By Dirk Smith, MSc, SDL (He/Him).
The topic of inclusion in sports for transgender, intersex and non-binary people in sports has been quite hot lately. With notable athletes such as Caster Semenya, Dr. Rachel McKinnon, Mack Beggs and others making an impact on sport. There has never been a time in which the need of discussion for education, inclusion and action has been more relevant. How can we make sports and exercise more accessible for transgender, intersex and non-binary people?
What is “transgender” “intersex” and “non-binary” and what makes them different?
Understanding what these terms mean sets a foundation, but they are not the only terms used when talking about gender identity. It is important to allow a trans, intersex or non-binary person to define their own gender identity and let them tell you. If you don’t understand, just ask. Gender identity is a complex issue, so it’s okay not to know everything and to make a mistake. If you make a mistake, apologize and correct it so you can learn.
How does being transgender, intersex or non-binary affect access to sport?
Sports and exercise serve many unique and important roles in our society. It promotes healthy exercise habits, social support networks, cognitive development programs, mental health and stress release, youth development programs and education that extend beyond the sport itself. Every person, including transgender, intersex and non-binary people have a right to sport. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
A common argument is that transgender, intersex and non-binary people engage in sport to win. The “unfair advantage” argument is used to justify policies that are meant to exclude trans, intersex and non-binary people from participating. According to Flores, Herman, Gates & Brown (2016) 1.4 million adults in the United States or 0.6% of the total US population currently identify as transgender. Despite these statistics, there have yet to be any openly transgender or non-binary individuals participating in sport on the elite level, let alone winning medals or setting world records.
For intersex individuals, a few athletes have been represented on the elite level. However unnecessary intrusions into their own private lives without their consent have pushed the narrative into a question regarding human rights. With “intersex” being a gender identity that exists outside the existing binary definitions of biological sex, it is not up to anyone outside the individual themselves to define their gender identity.
Based on current research, there is no consistent nor reliable evidence that shows people who are undergoing transition retain any athletic advantage during their transition when compared to their cisgender counterparts (Jones, Arcelus, Bouman, & Haycraft, 2016). However, this field of research is still young, so it is important to acknowledge the need for further research, especially on the individual sport level. Unfortunately, this future research is impacted by the low number of trans athletes active in sports due to inaccessibly of safe and inclusive environments.
Sports and exercise are rife with discrimination, transphobia, bullying, and other issues that make the environment unsafe and inaccessible. Additionally, the infrastructure of sport and exercise itself is unaccommodating for trans, intersex and non-binary people. This can contribute to negative mental health, lack of acceptance, low self-esteem and a tendency to avoid these situations and thus contribute to the low participation numbers in sport.
Exercise and sports are not a safe nor accessible places for trans, intersex and non-binary people.
Understanding how exercise and sport can be a beneficial for trans, intersex and non-binary people.
How to make your sports or exercise space more inclusive for transgender, intersex and non-binary people?
A key point here is making sure to be visibly supportive. A sports and exercise environment are intimidating for anybody, let alone trans, intersex and non-binary people. Being visibly supportive is a key component to alleviating these intimidations so that the athletes in your environment have one less stressor.
What’s important to remember, is that just because someone is not “out” doesn’t mean that they are not there. An athlete or participant may identify as trans, intersex or non-binary but chooses not to disclose it, especially if they feel unsafe. If a trans, intersex or non-binary person feels unsafe they may quit without you having any idea why. This makes it difficult to learn from our experiences and to adapt to be more accommodating. Environments such as changing rooms and showers can create a lot of stress and anxiety over the fear of being “outed”, which in turn creates a barrier that makes sport and exercise inaccessible.
Sports cannot change overnight, and every day is a new opportunity to learn how to adapt and grow. As the discussion continues and we debate the best way to be inclusive, we will learn by doing. Making sport and exercise more accessible and inclusive will help encourage participation. With more participation we will continue to learn how to shape the future of sports and exercise to be inclusive for all.
“Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space for everyone.”- Dr. George Dei, Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport Trans Inclusion Guidance
For more information visit http://genderedintelligence.co.uk/
By Dirk Smith
Flores, A. R., Herman, J. L., Gates, G. J., & Brown, T. N. (2020, April 27). How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States? Retrieved June 03, 2020, from https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/trans-adults-united-states/
Jones, B. A., Arcelus, J., Bouman, W. P., & Haycraft, E. (2016). Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies. Sports Medicine, 47(4), 701-716. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0621-y
Robles, R., Fresán, A., Vega-Ramírez, H., Cruz-Islas, J., Rodríguez-Pérez, V., Domínguez-Martínez, T., & Reed, G. M. (2016). Removing transgender identity from the classification of mental disorders: A Mexican field study for ICD-11. The Lancet Psychiatry, 3(9), 850-859. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(16)30165-1
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.