Vermont’s transgender youth find a community on sports teams

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

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

Some 40 miles away in East Montpelier, Eli Muller has also spent recent years developing his love of field hockey on the U-32 Middle and High School sidelines, where his mom coached.

Without a boys team to play on, the junior is now varsity captain on the girls team at Montpelier High School.

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

Beyond their love of the community and competition afforded by high school sports, Totten and Muller share another commonality. As student-athletes navigating gender transitions, they’ve seen how sports can provide an outlet for what they’re experiencing and have watched warily at the progression of anti-transgender youth sports legislation in other states, including South Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky and more.

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

The debate around that bill was particularly upsetting to Totten.

“There’s only four trans students who can compete in (Utah), and that bill really attacks just four people and their families,” he said in an interview late last month.

Muller feels too that the focus on transgender women playing sports ignores larger issues within the field of women’s sports, such as equal pay, eating disorders and sexual abuse.

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

Many of these bills are continuations of anti-transgender legislation from 2021, according to a USA Today article on nationwide anti-transgender legislation, where there were “roughly 80 proposals in 2021, for instance, aimed at preventing transgender youth from playing in school sports consistent with the gender identity of their choice.”

No such bills have 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 enrolled at a school. But the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ civil rights group, says the national rhetoric in and of itself is damaging.

“Merely introducing anti-transgender bills and peddling anti-transgender rhetoric has already had a damaging impact, leading to LGBTQ+ youth resources being surreptitiously removed from a government website, 11-year-old kids literally having trouble sleeping and a school district banning graphic novels with a transgender character after a parent’s complaint,” the group said last month.

Dana Kaplan, executive director Outright Vermont, which advocates on behalf of LGBTQ+ people in the state, said studies from the nonpartisan Center for American Progress show that transgender students in states with fully inclusive athletic policies were 14 percentage points less likely to have considered suicide in the past year than students in states with no guidance.

“To play on a sports team is to find belonging,” Kaplan said, recalling his own experiences playing sports, such as  softball and baseball, that he called “some of the most formative times of my life … learning dedication and discipline, teamwork and leadership.”

In Muller’s case, his coach was the first non-family member he came out to as transgender, he said. Throughout this past year, his team has been “really supportive” and his newer coach has continued to advocate for him and consistently used his correct pronouns, he said.

People & Places

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

About Talia

Talia Heisey is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying journalism and English. They are the managing editor for the Amherst Wire and a former staff writer for The Massachusetts Daily Collegian. They are a native of Massachusetts and have interned at the Framingham Source and DigBoston.

Email: [email protected]

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