By Alyssa Haduck
When rower Cillian Mullen competes, he tunes everything else out. From the first stroke of his oar on the water, the world falls away. He forgets about the river, the weather and the competition, settling into a focused zone and using all his energy to thrust backward and propel his team’s boat ahead.
“Sometimes things sneak in a little bit,” he said. “But it’s pretty much drowned out by the mental focus.”
The Chicagoland athlete’s keen concentration paired with his 6-foot, 165-pound frame of lean muscle have helped catapult him to the highest levels of rowing competition despite his limited experience.
Mullen began rowing in 2019, and by 2021, he was participating in the Junior World Rowing Championships, a race convening the best under-19 rowers from more than 40 countries. Mullen and his boat ultimately finished fourth in their division — the women’s four. Mullen is transmasculine, making him the country’s first openly transgender participant in the international event.
Mullen came out in 2020, but he explained he continues to compete on women’s teams without pursuing a medical transition because doing so would interrupt his ability to row at the elite level to which he has become accustomed. While he says he does hope to medically transition one day, he currently expresses his masculinity in other ways. On a Friday night over Zoom in the spring, he appeared in a comfy, oversized sweatshirt, and his chestnut hair, parted down the middle, grazed his cheeks in shaggy waves. His red nail polish, though chipped, stood out against his fair skin.
A recent high school graduate, Mullen is part of a community of transgender athletes who make up a small fraction of the overall student and student-athlete populations. Though the exact number of transgender youth in the United States is not known, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2019 that about 2% of high school students are transgender. And a 2017 study by the Human Rights Campaign found that while nearly 70% of all youth surveyed played sports, only 14% of trans boys and 12% of trans girls did. The same HRC report revealed less than 1 in 5 transgender and “gender expansive” athletes were open about their gender identity with their coaches.
Given this lack of representation and visibility, Mullen hopes his participation on women’s teams sends a much-needed message. “Gender is so fluid and gender so flux, so I feel like it kind of shines a light on that,” he said. “It gives people the opportunity to see that not everything is strictly binary.”
Yet that’s not how a number of legislators see it. This year registers as the worst on record for the introduction and implementation of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, according to HRC. Of the more than 300 bills the organization has identified as damaging to the LGBTQ+ community, more than 130 of them are specifically and explicitly anti-trans. Much of this discriminatory legislation is aimed at trans youth athletes. Nearly 30 states this year have considered excluding trans athletes from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity, per the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with about half actually putting bans in place, according to the Movement Advancement Project.
Illinois does not currently have any active legislation prohibiting school-age trans athletes’ participation in sports. In fact, the Illinois Human Rights Act protects these students’ right to compete according to their gender identity. But even Illinois’ position is not immune to threats at the state and local level.
In May 2021, state Rep. David Friess (R-116) introduced bill HB4082 to the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly. The bill would require high school athletes to submit a written statement confirming their assigned gender at birth. Though the legislation stalled after its referral to the House Rules Committee, three other representatives have since signed on as co-sponsors, most recently Joe Sosnowski (R-69) in March.
Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the ACLU of Illinois, said in an email that passage of the bill is a “fever dream” of the state’s anti-trans lawmakers. But even though the proposed legislation remains void, its existence still poses an issue. According to a January study by The Trevor Project, a nonprofit championing suicide prevention among LGBT+ youth, 4 in 5 trans and nonbinary youth report that recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health. This mental stress can be deadly — nearly 1 in 5 of this same group attempted suicide in the past year.
“The only way that we have a pathway to being a trans adult is if we’re supported as trans kids,” Mullen said. “It’s insane the rate at which trans kids are resorting to (suicide), or having suicidal thoughts, or struggling really badly with depression.”
Mullen has found a safe space in the Chicago Rowing Foundation (CRF), an independent rowing club based on the Chicago River just 3 miles west of the city’s Boystown neighborhood. Boystown, in turn, is home to one of the largest LGBTQ+ communities in the Midwest. If a recreationalist happened upon the gravel path skirting the CRF facilities while practice took place, they may understand how the boathouse could become a home, filled with the structure of routine trainings, coaches’ careful guidance and support from teammates during moments big and small. Last year, Mullen told Northern Illinois’ Kane County Chronicle that his coaches and teammates backed his decision to remain rowing with the women. While he has been embraced at the boathouse, he cannot say the same for the classroom.
“I live in one place,” he said, “(but) I row in a much different place.”
Batavia High School is about 40 miles west of Chicago. When he was a student there, Mullen says he and his queer peers were continually disrespected and discriminated against by both teachers and classmates, motivating him to speak out at three school board meetings in pursuit of change. While he finally received permission to establish a part-advisory, part-support group at Batavia, he says his experiences with the administration have made him appreciate that his sport operates outside the Illinois high school system.
The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) governs student athletics across the state. Its trans athlete policy generally adheres to the spirit of the Illinois Human Rights Act, allowing students the chance to compete according to their gender identity. Since the policy went into effect in 2011, the organization says it has approved the requests of 56 athletes. But this gender-affirming opportunity is not guaranteed.
A student first must ask their school to join the sports team that aligns with their gender. Because of the school’s involvement, however, the student’s request may never even reach the IHSA, says Craig Anderson, the organization’s executive director.
“If the school wasn’t going to permit it, then I wouldn’t ever see it, and I would never get a request to review and possibly grant an opportunity,” said Anderson, who is the sole purveyor of the IHSA’s transgender athlete applications. He adds that in his seven years as executive director, no student has attempted to navigate this process directly with the IHSA following a school’s refusal to facilitate a request.
Anderson explained that while schools cannot ease IHSA policies, they have the authority to make them stricter. When it comes to the IHSA’s academic eligibility requirements, for instance, students must be passing five classes in a traditional schedule on a weekly basis to be eligible to participate in school-affiliated activities — a school could increase the eligibility requirement for its students to six classes, but lowering it to four would be an IHSA violation. In the same way, Anderson says schools can make it more difficult for transgender students to participate on the sports teams that align with their gender, but not easier.
“One could argue (the trans athlete policy) is slightly different,” Anderson said. “But I think it reflects that our schools are empowered to make local decisions that are in their best interests.”
About 100 miles northwest of Chicago, Dakota Community School District 201 is one Illinois institution that has recently taken the IHSA trans athlete policy into its own hands, restricting its students’ rights beyond the governing body’s guidelines. After a transgender Dakota student sought to join a team that matched their gender identity, the school district updated its sports participation policy to state that a student must compete “consistent with their biological sex assigned at birth” because the alternative would result in “loss of athletic benefits and opportunities for other student athletes.”
Tom Liszka was the only one of seven Dakota school board members to vote against the amendment to the policy, according to the minutes from the special meeting held for the vote in April. When contacted via email to discuss his decision, Liszka said he had no additional comments, pointing instead to the district’s official statement that asserts the updated policy “provides for competition on a level playing field.” However, a media representative from the Illinois Department of Human Rights said the Dakota policy could be a violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act, as public schools cannot deny students access to goods and services based on their gender. The family of the 14-year-old student has filed a lawsuit against the district.
When schools do elevate trans athletes’ requests to the IHSA, students are asked to present medical documentation — anything from counselor consultations to hormonal treatments — though medical intervention is not required for approval. Anderson says he originally conferred with medical experts when he began reviewing requests as executive director in 2015. Now, however, he generally makes judgments independently, saying he has gained knowledge of trans athletes in the IHSA over time.
“We’re getting requests often, and fortunately, with the exception of a very small number, students have been meeting the policy and I’ve been able to approve participation,” he said.
Anderson said he authorized a record 16 requests during the 2021-22 school year, though he has denied some requests in the past. He explained that he may deny a request based on the submission of an athlete’s “gender identity-related advantages” in sport, per the IHSA policy. He noted this is also another way for schools to counteract a student’s request by presenting evidence against them. Anderson emphasizes the IHSA’s policy allows students to appeal to the organization’s board of directors if they disagree with his assessment. However, the 12-person board does not currently include any trans representatives or medical personnel.
But LGBTQ+ researcher Ricky Hill sees an opportunity in this policy. Hill serves as a research assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH). They have also collaborated with the Northwestern Medicine Gender Pathways Program, a task force that provides gender-confirming care. While their ISGMH work does not directly pertain to trans athletes, Hill grew up playing sports year-round and currently competes with the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association, one of the largest LGBTQ+ athletic organizations in the Midwest.
One spring afternoon via Zoom, Hill looked the part of athlete-turned-academic, pairing a hoodie and backward baseball hat with their studious spectacles. They approach analysis of the IHSA policy in the same way, viewing it through a lens shaped by personal experience and professional expertise.
“I think (about) flipping the frame in terms of, what are the advantages for this person to actually compete as themselves, as opposed to whatever fake trauma that people that are competing against them are going to be subjected to?” Hill said. “We know that the biggest threat to trans people is cisgender people. It’s not the other way around.”
And the advantages Hill references are significant. It’s widely known that sports can offer athletes long-lasting physical and mental health benefits. However, trans youth often miss out on these growth opportunities because of unwelcoming athletic environments. Trans and nonbinary youth who were more “out” about their gender identity were less involved in sports, according to research by The Trevor Project. In fact, this group was only about half as likely to report involvement in athletics compared with cisgender LGBQ youth.
Only by competing according to his assigned gender at birth is Mullen able to consistently access all that competitive rowing has to offer. He has committed to joining the women’s crew team at the University of Virginia and hopes to use his future platform as a collegiate athlete to improve representation for trans rowers nationally through the Transgender Rowers Association, an organization he founded in 2021. If that sounds like a lot for a college first-year to take on, Mullen says it can come with the territory.
“I feel like I’ve met other trans people who have kind of had this experience of feeling like they have to be everyone in order to be accounted as someone,” he said. “I feel like I must do everything that I can in order to be accounted as being capable of just doing something.”
While rowing results in shutting stimulants out, Mullen says writing puts him at peace. In his short story “The Moth,” he explores the trans experience, ultimately unearthing a universal sentiment: “She was a mirror image of me. A mirror image of the person I could not bear to see myself become. It had become my duty to eat her, yet I could not bring myself to. I never wanted to hurt her. I never wanted to kill her. I never wanted her to be gone for good; I only ever wanted to be the better version of her. I only ever wanted her to be happy.”
Alyssa Haduck is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Alyssa_Haduck.