By Connie Wardman
From Sept. 2015 Compete Magazine
When the World Dodgeball Championship was held last month in Las Vegas, the Canadian women’s team included Savannah Burton, her country’s first out transgender athlete in a team sport participating in a world championship. I had a chance to talk with her about her coming out experience and how she navigated the process of being approved to play on a national team of women, the gender with which she identifies.
An actress by profession, Burton now sees her larger role as a transgender advocate. She understands from her own experience that young transgender athletes are looking for a trans sports role model to emulate. They want to see another trans athlete competing, making it in the sports world with other athletes.
Burton has also identified another important personal goal. – she wants to change the policy of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and any other organizations that have an additional requirement for a trans athlete to have gender reassignment surgery before they can be eligible to play.
It’s important to her that people understand that gender reassignment surgery has no bearing on athletic performance. It doesn’t benefit an athlete – what it does do is put a transgender athlete at a disadvantage. Many don’t want the surgery and for those who do, most of them can’t afford the cost. Burton feels that it’s really unethical to require gender reassignment surgery in order to participate in sporting events.
Chosen to share her story with The Transgender Project, an online collection of personal stories of transgender women and men from across Canada, the site is meant to educate, entertain and inspire its readers about the diversity that exists within the trans community. The comment on Burton’s story says, “We focus on her fight to compete for Canada as a woman in international sport without undergoing sex reassignment surgery as dictated by IOC rules for transgender participation.” And in the fall the documentary “Am I a Boy or Girl” featuring Burton will air.
A native of Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador, she’s been living in Toronto for the past 15 years. Burton has always loved sports. She’s a competitive dodgeball player, white-water kayaker and baseball player. But her early self-doubts, her fear that people would discover she was transgender had only caused her to become increasingly isolated.
Burton feels this fear of being “outed” caused her to fall short of the truly elite athlete she could have been in her younger years. Her move to Toronto left Burton more at ease with herself. It also prompted her to train harder, working to hone her athletic ability. And by 2012 she played on the men’s team representing Canada at the 2012 World Dodgeball World Championship in Malaysia where Canada won the silver medal.
But she still hadn’t made the transition from male to the female she always knew she was meant to be. At that point Burton decided to step away from sports to work on her personal transition. She spent the next two years on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) taking testosterone blockers and in September 2013 she began to live full-time as a woman.
As she became happier with herself, her love of sports prompted her desire to compete again and she began the process of trying out for the women’s dodgeball team this time. Burton’s request marked the first time the Canadian Dodgeball Association had to deal with the question of trans athletes as participants.
Association spokesperson Bethel Lascano said they took the question to dodgeball’s international governing body. They decided that to participate, Burton needed to have a legal sex change and receive HRT for a “sufficient length of time.” Since Burton had already met their criteria, they approved her request to play.
Burton confesses to being really nervous about making her dodgeball comeback, saying “… it was great; people were so cool and so nice to me.” And this time when she tried out, Burton was one of eight women chosen to make the Canadian women’s team that played in the 2015 World Dodgeball World Championship in Las Vegas.
When I asked her about her experience playing in a world tournament as a woman, Burton said that “The dodgeball community was amazing and many players came up to me and said very positive things to me. I feel very fortunate to be able to be a part of such a wonderful team with so many amazing people and talented athletes.”
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