It was always easy to find her.
Spectators never had to search hard to spot Therese Haiss out on the track, because the 2013 Solon graduate more often than not was running out front.
During her junior season with the Lady Comets, Haiss captured a Division I state crown in the 800-meter run in 2:08.05 and finished runner-up in the 1,600 run in 4:53.80.
As a senior, she repeated a runner-up showing in the 1,600 run and anchored a state podium four-by-400 relay that clocked 3:53.84 to help propel the Solon track and field girls to their first state championship as a team at Jesse Owens Stadium in Columbus.
Haiss continued her visibility as an elite runner at the universities of Oregon and Arkansas in both cross-country and track and field – becoming a national champion as the 800 leg of the Razorbacks’ distance medley relay during the 2015 indoor track season and an NCAA national qualifier in the 1,500 run as an Arkansas senior during the 2017 outdoor season, clocking a career-best 4:16.31.
After an all-American college career, Haiss became a professional road runner, training with Adidas and competing in road miles throughout the country, including the Guardian Mile on the Hope Memorial Bridge in downtown Cleveland.
But Haiss’ visibility extends further than just her running career.
“I came out while I was in college and started dating one of my teammates,” Haiss said. “We sort of came out together. So, I identify as a pansexual female. But since doing that and since being public on social media, it’s been amazing to get feedback from other people who reach out to say, ‘Thank you for the visibility.’ It’s helped encourage them to come out themselves, or just helps them be more OK with themselves if they’re not ready to come out.”
That teammate was Nikki Hiltz, another 1,500-meter standout at Arkansas who was an NCAA national runner-up during the 2017 outdoor season.
As a pansexual female, Haiss said she’s attracted to one’s personality versus one’s gender identification.
“So, I’m attracted to people as I get to know them, and that impacts physical attraction to them,” she said.
With the ups and downs of the LGBTQ community this past week, Haiss said it remains important to be steadfast in her visibility as a member and advocate of that community.
On Friday, the Trump administration formally rolled back an Obama-era policy that protected LGBTQ patients against discrimination by doctors, hospitals and health insurance companies, specifically as it relates to gender identity. The new regulation, finalized by the Department of Health and Human Services, means that the federal government no longer recognizes gender identity as an avenue for sex discrimination in health care.
That rollback came on the four-year anniversary of the Orlando nightclub shooting, when a 29-year-old security guard killed 49 people in a gay bar in Florida.
Three days after that rollback, on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a victory to the LGBTQ community by voting 6-3 to rule that a key provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act known as Title VII, which bars sex discrimination in the workplace, also protects LGBTQ employees from being fired because of their sexual orientation. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the court’s four liberal justices in the majority.
The outcome is expected to add security to the estimated 8.1 million LGBTQ workers across the nation – only 21 states had local laws protecting them from workplace discrimination, according to the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.
“To speak on the transgender aspect of the ruling, that is definitely the most oppressed group of the LGBTQ-plus community,” Haiss said. “And I think that this ruling is just fantastic and should protect them.
“So, I’ve definitely become more educated, as I’ve come out, on the transgender community. I think it’s important for people to be allies and to protect them, because they are extremely oppressed, and they need to be supported, and they need to feel that support, which is just very important. So, I’m very grateful and proud of what was passed earlier today.”
There’s nothing new about being non-binary or not identifying with one’s berth sex, but it can be very difficult to acclimate because of the general public’s acceptance of that group of people, Haiss said.
Particularly in high school athletics, the inclusion of transgender students to participate in sports has experienced victories and defeats in different states in recent years.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association currently requires a transgender girl to prove she’s completed at least one year of hormone treatment or to demonstrate by way of “sound medical evidence” that she does not possess physical or physiological advantages over peer athletes of her same age before competing in female sports.
In February, Ohio Republicans introduced a bill, Save Women’s Sports Act, which aims to bar any male-born athletes from competing in girls sports in both public and private schools.
“Hopefully, in time we can figure out how to make sure everything is fair and right,” Haiss said. “As of now, sports are separated by male and female, and in time we’ll see if that’s still appropriate and what makes sense. I don’t really have a say on anything other than I think there should be a place for everyone in sports, especially a sport like running. It should be all-accepting.”
In terms of her own experience, Haiss did not identify as a pansexual female in high school. She said it took falling into her relationship with Hiltz, her first girlfriend, to start to understand her sexuality.
Before that relationship, it was pretty easy to be influenced by her environment and by a society that often makes young people feel that they’re supposed to be heterosexual, she said.
“Once I started understanding my feelings for my eventual girlfriend, that’s when I came to terms with my identity on the sexual spectrum,” Haiss said. “I think that is kind of like a natural instinct.
“So, I had dated someone before, and I kind of knew, ‘Oh, these feelings are not platonic.’ And that just comes through time. We had been friends for essentially three years, and it was kind of coming to terms with your attachment to someone.”
When Haiss and Hiltz made their relationship public on social media during their junior year of college, it was business as usual in the sports world. Their teammates and coaches at Arkansas didn’t treat them any differently, Haiss said.
“We came out together, and I think we helped encourage each other through all of it versus it being one helping the other,” she said. “I think there was strength in the partnership, and that’s what people see.
“And if you are doing well, people want to be a part of your story and want to embrace what you are doing if you are successful in the sport. I could see our story being different if we hadn’t been high-level athletes at the university.”
While Haiss and Hiltz did have a lot of very religious Arkansas teammates who believed – and probably still believe – same-sex relationships are wrong and that marriage is sacred between a man and woman, there was still a sense of acceptance, because those teammates understood and knew Haiss and Hiltz as good people, Haiss said.
But that didn’t stop the couple from being attacked by strangers on social media after they came out and became more visible.
“Dealing with the anonymous people through social media who are criticizing same-sex relations of the LGBTQ community, it’s like, for 100 people telling me that I am going to go to hell, or whatever, if I’ve helped one person feel comfortable and accepting of who they are, because of how they’re born, then that’s enough for me,” Haiss said.
“It’s about helping people love themselves, because the amount of mental health issues in the LGBTQ community is just due to social pressures and their environment,” she said. “And it’s important to give them visibility of people who are living their truth and to see it’s OK and that they’re OK and deserving of love, and to be loved with self-worth and self-love.”
In fact, Haiss and Hiltz became so comfortable with their relationship that they posted four wedding photos on Twitter 2 1/2 months ago and received more than 3,600 likes with positive feedback.
Five hours later, the truth came out that it was an April Fools’ Day joke.
“We had done the photo shoot for a local San Diego wedding venue,” Haiss said. “They were hoping to promote the space to all communities, so they were really excited when they were connected to Nikki and I – a same-sex couple in the area willing to do it for free. And we were sent all of these amazing pictures. And it was like, ‘We are not married, so what are we going to do with these?’ So, Nikki was like, ‘This is going to be the best April Fools’ ever.’”
The joke was more around the fact that their marriage is allowed and accepted, and that’s part of the comfort that came out of their partnership, to be able to promote a same-sex wedding.
Two weeks later, however, they decided to separate. Haiss moved back home to Solon, while Hiltz stayed in California and continues to train as an Olympic hopeful. They both remain individually passionate about visibility and equality in the LGBTQ community.
Haiss said it was important for her to return to Northeast Ohio as she transitions away from professional running and pursues a path of college coaching.
This fall, Haiss will be a volunteer assistant under Andrea Grove-McDonough with the women’s cross-country program at the University of Toledo.
She’s also hoping to create her own platform advocating for the LGBTQ community to coincide with being a member of the OUTrun program, a community running group that’s all-inclusive for people of all colors, sexual orientation, gender-orientation – everyone.
“I’m just hoping to connect people in that way,” Haiss said. “Since I’ve moved home, it’s been a little bit more difficult to be involved with things, because I don’t have such a large platform and I’m focusing on shifting toward coaching, but I’m hoping to remain visible.”
While Haiss has been easy to find as an elite runner throughout her athlete career, she’s hoping to carry that macroscopic reputation over as an equal-rights advocate.
Before Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that dealt a victory to protecting LGBTQ employees from being fired because of their sexual orientation, Haiss said the news of the previous three days in regards to health care discrimination protection rollbacks weighed heavy on her heart.
“The win today is definitely big steps in the right direction, to have it be a Supreme Court ruling,” Haiss said. “And, hopefully, even with the pushbacks, we as a society will continue to move forward to be accepting of all people. And that’s the most I can hope for as I continue to support that movement and be a part of the visibility to help people understand and continue to accept the community.”