Vermont’s transgender youth find community in sports teams

Sawyer Totten at Burlington High School earlier this month. “I work as hard, sometimes twice as hard, as my teammates to get where I was,” Totten said. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Sawyer Totten’s self-proclaimed “happy place” is outdoors, usually skiing in freezing cold Vermont. For the past four years, the Burlington high school senior has competed in Nordic skiing in the winter and cross-country running in the fall.

“The sports teams I’ve been on have been a lot of fun and I’ve made a lot of friends,” he said.

Some 40 miles away in East Montpellier, Eli Muller has also spent the last few years developing his love of field hockey on the fringes of college and U-32 high school, where his mother coached.

With no men’s team to play on, the junior is now captain of the women’s team at Montpelier High School.

“Sports has always been my escape and where I feel most confident, and it’s like, I can watch how I play, and I’m like, this is something I think I’m good at. … I’m happiest when I play field hockey,” Muller said.

Beyond their love of community and the competition offered by high school sports, Totten and Muller share another commonality. As student-athletes navigating gender transitions, they have seen how sport can provide an outlet for what they are going through and watched with caution as anti-transgender youth sports legislation progresses in many countries. other states including South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky and Suite.

Among them is Utah’s House Bill 11, which prohibits transgender girls from participating in school sports. The bill was vetoed by Governor Spencer Cox, but the Utah Legislature overruled his veto late last month.

The debate around this bill has been particularly upsetting for Totten.

“There are only four trans students who can compete in (Utah), and this bill really only attacks four people and their families,” he said in an interview at the end of the last month.

Muller also believes that the focus on transgender women playing sports ignores larger issues in women’s sports, such as equal pay, eating disorders and sexual abuse.

“There is no difference between a trans athlete and a cis athlete other than the fact that we are born on the wrong bodies, and some of us take hormones or we started hormones, and we are now going through puberty that we should have gone through in the first place,” Totten said. “But I work as hard, sometimes twice as hard, as my teammates to get to where I was.”

Many of these bills are a continuation of the 2021 anti-transgender legislation, according to a USA Today article on nationwide anti-transgender legislationwhere there were “about 80 proposals in 2021, for example, aimed at preventing young transgender people from playing school sports compatible with the gender identity of their choice”.

No such bill has been introduced in Vermont, where the Vermont Principals’ Association — the governing body for school sports — says students can play on the team that matches the gender for which they are registered in school. But the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ civil rights group, says the national rhetoric in itself is damaging.

“The mere act of introducing anti-transgender bills and peddling anti-transgender rhetoric has already had a detrimental impact, resulting in the surreptitious removal of LGBTQ+ youth resources from a government website, children of 11-year-old literally having trouble sleeping and a school district banning graphic novels with a transgender character after a parent’s complaint,” the band said last month.

Dana Kaplan, executive director of Outright Vermont, which advocates for LGBTQ+ people in the state, said studies from the nonpartisan Center for American Progress show transgender students in states with fully inclusive sports policies were 14 points percent less likely to have considered suicide in the past year than students in non-guiding states.

“Playing on a sports team is about finding where you belong,” Kaplan said, recalling his own sports experiences, such as softball and baseball, which he called “some of the most formative times of my life. . learn dedication and discipline, teamwork and leadership.”

In Muller’s case, his coach was the first non-family member with whom he came out as transgender, he said. Throughout the past year, his team has been “really supportive” and his new coach has continued to defend him and always used his correct pronouns, he said.

Eli Muller at Lycée Montpelier on Saturday April 2. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Totten, too, had an equally positive experience with his teammates and Nordic ski coach.

“Some of (my teammates) probably didn’t even know, some of them who didn’t really know didn’t have a problem with it,” he said.

At the end of last season, Totten’s Nordic coach presented him with a Courage Award for being the only openly transgender Nordic skier Totten knows in Vermont. His trainer works in medicine and really understood Totten’s transition, according to Totten’s father, Shay Totten. Sawyer Totten’s family also worked with the former Burlington High principal to turn an empty referee’s office into a gender-neutral school locker room.

Yet Totten, who underwent breast masculinization surgery at the end of his freshman year, eventually quit competing in his second sport, cross country, midway through the season due to problems with the wearing a binder, which is a gender-affirming undergarment that compresses his chest. The University of Vermont Medical Center’s Youth Transgender Program advises against bonding for more than eight to 12 hours at a time.

“I was binding so hard it hurt my back, and I vividly remember a few races where I was in tears for the majority of my run but refused to quit,” Sawyer Totten said. Shay Totten remembers a race where, at the end, Sawyer physically collapsed in his arms.

The pain caused by binding during competition also became a constant for Muller. Binding is the only way for him to feel comfortable enough to “even leave my room”, he said, but it strains his ability to compete and sometimes leaves him in pain. he wears a field binder.

Playing sports – a highly gendered activity – while being transgender has also been frustrating and overwhelming for Muller at times. He was sometimes asked to be substituted off the pitch in tears after coaches and referees repeatedly used gendered terms such as “ladies or girls”.

To counter this, Muller, his coach and co-captain devised a strategy to suggest to referees and opponents before the game that both teams use gender-neutral terms such as “people”, “all of you” or even just each other. refer to the teams by the colors of their jerseys.

Going forward, Muller hopes the sport will adapt and become more gender neutral.

“It doesn’t make sense that we divide sports – we’re all people, especially with sports for little kids when it’s divided,” he said.

Although Muller would prefer to play on a men’s field hockey team, he currently does not have that option. He was unable to find any men’s high school field hockey teams in Vermont or even college teams in the United States.

Although Muller still wants to play in college, he does not plan to play professionally due to gender restrictions. Instead, he wants to play club or walk-in games.

Totten don’t plan to play competitively in college either. His father considers sports to be important, regardless of athletic ability, in building community.

“It’s another support network,” Shay Totten said. “As a parent…you want your child to find those communities where they have support no matter where they go.”

Totten and Muller see parallels between their experiences in Vermont and transphobia in states passing these bills.

“I think everyone has this preconceived idea of ​​what Vermont looks like or just like a really inclusive and welcoming place…” Totten said. “Well, trans athletes all deal with the same thing. It doesn’t matter what state you are in. We all have to deal with being an athlete and being trans at the same time.

Even though Muller’s transition experience was positive, he was always the victim of insults against him at Montpellier. He hopes the sport can continue to provide a safe community.

“It asks us what else was going on,” he said. “Because I can have a really bad day, but the second I put my skis on, I just focus on my technique and what I’m doing, and that gives us a place to be ourselves.”

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Tags: Burlington High School, Eli Muller, gender, gender identity, LGBTQ+, Montpelier High School, Sawyer Totten, Transgender, transgender students, U-32 High School

Talia Heisey

About Talia

Talia Heisey is a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst studying journalism and English. There they are the editor of the Amherst Wire as well as a former editor of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. Originally from Massachusetts, they have interned for Framingham Source, DigBoston and the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project.

E-mail: [email protected]

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