Transgender man warmly received in sports Hall of Fame ceremony

J McKnight speaks during an induction ceremony into the 2018 Los Gatos High School Athletic Hall of Fame in Los Gatos, Calif., on Saturday, May 5, 2018. McKnight, a transgender man was a three-sport Wildcats star 40 years ago and is receiving the honor along with 9 other athletes from the school at this years' ceremony held at the La Rinconada Country Club. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

All that mattered was being there.

J McKnight, a transgender man who was a girls sports star four decades ago, provided a poignant moment Saturday night at the Los Gatos High School Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Then known as Jennie McKnight while competing in basketball, softball and volleyball in the 1970s, McKnight told a rapt audience how grateful he was that the “flow of history” gave girls a chance to compete after the passage of the anti-discrimination law Title IX.

And now he has “gratitude that the flow of history allowed me to show up here as I am,” McKnight said.

He synthesized his life’s arc through sports, saying athletes never know how it will unfold once a game begins.

“The game will call you into those moments and life will too,” he said. “I was reluctant to attend this ceremony. I live in New York. It would be a lot of money to spend and I couldn’t take time away from work, which is so wrong — I’m self-employed.”

McKnight, who started identifying as a transgender man four years ago, wanted to avoid the awkwardness of no longer being addressed as a woman.

“I still carried the shame and fear that there was something wrong about me,” he told the audience.

But McKnight softened his stance because of attention from a Bay Area News Group profile on his life and award.

“I bought a plane ticket and bought an orange and black tie,” he said, standing in a sharp black suit.

His wife Rhonda Morton, mother Nancy Avoy, stepfather Don Avoy, brother Tom McKnight, half-brother Kevin Avoy and longtime friend Leslee Hamilton were in attendance.  It was difficult to get the entire blended family together at the same time with seven half- or step- brothers and sisters.

“With that kind of rooting section the fears that I had don’t matter so much,” McKnight said.

“Thank you one more time for the honor to allow me to show up.”

McKnight, 58, received a standing ovation, the highlight of the evening that honored nine other Los Gatos athletes.

He was part of the 15th Hall of Fame class from the close-knit hillside South Bay town. The committee inducted athletes at La Rinconada Country Club ranging from Steve Lepurin of the class of 1932 to Carlos Alonso, who graduated in 2006.

Other inductees were Chuck Stewart, Mitch Mandich, Gary Bersano, Jay Slivkoff, Derek Reichstein, Amy White Hockenbrock and Anita Reyes Wierima in an event that illustrates Los Gatos’ smalltown aura in the face of encroaching Silicon Valley.

McKnight’s appearance can be framed in the context of changing views toward gender identification.

The same could be said when McKnight represented the Wildcats on the fields and courts.

Hamilton, Guadalupe River Park Conservancy executive director, recounted her friend’s fierceness as a freshman wanting to play in the Girls Athletic Association.

“The GAA excluded freshmen,” she said. “J challenged it. She wanted the right to play.”

McKnight started all four years, including the final two seasons when Los Gatos fielded varsity girls sports in the aftermath of Title IX.

Former Wildcats football coach Bruce Cattolico, the event’s emcee, said McKnight is the Hall’s first Title IX inductee.

“He started his career in the small gym and ended it at the Oakland Coliseum,” Cattolico said of the basketball team that reached the Tournament of Champions after finishing second in the Central Coast Section playoffs.

McKnight’s accolades came to the attention of the 10-member Los Gatos Athletics Association selection committee through his half-sister Katie Avoy and Hamilton.

Hamilton, who played softball and basketball with McKnight, said it was like having a coach on the field because her friend really understood the game.

McKnight, a hard-playing power forward in basketball, wore No. 24 but not to pay tribute to her favorite Warriors player at the time, Rick Barry.

“He wore it for Willie Mays,” Cattolico said.

McKnight’s wife didn’t know her spouse was a former basketball star. But Morton knew about his softball playing days because he remained a devoted Bay Area baseball fan.

“I have learned to watch the Giants,” said Morton, who met her future partner at a singers’ event at Asilomar State Beach.

They met when McKnight, a psychotherapist in upstate New York, identified as a lesbian. Morton identifies as a heterosexual woman with two grown children.

“You fall in love with someone,” she said before the ceremony. “You don’t fall in love with labels.”

Morton also didn’t plan to attend the ceremony. But a week ago in Portland, Maine, she had a change of heart.

“Maybe I should be there,” she thought.

Like McKnight, Morton showed up too.


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