One in Two Thousand: Ryan Rilinger ’20

Sophia Shin/Photo Editor.

I met Ryan in “Introduction to Justice and Law” first semester of our freshman year. This week, I sat down to talk with him about the band Frightened Rabbit, a less-than-pleasant tongue fiasco and growing up in a very conservative town even smaller than Williamstown.

What’s your major?

I haven’t decided for sure; I flip-flop between chemistry and biology pretty much every other week based on which one has an exam at the time and which one doesn’t… My plan is to go off to medical school and hope for the best there.

Where is your favorite place you’ve ever travelled?

I was fortunate once to go to rural Alaska, and it was just unlike anywhere I have ever been before. I thought I had been [to] the middle of nowhere before, but that was really something else. You can only access it by boat because they can’t even land an airplane or anything like that, and just how quiet somewhere can be just blows my mind.

What is one band that everyone at the College should know about?

Everyone at Williams should listen to this band called Frightened Rabbit. They are a little Scottish indie-folk band that Spotify “Discover” recommended to me once. I wouldn’t say that really fit my normal taste of music, but they’re fantastic. I highly recommend.

So, you’re probably the only trans athlete I know at the College. Can you talk about that experience?

Yeah. I mean, I think I’m in the same boat as you; I have not met another trans athlete on any of the other sports teams. That does put me in a pretty unique spot because as far as I know, this is not something that the school has dealt with in the past. I explained my situation to the coach ahead of time, and the reaction was kind of like, “Okay… Now what?” And I was like, “I don’t know what to do either,” because I hadn’t been to a college before, and in high school, I did not have the luxury of being out because I come from a very conservative, small town where that would have been a danger to myself. A lot of freshman year was me trying to almost teach the school how to get some protocol established for this. For example, all the showers are in one open area. So that’s a huge problem for me because you need to get clean after practice; it’s just unsanitary to not be able to clean yourself after you’ve worked out a lot. I brought that up to the school, and they were very understanding, but it was clear that it just never crossed their minds that there might be somebody out there who, you know, wants to be on a sports team but can’t be completely naked in front of their teammates. Thankfully, we’ve been able to get two shower curtains up, at least in my own locker room. I hope the same has been done for other locker rooms.

Did you play women’s lacrosse in high school? How has that been a different experience for you?

Yeah. Men’s and women’s lacrosse have different fields, markings, sticks and rules – they’re completely different. Transitioning from playing one version of lacrosse to playing the other version was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. Everyone else on the team learned these rules when they [were] young and had people walking them through every step of the way. But no one’s going to take the time in college lacrosse to teach me how substitutions work in men’s lacrosse and what words are used for the different parts of the field – because they’re not even the same words as before. Freshman year, I was much more reserved about my identity, and so that was a panicked year of me trying to quietly, privately learn the rules of the sport that everyone else around me assumed I already knew. That was harder than the actual playing of the sport itself. I was prepared for a physical challenge that I hadn’t experienced before, but what I found was this amazing mental challenge of trying to completely adjust the way I thought about a sport.

You said you came from a very conservative background. How have your family and friends adjusted to your transition?

One of the things I always liked to tell people when I first got here was that I come from a town that feels smaller than Williamstown. We have less of a main street than Spring St., [which] usually shocks people. So everyone kind of has the same mindset where I’m from. It’s very religious [and] right-wing, and that does include my family. Attempting to express my identity with my family for the first several years was touchy [and] full of silence. But they didn’t give up hope on rebuilding a connection with me, and even though I wish things would have been easier along the way, I’m very grateful that they’ve been willing to listen to me when I’ve explained myself to them. They’ve definitely spent time thinking on their own when I’ve been away, [too]. We’re closer than we were years ago. It was a really beneficial thing for me to not lose my family – some people are not that fortunate. As far [as] the rest of my town, there are a handful of people that I’m in touch with who were understanding… But for the most part, the faculty [and] student body at my school were very unwelcoming towards it. I can’t say I miss being in high school; it’s been much nicer here than it has been back there, for sure… I hope that the people from my town are going to kind of follow the path that my parents have followed to an extent because I’ve definitely seen up close that people can change and learn to adjust the way they think. I hope it’s only a matter of time before it’s universal.

All right, taking a segue – I’ve heard your taste buds have changed. Can you tell that story? The tongue story.

[Laughs]. The great tongue story. Yeah. I was in the fourth grade, and I was riding my bike around home. I wiped out pretty bad and bit through my tongue a little bit. You know, it wasn’t the worst bite-through-your-tongue incident ever. I flushed it with water and wrapped a bandage around it, and I thought that it would just heal over… A couple of weeks or so go by, and I get this little white spot that’s kind of sore around where the cut was, and … I’m thinking it’ll go away. Well, it didn’t go away – it just got a little bit bigger as time went on, and [every] now and then, if I wasn’t careful with the way I was biting down, it would get bitten off. It kept coming back, and eventually my parents brought me to a mouth specialist who was like, “Yeah, it’s probably an infection left over from the injury.” He goes to make an incision [to] see what’s going on with my tongue, and what he finds out is … I got some sort of a fungus in the cut when I had that fall, and it had grown underneath the surface of my tongue. It had that one spot sticking out [like a] little tip of an iceberg, and they found the iceberg. So he used a blowtorch to kill it and seal the cut in my tongue back up.

Did you have anesthesia?

I was not under anesthesia at the time because my body is resistant to lidocaine, and the doctor said, “Well, we’re doing it now anyway.” I can still use my tongue, which is good. But I don’t have the same taste buds that I had before because all the taste buds [that] the blowtorch came in touch with were quite damaged by the fire, and they grew back differently. Prior to this, I could eat things that were spicy, and it didn’t bother me. Post-this, I can detect spice on things from a mile away.

Can you tell a difference in the taste of water? Does water have a taste?

Water does have a taste. Well, I would say water itself shouldn’t have a taste, but definitely lots of waters do have taste[s], and that’s probably not great. Like, if you can taste your water, that’s probably not good water.

How would you describe your overall experience at the College thus far?

I would describe my experience at Williams as very eye-opening into human nature. I came here expecting to learn school things and knowledge that comes from a textbook, which I definitely have, but I didn’t quite expect to learn so much about the differences in people. Coming from a very small town myself, I was not prepared for how different human beings can be, and that’s been very fascinating to explore.

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