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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

An Indigenous musher is set to make history Saturday, March 5, by becoming the first transgender woman to compete in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the premier sled dog race in the world.

Apayauq Reitan, Inupiaq, one of four Alaska Natives competing this year, said she hopes to inspire other transgender people.

“Part of why I’m entering the race again is because I want trans people to be able to see themselves, to see that you can be any kind of person you want to be,” she told Indian Country Today. “No matter what your interests are, you can transition and keep doing the things that you want to do. You don’t have to change your whole, entire life if you don’t want to.”

Inupiaq musher Apayauq Reitan is set to become the first transgender woman to compete in the storied Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which begins Saturday, March 5, 2022. She is one of four Alaska Natives competing this year and the third transgender musher in three years. (Photo courtesy of Apayauq Reitan)

It’s the third consecutive year in which a transgender athlete has competed in the Iditarod, a 1,000-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome through flatland tundra, treacherous inclines, blizzard-prone summit passes, steep gorge descents and frigid river overflow.

Quince Mountain, a veteran of several mid-distance sled dog races, was the first trans man to compete in the Iditarod, making it about 714 miles into the 2020 race before race officials withdrew him, citing a rule related to competitiveness.

Will Francis Troshynski was the first transgender athlete to complete the Iditarod, finishing 34th of 36 in 2021. Nine mushers — including a former champion — scratched that year and one musher was withdrawn.

Reitan, Mountain and Troshynski say that the mushing community has been supportive of them as human beings and as athletes. Mushing is a socially isolated sport — when she’s not in Norway, Reitan is in Kaktovik, a village of 283 on Alaska’s Northern Slope — so a lot of support comes via social media.

“I got some really nice, supportive messages from people on social media — pretty much only positive responses when I came out,” Reitan said. “I thought there would be a lot of negative comments, but I didn’t really get any negative comments, which was a nice surprise. Some people unfriended me on Facebook, but I don’t really need everyone to be my friend.”

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Mountain told NBC News in March 2020 that he turns to a group of mushing fans — who call themselves “Ugly Dogs” — when he needs encouragement and support.

“I know that I can just log in and take solace in my online community — as long as it’s somewhere with service,” he told NBC.

Troshynski said the support he’s received has been “incredible.”

“I only came out as a trans man just recently,” he told Indian Country Today. “Part of that was a kind of fear of how the mushing world would receive that — if I would be accepted or ousted. Honestly, I’ve been really lucky to have had an incredible reception from race fans, mushers, and all of my amazing supporters.

“When I was a young person, I would never have believed an LGBTQ+ person could be out in the mushing community,” he said. “I’m so glad I was wrong.”

A seasoned athlete

Reitan, 24, is a dual citizen of the United States and Norway and is the daughter of a Norwegian father and an Alaska Native mother. Her father, Ketil Reitan, is a veteran musher who competed in seven Iditarods between 1991 and 2018, finishing 10th in 1992.

The younger Reitan is a seasoned athlete who has been mushing since she was 4. In 2017, she finished ninth in the Two Rivers 200 and 14th in the Copper Basin 300. In 2019, she placed 14th in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and was named that race’s Rookie of the Year. She placed 28th in the 2019 Iditarod, becoming just the third musher to compete as a rookie in the Yukon Quest and Iditarod in the same year.

“I was non-binary, but in the closet publicly,” Reitan said of the 2019 season, referring to the term for gender identities that are neither male nor female. “So I knew I wasn’t male, and I wasn’t, but people perceived me as male.”

She began receiving hormone treatment in fall 2021. Her return to the race is being cheered by those who know her.

“It’s been such an immense joy to see Apayauq come into her own and feel really grounded in her identity — and also to see her back in mushing this year, where she’s clearly so full of life and connection to the dogs,” Troshynski told Indian Country Today. “She is a really good musher and has a true talent for the competitive part of the sport. In my opinion, I think she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

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Mountain’s wife, author/adventurer Blair Braverman, mushed in the 2019 Iditarod but did not register to compete this year. The couple got to know Reitan during the 2019 race and became friends.

“I’m pulling so hard for Apayauq as a Native and trans musher who also happens to be a deeply compelling person and friend,” Mountain told Indian Country Today. “My wife has lived in Norway off and on, so they also have that language connection and they shared the trail during their rookie Iditarod year.”

Reitan is one of four Alaska Native mushers in the 2022 Iditarod. The others are Pete Kaiser, the first Yup’ik champion of the Iditarod (2019) and six-time winner of the Kuskokwim 300; Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan, a past Kuskokwim 300 champ who placed sixth in the 2018 Iditarod and ninth in 2021; and Ryan Redington, Inupiat, a two-time champion of the John Beargrease Marathon in Minnesota and a seventh-place finisher in the 2021 Iditarod.

Long road to inclusion

Transgender athletes have long competed in sports. Among the earliest high-profile trans athletes: Roberta Cowell of England (1918–2011), auto racing; Willy De Bruyn of Belgium (1914-1989), world champion cyclist; Zdeněk Koubek of Czechosolvakia (1913–1986), 1934 World Games medalist in track; and Dr. Renee Richards of the United States, who was ranked 20th in women’s tennis in 1979.

Fast forward to the 21st century: 150 to 200 transgender athletes competed in NCAA sports in 2019, LGBTQ sports advocate Helen Carroll told Wired in October that year. Trans athletes are competing or have competed on the professional level in boxing (Patricio Manuel of the U.S.), golf (Mianne Bagger of Denmark and Bobbi Lancaster of Canada), hockey (Harrison Brown of Canada), mixed martial arts (Fallon Fox of the U.S.), motor sports (Charlie Martin of the U.K.), and other sports.

And in 2020, Canadian soccer player Quinn (formerly known as Rebecca Quinn) won an Olympic gold medal as a midfielder for Canada.

But trans athletes, and transgender people in general, are far from reaching greater inclusion. The Pew Research Center reported on Feb. 11 that 38 percent of U.S. adults surveyed say they support greater acceptance of people who are transgender, while 32 percent say they don’t. The remaining 29 percent had mixed feelings.

Opposition and ambivalence are influencing public policy affecting transgender people — and not always in a positive way.

“Not every trans person transitions medically, but I wanted to so I’ve started on hormones,” Reitan said. “I’ve been on hormones for about six months. It was actually easier to do in Alaska than in Norway. Norwegian health care has a gatekeeping system. Trans people have to spend months trying to convince therapists that they are trans, while in Alaska, I was given a prescription for hormones.”

Inupiaq musher Apayauq Reitan's team of sled dogs, shown here, is ready to go for the 2022 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which starts March 5, 2022. Reitan is set to make history as the first transgender woman to compete in the storied race. (Photo courtesy of Apayauq Reitan)

But legislators in about 15 states, including Alaska, have approved or are considering bills prohibiting transgender students from competing with women’s sports teams in public schools, colleges and universities.

“It’s a terrible thing to do,” Reitan said. “If you are a trans girl, you don’t want to play boys’ sports because that’s not your gender. The biological advantages officials are so concerned with would be reduced by giving trans kids access to medical care.”

An American University Law Review report in 2018 seems to bear that out.

“Transgender girls who have received crossgender hormone treatments for more than a year pose no credible safety risk to female opponents and enjoy no significant competitive advantage,” the law review reported. “Preventing female-to-male transgender boys from playing on boys’ teams serves no rational purpose. Concerns about safety are paternalistic, and concerns about fair play are illogical.”

In Texas, the governor has ordered his state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate any reported instance of a child undergoing gender-transitioning care. Under the governor’s order, the child’s parent may be charged with child abuse.

“That is very scary,” Reitan said. “What, in practice, that means, is if your child is transgender and you want hormone blockers, then you’re considered a child abuser in Texas.”

Those policies can be harmful.

According to a 2020 report at the National Library of Medicine, 82 percent of transgender persons have considered killing themselves and 40 percent have attempted suicide, with the highest percentages among transgender youth. Among the risk factors: “interpersonal and environmental microaggressions, internalized self-stigma, and adverse childhood experiences.”

The report cites the following as “protective factors”: a sense of belonging at school, family support, and peer support.

Meanwhile, the Gender Clinic at Seattle Children’s Hospital reported a 60 percent drop in depression risk and a 73 percent drop in suicidal thoughts among transgender teens who received gender-affirming hormone treatment.

Reitan said the support she’s received has been beneficial to her physical and mental well-being.

“I used to think that transitioning was something I couldn’t do, for a lot of different reasons, but all those reasons turned out to be wrong,” she said. “It’s gone quite well for me. I’m very lucky, with my immediate family being very supportive of me.”

She added, “I’m proud to be transgender.”

Ready for the race

And so, Reitan mushes on. A talented photographer, she studied video production at the Norwegian School of Photography and will collaborate with Fieldwork Creative on a documentary about this year’s Iditarod.

The documentary is part-autobiographical, Reitan said.

Reitan will be on the trail with an interesting team of sled dogs. Two dogs are veterans of the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. Another dog is named for jazz great Miles Davis. The others are yearlings from 2019 Iditarod champ Joar Leifseth Ulsom’s kennel.

Reitan knows some of the challenges she and her team could face on the trail. Top of the list: Warmer temperatures.

“The dogs don’t do so great when it’s warmer. They run faster in cooler temperatures and the trail is better when it’s colder,” Reitan said. “In 2019, we hit a lot of bare ground at the checkpoint in [the village of] Iditarod. You get bounced around on those tussocks and it’s pretty tiring.”

Another challenge: Fatigue. Reitan said she overslept during a rest at a checkpoint in 2019.

What she looks forward to: Traveling the way of the ancestors, on ancestral trails.

“It’s a very special feeling to be traveling the traditional way of doing it,” she said. “If you’re going across Alaska, you get more of a sense of scale when you travel on trails over 10 or 12 days. You could fly and go from north to south in one day, but you’re kind of missing the land.”

*Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Apayaug Reitan is a transgender Inupiaq woman. Her Alaska Native identity was misspelled. 

AT A GLANCE: APAYAUQ REITAN
—Grew up in Nerjordet, Norway, and spent summers in Kaktovik, Alaska
—Has sailed on tall ships and is captain of a polar bear viewing boat in Kaktovik
—Studied at Sund Folk School for Photography and the Norwegian School of Photography
—After her father, Ketil Reitan, finished the 2018 Iditarod, she mushed the dog team from Nome on Norton Sound north to Kaktovik on the Arctic Slope, then participated in her village’s spring whaling

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