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Transgender women race against discrimination

Two transgender athletes who competed in a boat race on Sunday say the event is a much-needed step forward for the inclusion of transgender people in sports.

Organizers say the 22-kilometre race along the Ottawa River marked the first time that openly transgender athletes competed in rowing in Canada.

Enza Anderson and Savannah Burton, who first took to the water only two months ago, are part of a five-person team dubbed Team TRANS-fusion.

They finished fourth out of five teams, with a timing of just over two hours, about 10 minutes behind the first-place rowers.

The team's introduction to rowing was part of a pilot project at Toronto's Hanlan Boat Club, which sought to attract transgender people to its Learn-to-Row program.

Anderson, 50, said she stayed away from sports for most of her life, wary of the discrimination that transgender athletes can face.

"For me the experience has been very emotional," she said. "You never know when you go into an environment like this if people will accept you."

She said it's a reality that all transgender people face on a regular basis.

"Going to gym has always been my worst nightmare, because I've heard horror stories about the change-room dilemma," she said. "I want to do my workout and not get hassled by anybody."

Rowing has become an outlet for Anderson, who said the boat club has provided her with technical know-how and a new hobby.

"I never thought I'd reach 50 because of all the struggles of transitioning, and trying to survive and trying to make a living and function like everybody else," she said, crying.

"Finally participating in an activity that's so welcoming," she said. "I think I'm really lucky.

"I'm female and I want to participate as a woman in a sport, not be categorized as male."

Helen Kennedy, executive director of the human rights advocacy group Egale Canada, said the boat race is "pushing the boundaries for basic equality."

"It's a very courageous thing that they're doing," she said.

Despite the increasing awareness of transgender issues, Kennedy said, systemic homophobia and transphobia still plague the sports world.

"We need to have a broader conversation about this," she said, adding that whether it's Olympic-level competition or grade-school gym class, an individual's participation in sports is often limited by societal gender roles.

The hope of Sunday's boat race was to give young transgender individuals, and those currently transitioning, a chance to "see themselves in something significant," she said.

Team captain Adrian Cornelissen spearheaded the pilot project at Hanlan Boat Club and said respect and acceptance are essential to creating a successful team.

"Not only do we have to row in synch, but there will be different moments when team members hit the wall," he said, noting that the half-marathon took about two hours.

Cornelissen estimated 10 and 15 teams took to the water, including singles, doubles and team boats, launching from the Ottawa New Edinburgh Club.

His idea for a transgender-inclusive rowing team was sparked by a desire to see role models for transgender youth, he said.

"It's the fact that they're part of a team. There are three women and two men in the boat, it just so happened that two of the women are from the trans community."

He added the program was made possible because of a well-defined policy of acceptance at the boat club, and a focus on inclusive recreational rowing for all skill levels.

"I would not have been able to do that in other clubs because their focus is very different," he said, adding that the program has put the issue of transgender discrimination at the forefront. "It's making sports organizations now take a look at their own policies."

Burton, 39, said her love of sports took a back seat when she recently transitioned from male to female.

Before her transition, she had been a competitive dodgeball player, white-water kayaker and baseball player.

"I was ready to go back to sports," she said, adding that her hope is to create visibility around transgender athletes. "I know when I was a kid there weren't any trans athletes out there at all."

Burton said societal discrimination is a daily struggle for transgender people.

"Even just walking down the streets sometimes, people stare, people say things," she said. "It's really tough on some people."

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