Portrait: Blake Hansen
As a transgender racer, Blake Hansen’s road to personal and professional acceptance has been fraught with challenges, but she’s more committed than ever to be pushing for change.
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Standing on top of an exposed ridgeline in the middle of nowhere Utah, I got to meet the real Blake Hansen. Around camp, Hansen is a natural comedian with a low-key magnetism. She’s just effortlessly cool, but up on this ridge I see the more defining side of her. A woman on a mission, committed to a relentless pursuit of personal progression. With the full-face down, I catch her steely gaze as she analyzes her line, breaking it down piece by piece.
Her focus isn’t self serving—she’s as much a community builder and mentor as she is an athlete. She generously lends her platform and expertise to uplift the women around her. Blake pauses from her own preparation to descend an 800-vertical-foot exposed freeride line to coach me through the otherworldly Utah landscape. She points out where the line is and explains how to control the bike on steep, loose terrain where there’s no stopping until the bottom. Her calmness eases my nerves as I slowly roll into what would become one of the all-time favorite descents of my life.
Looking back, I found myself curious—what is it that makes Hansen so focused on progression and committed to uplifting her fellow female riders? Where is this deep inner motivation coming from? To understand that we have to go back to Southern California in 1990. Hansen was assigned male at birth, but from her earliest memory always knew she was a woman. To get from that point to standing on top of that Utah mesa, she had to fight to overcome immense societal and personal pressures.
“I just didn’t want to let anybody down,” she explains of growing up as a closeted trans girl. She was deeply rooted in action sports culture as kid who skated, snowboarded and rode BMX. “We all know what skate culture was back then, you were either cool or gay, and I am really fucking gay.” This feeling of betrayal was amplified by the fact that there was no positive representation of trans women in the media while growing up, and her family were conservative Christians.
“Growing up, the scriptures inferred being gay or trans was just as bad being a murderer,” Hansen explained. “I knew I wasn’t a bad person, but I couldn’t help but feel ostracised from my own friends and family and I couldn’t tell a soul.”
The pressure ultimately culminated in Hansen attempting to take her own life in 2014, at just 24 years old. “This came pretty soon after I parted ways with my deeply rooted religious beliefs and fully accepted myself as trans. It felt easier for me to exit this life rather than tell anybody who I actually was.”
The turning point came when she finally mustered the courage to open up to her now-ex-wife Emily, who responded with love and grace, and for the first time in her life, Hansen found acceptance for her true self.
“This chapter of my life could be a whole story in itself, but the biggest takeaway is that being an ally saves lives. Emily was the first person I came out to and her support changed everything for me. For the first time in my life, I felt accepted by and authentically me to someone.”
In 2015, she applied her distinct focus on progression to her transition and the coming out process, breaking it down into steps and spreading it out over two years before publicly coming out in 2017. From that point forward it was off to the races. After a seven-year hiatus from bikes, she rediscovered her love of riding and bought herself a proper gravity-oriented bike: a 2016 Giant Reign.
“This was such a huge transitional period in my life. My body, friendships, career were all shifting around me, and I needed a sport I could do on my own. The ease of just being able to go ride my bike on a Tuesday afternoon and escape it all made it a natural fit.”
We all know what skate culture was back then, you were either cool or gay, and I am really fucking gay.
It wasn’t too much longer until she jumped into her first enduro race, entering the Moab stop of the Scott Enduro Cup in 2018 , where she came in dead last in the amatuer women’s category. Without an understanding of proper nutrition, Hansen bonked hard at the top of the last stage, ran out of water, and wound up with full-on heat stroke.
“Yeah, the ambulance got called for me.”
Despite her horrendous introduction to racing, Hansen was hooked.
“Growing up, I always wanted to do more BMX racing than I did, but my parents wouldn’t support it as it conflicted with church on Sundays. So this was pursuing a lifelong ambition,” she explained. “For me the dead-last finish was just a learning experience. All part of the process.”
It wasn’t long until she got back on the saddle, racing in a few local enduros around the Salt Lake City area, before jumping up to the women’s expert class at the Scott Enduro Cup in Deer Valley, where she finished mid-pack. She quickly found success with a third-place finish at a Big Mountain Enduro race the following season.
Frustrated by the lack of support for the amatuer women’s classes, she decided to make the jump into the pro category in 2020, marking the first time that she rushed her progression.
“With very little support, amatuer women’s cateogories always felt like an afterthought to me. I was fully committed to my progression, and I wanted to race at a level where the support matched my effort. I know a lot of girls who feel the same way.”
Since 2020, Hansen has been racing in the pro-category all over the Mountain West. Her identity as a trans woman has never once been an issue or something that she’s even thought much about while racing, until this year. 2021 has been a record-breaking year of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation with more than 200 bills in some 30 states targeting transgender and queer individuals. Many of them specifically target trans women in sports. The very public discussion has spread misinformation and added scrutiny to trans women like Hansen, who ultimately just want to ride their bikes.
“With everything going on publicly, I feel more distracted from racing. I feel self conscious at the idea of being successful because of the pushback that will be inevitable. There is a part of me that feels happy being a mid-pack finisher just so I can avoid the controversy. It’s extremely frustrating as a competitive athlete.”
While this legislation has yet to prevent Hansen from entering a race, the psychological toll weighs heavy and highlights how these bills are damaging to trans individuals. An often-overlooked statistic is that suicide attempts like Hansen’s are not an exception in the LGBT+ community, but the norm. A 2015 Study from the National Center for Transgender Equality, reports that 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. These high rates are tied directly to trans folx feeling exactly as Hansen did: isolated, alone and unsupported.
“Yeah, this shit sucks,” she says in her signature calm demeanor. “But seriously, bills to ban and exclude us from healthcare and the sports we love only exacerbates this epidemic in our community.”
Most recently, professional mountain biker and godmother of freeride Katie Holden, invited Hansen to dig at Red Bull Formation, one of the most influential and important events in women’s freeride. Rather than a competition, the event is focused on collaboration, skills development and inclusion, not only providing an opportunity for top female athletes to shine, but creating a platform for rising stars, like Hansen, to learn from the best and make connections to further their own careers.
“Formation was the first time in my mountain biking career that I was outwardly reached out to and accepted by the industry. This showed me that things are changing and there could be a place for me to exist and be successful as a trans woman in this space.”
On what’s next, in classic fashion, she’s focused on her step-by-step approach to progression. Hansen is just excited about what’s in front of her, sharing this project with the world. After being approached by one of her sponsors, Gnarly Nutrition, with an idea, Hansen and her life-long friend and fellow creative Katie Bennett, have begun to unpack Blake’s story in this 7- minute short film “Fuel For Life: Blake Hansen.”
Driving back home to Colorado, from this shreddy weekend in the desert, I found myself reflecting on the significance of the representation that Hansen provides. For 32 years of my life, I felt alone in this world. Even after coming out as transgender and finding support, I struggled by not seeing another woman like me in the gravity-oriented bike and snow space. As the stack of anti-trans legislation grew, I felt overwhelmed, and completely alone. With Hansen, I saw hope and inspiration, I found support, a co-conspirator to break down these barriers together, and it hit me that for the first time in my life, I am no longer alone.
“Knowing that’s the impact that I can have on people’s lives, how can I ever stop?” Hansen said.
Photos: Sophia Lei