Kris Wilka Just Wants to Play Football
It’s a mild late-October evening in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. About seven miles from downtown, right past a Walmart and some corn fields, sits Harrisburg North Middle School, a low-slung brick building that could be a stand-in for any American school. And behind that, a football field—flat and unassuming, a short chain-link fence and running track surrounding it. In the center is a modest grouping of stands, which tonight are packed with parents and fans. Your quintessential middle-American field, on which your quintessential American boys tackle one another and learn camaraderie and confidence.
And one of these quintessential American boys is Kris Wilka, 14 years old, standing in his maroon Harrisburg Tigers football jersey and metallic gold pants, helmet on, pads on, mouthguard in, greasy and smeared eye black below both eyes. He turns to his dad and the other hundred or so people in the stands and flashes a peace sign. Click-click-click.
During the game, Kris is all focus, like any athlete who takes the task seriously. “I don’t really pay the crowd any mind, because I already have a job to do,” he says.
Harrisburg North is playing its second game in a row against one of its in-town rivals, O’Gorman Junior High School. Every young player likes to win, of course. But for Kris, this game is special, and each tackle feels like vengeance. Kris was supposed to go to O’Gorman. That’s where most of his friends ended up going. And he would’ve, but because of who he is, his dad says, the school told Kris that he wouldn’t be allowed on the football field at O’Gorman. (O’Gorman has not responded to requests for comment.) Soon after they heard that, Kris and his family contacted Harrisburg North and enrolled.
He was once a quarterback, but now he plays right guard on offense and defensive end. The latter is his favorite position, one that requires a combination of rapid-fire thinking and brute force. “Even on the line, we have certain blocks that we have to do…a reach block, we have to go out a little more; a pass block, we have to stay back. It’s very organized,” Kris says. “Most people think on the line that we just hit people, but there’s a lot to it.” Still, he likes it better than quarterback because, in his words, “I get to hit people a lot more.”
Kris is five-foot-six, maybe five-foot-seven first thing in the morning. Other kids are bigger, but it doesn’t matter. Kris has been playing football since second grade. He used to play with more fear, more hesitation. But now? It’s like “ooh, if I hit you hard enough, you’ll go down,” he says giddily. “I won’t have to worry about you anymore.”
Harrisburg North lost the first game, 6 to 0, and Kris and his teammates are determined to come back strong for this, the rematch.
O’Gorman snaps the ball. It’s a running play, and Kris sees the running back coming up the middle. Kris charges, and the rest happens in a split second—he wraps his arms around the running back’s hips and falls to the ground, pulling the other guy down with him. “Sometimes it hurts, if you land on the wrong spot,” Kris tells me. “But mainly it feels good.”
Harrisburg North wins the second game, a blowout. Forty-two to zero.
He could’ve been on the other team. But they wouldn’t let him; they insisted he run cross-country with the girls instead. Which confused Kris and angered his family, because Kris is a boy. A 14-year-old boy who, like millions of others, lives a mostly conventional American life—playing video games and listening to rock and roll, messaging friends on Discord late into the night, getting home from football practice sweaty, fantasizing about old-school cars (in Kris’s case, a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz). It would all be unremarkable, except for one pesky fact—not pesky to Kris, or to his family, or to most of the people in his community. But pesky to some people with a lot of power to cause a lot of problems in Kris’s life, because Kris is trans.
Which doesn’t matter on the field on this game day, except in the sense that it makes it feel all the more worthwhile to beat the crap out of O’Gorman. “You have no idea,” Kris tells me after the game. “This feels so good, to just rub this win in their face. Rub it in the school’s face. I could have been on your team.”
Kris is not one for celebration, but he’s happy. After the game, he goes home to his dad’s house, takes a shower, and heats up a cup of ramen.
Over the past few years in South Dakota, several bills have been introduced targeting trans kids. One would have prevented doctors from performing gender-affirming surgeries or prescribing puberty blockers or hormone therapy to anyone under age 16. (While such interventions remain controversial to much of the general public, doctors and researchers say they’re critical in addressing gender dysphoria: One recent study found that transgender and nonbinary youth received gender-affirming hormone therapy reported lower rates of depression and suicidality.) The bill was introduced by a vehemently anti-trans state representative named Fred Deutsch, who told The New York Times he got the idea after surfing the internet one day; he referred to gender-affirming surgeries as a form of “mutilation” and a “crime against humanity,” comparing them to medical experiments carried out by Nazis during the Holocaust. (He later said he regrets the comparison.) Another bill would have prevented trans students in South Dakota public schools from using the correct bathroom and locker room for their gender. Thankfully, neither bill came to fruition. But then last year, legislators passed yet another bill, this one aimed at students playing sports, and were partially successful—while the bill was vetoed by Governor Kristi Noem on technical grounds, she later issued two executive orders barring trans girls from playing on girls’ sports teams in public schools.
What’s happening in South Dakota is happening all across the United States. In 2021, bills were introduced in 36 states that would prohibit trans students from playing sports with cis students of the same gender at their schools. According to Freedom for All Americans, in Texas, legislators introduced 19 anti-trans sports bills, one of which was signed into law in October, forcing kids to play sports on public school teams with whichever gender matches the gender on their birth certificates. “This is the worst legislative session in history for LGBTQ+ Americans, in terms of the number of bills we’ve been fighting,” says Anne Lieberman, the director of policy and programs at the sports advocacy group Athlete Ally. “We’re looking at [hundreds of] anti-LGBTQ+ bills this past session alone.” Of those bills, 86 in 36 states targeted trans students in sports. “It became very clear that the conversation around sports was a really compelling wedge issue that preys on people’s very deeply ingrained ideas about sex and gender and what bodies can and can’t do,” Lieberman says.
There aren’t more than a handful of kids in South Dakota to whom these sports laws would apply, according to the ACLU of South Dakota’s Jett Jonelis. These bills are solutions in search of a problem that does not exist. These legislators are a problem in search of Kris.
Kris has been thrust into the position of being a defender of trans people—giving media interviews, testifying at hearings, becoming a poster child for an entire movement that, to be honest, he’d rather not really be part of. It shouldn’t be up to any 14-year-old kid to fight the attacks of dozens of lawmakers. But that’s another quintessentially American thing—people having to constantly battle a government attempting to legislate away their ability to live a normal life, to attend the schools where all their friends go.
If he had his way, Kris would be “just a normal dude.” Playing video games. Learning the guitar. Listening to music from the ’60s like the Mamas & the Papas. Dressing a little hippie-ish. Mostly, he’s obsessed with Lana Del Rey. He listens to her all the time. He finds inspiration in how she’s overcome hardships. He learns her songs on the guitar and even writes fanfic about her. It’s better than thinking about politics, the fact that dozens of legislators in his state, and hundreds in dozens of other states, have been trying for years to make Kris’s life harder than it needs to be.
In February, after an hour of testimony during which lawmakers and parents aired their fears of letting trans students play sports on teams that conform with their identities, a few opponents of the bill were allowed to speak. In his confident voice, Kris beamed in over Zoom: “One of the many things I’ve learned in my life is that people do not say anything until you do.”
He detailed his experience, having had to switch schools to play football. He said no kid should fear playing sports because of their gender identity, their race, or anything else. “No child should ever have to go through that kind of hurt—being shunned because you did not fit the standards of their expectations…. All I want to do is be a kid and play what I love, which is football and sports in general.”
Kris wrote the speech himself. It was brief, to the point, and moving.
Two days later, the South Dakota House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 50 to 17.
South Dakota is a deeply conservative state. It wasn’t until 2019 that it hosted its first Pride parade, in Sioux Falls. What’s maybe most remarkable about Kris is that here—in this small city on a mostly red map—no one really cares about his gender. The politics of it all feels extraneous, unnecessary, completely unrelated to his very normal life. Kris splits his time between his mom’s and his dad’s house. He has a big family: five sisters, two brothers, all older. He’s particularly close with his sisters, who playfully annoy Kris—like by walking into his room and knocking over a water bottle for no reason. But they also helped raise him.
By the time Kris was two, he knew he was a boy. People would say, “Oh, you’re so pretty,” and Kris would say, “No, call me boy. I’m a boy,” John Wilka, Kris’s dad, tells me. A gray-mustachioed, jovial retired lawyer, John is South Dakota through and through. His house is four blocks from the hospital where he was born. But he and his family are more liberal than many in the area. He describes himself as “to the left of McGovern,” invoking the fiercely progressive South Dakota senator. Which meant Kris had a safe, or at least safe-ish, space to find himself as a kid.
In day care, he would tell teachers to stop calling him a girl. In second grade, in Catholic school, Kris was scheduled to take part in a First Communion ceremony, and was expected to wear a dress. His dad called up the school and said, “If you think Kris is going to wear pretty lace and a white dress, we’re gonna have a problem.” The school helped him pick out a blazer.
Which isn’t to say it’s always been easy—there was an adjustment period for his family. For a while, they were sure it was a tomboy phase. But Kris was persistent. And the more persistent he was, the more it forced his parents to do their own research. One day, his mom, Jena, read a story online about a similar young boy in San Francisco. Kris’s parents quickly decided they would not resist what was becoming obvious to everyone.
“When he was three or four, we were like, ‘This is a trans youth,’” his dad says. “I said, ‘’Kay, this is my son.’ Done, immediately.”
The hardest thing for Kris’s dad was the pronouns. But the rest of the family helped. John used to call his daughters the “pronoun police,” because they’d always make sure to correct him. The entire family adapted to Kris’s identity largely without complaint or resistance. Kris was Kris, and the people closest to him just had to accept that.
“He kept acting like he always did,” John said. “It was us who had to adapt.”
Kris first signed up for football, in the local coed Junior League, when he was eight years old. His family didn’t think twice about it—they just put down “male” on the form when he joined. At the tryouts, Kris took the ball and fired a three-step dropper to one of the receivers. He was immediately selected as quarterback.
John watched his son go through all the clichés that sports are supposed to imbue in a young man—his confidence increased, he learned teamwork, and he developed a healthy competitiveness.
After two years playing quarterback, Kris told his dad he wanted to play on the line. He was sick of handing off the ball. He wanted to hit people.
The only hiccup in Kris’s football journey was when he wanted to continue on in the Catholic school system with the rest of his friends. When Kris was going into seventh grade, his family was informed that if he wanted to continue playing sports, he’d have to choose one with a girl’s team, like cross-country. It made no sense. Kris had been playing in a football league outside of school with other boys for years. The family’s decision was swift—no more Catholic school. Kris would attend the local public middle school instead.
To say Kris is supported by his new school is an understatement—he’s popular, well-liked by students and teachers. Kris’s science teacher recently sent an email to his dad, just letting him know she thought Kris was a “rock star.”
“You just have kids who are immediately likable,” Micah Fesler, the school principal, tells me. “Kris is definitely that.”
It’s not just that Kris is mature, or charismatic. It’s that he’s centered, self-assured.
“It’s good to know somebody who knows themselves,” Fesler said.
The first day at his new middle school, at the football sign-up, Kris was approached by the school’s football coach. The coach had heard Kris wanted to play football, but Kris thought that the coach should know something—Kris was trans.
“Oh, okay,” the coach said. “Do you want to play in the line or the backfield?”
The relative easiness of Kris’s life is no accident. It took years of hard work from a dedicated community. Which is where Susan Williams comes in. Susan once lived in the same bubble as many of her peers—she was an evangelical Christian, and she knew nothing about trans rights. But then, one day, her nine-year-old kid came home from school crying and said, “I just can’t do this anymore. I can’t be a girl.”
They went to counseling, and the counselor told Susan her child had gender dysphoria. She had no idea what that was. A year later, Susan’s kid wrote an eight-page letter telling Susan he was never her daughter, but her son. A few weeks later, the family started calling him Wyatt. Around the same time, anti-trans legislation was making its way through the state—this time focused on who could use the appropriate bathroom in schools for their gender. Aside from her son, Susan did not know a single trans person, and did not know of a single trans support organization in the state. She realized she would have to take on the fight herself, defending Wyatt from the onslaught of legislative transphobia.
In 2018, Susan publicized her first event: a day in the park for trans people and their families. She bought some balloons and cupcakes. Her kid’s therapist showed up, and an administrator from the local hospital. No one else.
But slowly the word got around. It turned out most trans people in South Dakota thought they were the only ones—hundreds of people in similar circumstances who, separated by miles of country road and rhetoric that made them hide in the shadows, thought they were alone. Susan’s basement became a de facto community center for trans people—by 2019, it was common for 50 people to show up to share stories about living in South Dakota, and to find solace in one another’s company.
That year, Susan started a nonprofit called the Transformation Project to formalize her work. At a launch party, she met John Wilka, who immediately came up and hugged her, thanking her for her work. Until then, he was convinced his family had the only trans kid in all of South Dakota. Susan was the one who suggested Kris move to the Harrisburg School District from Catholic school. Kris and Wyatt became friends.
In 2020, Susan launched an advocacy arm of the Transformation Project to try to lobby legislators in the state, though that’s been an uphill battle: Susan once sent every legislator a copy of a magazine the nonprofit produced. A few lawmakers brought it to the floor as an example of the ways dangerous people were promoting trans propaganda.
But while legislators fought to make the lives of trans kids harder, Susan and the Transformation Project have quietly made a deep impact on their local community. Recently, Kris and Susan were part of a panel at a local community college. In front of about 50 people, they explained the threats to trans rights in South Dakota. Kris was the most questioned person on the panel, because wherever he goes, he’s the most charismatic. And he didn’t sugarcoat it. He told people how hard it could be to be trans in the middle of America.
Last October, Susan helped organize “Family Day at the Farm.” Her organization and a few others set up tables at a local farm to get the word out about their programs. Around 150 people showed up.
One young trans person was amazed when Susan told them the Transformation Project had $50 gift cards available so they could purchase gender-affirming undergarments. One mom of a trans kid came up to Susan and cried. It was her first time realizing there were other trans people in South Dakota.
After practice one day, Kris sits in his dark room, chatting with his friends on Discord. He gets most of his clothes from Walmart, yet he’s managed to cultivate a unique style—part typical teenage boy, part hippie. He’s wearing a black hoodie with a flower pattern on its back. His comforter, made by a neighbor, is tie-dye. He refuses to join in with the crowd—most people in the area are Vikings fans. His family loves the Packers, and his dad loves the Saints. To be controversial, Kris picked the Cowboys, his mom’s team.
“I’m not gonna be like the rest of you,” Kris tells me of his decision. “I’m gonna like a team in Dallas, Texas.”
Still, he loves his hometown. His family has been there for generations. But Kris wants to leave eventually, to travel to places like Bali, maybe to live in Los Angeles. He’s on testosterone, and eventually wants to get top surgery, when he’s old enough. For now, though, the life he has is enough. He’s content.
These days, he spends most of his time off the field practicing his guitar, listening to Lana. He shares the fanfiction he writes about her with his friends and other fans on Discord. Kris tells me he likes Lana for her music (“God Knows I Tried” was the first song of hers that he loved), but he also finds inspiration in her as a person. He likes that she put a hex on Donald Trump (even though it did not work). He likes that she’s overcome traumas and personal demons. I ask him if he relates to those struggles. Does he feel like he’s been through similar ones? No, he says. His life has been pretty good.
I was shocked, and maybe even a bit envious, when Kris told me he couldn’t relate to Lana’s hardships. I’m trans too, but I started transitioning when I was much older than Kris, after a teenagehood spent hiding myself behind a veil of masculinity and amphetamines. The idea that I could transition seemed impossible to me as a teenager. The idea of a world like the one Kris inhabits—had you told me it existed when I was a young teen—would have seemed like complete fiction, even though I grew up not in Middle America, but in New York City.
Seeing Kris, as confident as any other teen boy, with a little swagger, a smirk that tells the world, “I know who I am, and you can’t do anything to change that,” shook me. It made me furious, for my childhood, for everyone else forced into solitude and depression and suicidality by transphobia.
Imagine if everyone could be as supported as Kris, I thought. Which isn’t to say his life is easy, and that it always will be. His dad thinks high school will be harder (he wants Kris to take up martial arts to prepare). And I think somewhere in him, beneath the calm, assured surface, Kris knows it too, knows that no matter how much support he has, how much the world has changed in the two-ish decades that separate me from him, there will still be people in far-away offices and capitol buildings, plotting to make his life, and the lives of everyone like him, harder.
Attempting to see a little beyond the surface, beyond the confidence that has carried Kris through life, I ask to see some of his Lana fanfic, and he eventually agrees.
In his most recent story, written in the first person, Lana goes to a county fair with her boyfriend (a character named Ambrose that Kris created). The boyfriend is scared of roller coasters, but Lana eggs him on, getting him over his fear until he rides with her: a guiding light into an unknown future—scary, but the future all the same.
The coaster cars slowly click up the track.
“I felt the cart stop a little and I realized we were at the top of the drop,” Kris writes. “I giggled with glee and adrenaline….We then slowly started to inch down, before it dropped.”
P.E. Moskowitz is a writer based in New York.