You are here

Challenging the gender binary in sport and development

Challenging the gender binary in sport and development

This article calls for sport and development stakeholders to consider how sporting spaces can be reshaped to be inclusive - and better prioritize - the perspectives and needs of all gender identities.

As we move towards reshaping sport and development, we must consider how sport can be positioned to better tackle issues of gender equality, with improved understanding of gender discrimination in particular. There is ample research and evidence that explains how male bodies dominate sporting spaces. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that sport was specifically created for and only available to men for centuries. And, since modern sport emerged in Western industrial capitalist nations during the late 19th century as something that men did, Western narratives of gender have long positioned sport in a way that gender is understood as binary. In turn, gender discrimination in sport has long been touted as the exclusion of women in sport. It follows, then, that the dominant ideology in sport that positions gender as binary has led to the exclusion of gender diverse people (including Two-Spirit, non-binary, transgender, gender queer, and other diverse gender identities) in sport initiatives.

In recent years, some transgender people have started to be recognized as participants in the realm of professional sports, albeit these athletes must adhere to strict hormonal testing to ensure they ‘fit’ into one of the two gendered teams in sport competitions. Transgender bodies are systematically policed by athletic governing bodies to ensure they fit within the gendered norms established by the Western institution of sport. Further, these athletes are subject to extreme ridicule and abuse from journalists and sports fans that assume asserting their discriminatory opinions of athletes is ‘freedom of speech.’

A number of cultures around the world recognize the existence of three or more genders (i.e., Fa’afafines and Fa’afatamas in Samoa, Two-Spirit in native North American Navajo culture, hijras in South Asia, etc.). Yet, dominant Western ideologies that assert gender as binary persist in sporting spaces – wherein people are separated into boys/men and girls/women teams.

This is especially harmful in Global North Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) initiatives that serve Global South countries – SDP initiatives may impose gender binary norms in countries that understand gender as fluid and multiple, excluding people with diverse gender identities. Sport and development scholars and practitioners have only just begun to interrogate the ways in which sport excludes gender diverse people.

Thus, in the spirit of reshaping sport and development, this article calls for sport and development stakeholders to consider how sporting spaces can be reshaped to be inclusive - and better prioritize - the perspectives and needs of all gender identities. Indeed, sport and development initiatives can better tackle issues of gender equality when we reshape (SDP) programs in a way that supports diverse gender identities in sport.

Intersectionality offers a lens that sport and development stakeholders should seize if they truly want to make sporting spaces transformative and inclusive for the communities they serve. Intersectionality - a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a prominent African American lawyer and legal scholar on civil rights - recognizes the overlapping privileges and oppressions that people experience based on their multiple identities, including their gender.

As sport has upheld heterosexuality as the singular and natural expression of human sexuality, participants may feel the need to shrink themselves to fit into spaces that negate important aspects of who they are. Sport and development stakeholders should not ‘cherry pick’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts (i.e., issues of racism, sexism, gender discrimination, etc.), as they all hinge upon each other in some way and such notable exclusions have adverse effects. Similarly, all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), promoted by the United Nations for a more prosperous world targeting different global goals, are all interconnected. Indeed, achieving gender equality – SDG #5 – is critical to progress in all SDGs.

While it may be uncomfortable to face the ways in which SDP spaces perpetuate gender inequality, this critical examination is necessary to ensure all individuals have the opportunity to feel safe and supported. Thus, without being cognizant of and making meaningful efforts to address the barriers that gender diverse people face in sport programs, gender equality will remain elusive.

Overall, future sport for development programming, policy and practice would stand to benefit by more deliberately foregrounding all gender identities. Specifically, we suggest the following opportunities for better supporting and including gender diverse people in sport for development programs:

  • Ensure gender diverse individuals are at the forefront of this movement - centralize their voices
  • Prioritize gender inclusive programming and 2SLGBTQ+ programs
  • Ensure gender diverse programming is prioritized and that funding reflects this
  • Ensure SDP staff are trained in trauma and violence informed physical activity
  • Increase employment and retention of gender diverse people at all organizational levels
  • Integrate non-gendered washrooms that display pictures of the types of facilities offered (i.e., restroom (with urinals and stalls)

By setting these objectives, SDP can move towards achieving SDG #5: Gender Equality. This list is far from exhaustive of the ways in which sport and development can support all gender identities, but offers a starting point for SDP programs to better support diverse gender identities and advance gender equality.


Julia Ferreira Gomes is entering the PhD program in Kinesiology and Health Science at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her research explores trauma- and violence-informed approaches to sport for development and physical activity. She is passionate about understanding and addressing gender and health inequities in sport and physical activity spaces.

Dr. Francine Darroch is an interdisciplinary health researcher at Carleton University. Her feminist participatory action research focuses on leveraging trauma- and violence-informed physical activity to improve quality of life, social connections, community cohesion and overall health and well-being.

Tayler Sinclair is a MA student in the Development Studies program at York University. Having interned in the humanitarian and development space, this has informed her perspective on issues including sexual and reproductive health and rights, trauma- and violence-informed approaches and sport for development. Through her own research on Caribbean immigrant women, she is exploring the intersections of health, well-being, social support and time poverty.

Dr. Lyndsay Hayhurst is a York Research Chair (Tier 2) in Sport, Gender & Development and Digital Participatory Research and an Associate Professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her research interests include sport for development and peace, gender-based violence, and sexual and reproductive health in/through SDP, cultural studies of girlhood, postcolonial feminist theory and global governance.


Article type



Julia Ferreira Gomes, Dr. Francine Darroch, Tayler Sinclair, Dr. Lyndsay Hayhurst


Tuesday, August 2, 2022 - 20:15

E-Newsletter subscribe