifying for the Olympic trials.
Scott believes there is no question that Taylor will succeed.
“I know she just barely missed her qualifying time in the last race, and I have every confidence that she will make her qualifying time in this next one,” said Scott. “She has a great deal of discipline and determination, and I’m just really proud of how she is leading the charge in Jacksonville to fight for, and bring attention to, the need for equality.”
Taylor will again try to qualify for the Boston Marathon at the 26.2 With Donna Marathon on Feb. 12. Starting in Ponte Vedra Beach at 7:30 a.m., the race will continue up S.R. A1A and wind throughout the various communities of Ponte Vedra, Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach, eventually finishing at the Mayo Clinic, just over the Intracoastal Waterway off San Pablo Road.
“I have a dream of running in Boston. I have a dream of running in the Olympic trials. My ability to realize that dream should be based on my efforts alone. And if I earn it through my efforts, then I deserve to compete,” said Taylor.