Including trans athletes in grassroots sport
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How can grassroot and school sports be more inclusive towards trans athletes, and ensure that they can assert their rights to sport and play?

In light of the continuing waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, once again Pride celebrations around the world are being held virtually, and it is the second year of #prideinside. This year, we must take special note of the ongoing inequalities for trans athletes in sport.

In this article, we focus mostly on grassroot sport and school sports, because most trans athletes will never compete at international events. We must allow transgender athletes to participate in sports in the gender category with which they identify. The right to play and access sport is a human right, and physical activity cannot discriminate based on gender identity.

Inclusion in sport, inclusion in society

Sport is a microcosm of society – by allowing greater inclusion of trans people in sports, we can foster greater inclusion across society. Sport helps break down barriers between people and bring them closer together. Including trans athletes in sports allows us to create a more cohesive society.

Leading Canadian sport bodies, such as Canadian Women and Sport, the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Sport and Athletes CAN have come out in opposition to bans targeting trans women and girls in sport. Trans inclusion means gender inclusion. The inclusion of trans women and girls in sport does not negatively impact the opportunities for or exclude cisgender athletes in women’s sports.

By suggesting that trans inclusion undermines the integrity or fairness of competition effectively assumes that there is a limit (a glass ceiling, if you will) at how successful one can be while participating, which ultimately is harmful to all women participating in sport.

Most importantly, trans inclusion is not only a moral imperative, it is also a legal obligation. As leaders in sport, we have a duty to advocate for belongingness and make accessible that transformative feeling that sport provides to help all of us reach our highest potential.

Inclusion over exclusion

Trans women and girls do not transition or identify as women to take advantage of women’s sports or girls’ sports. If someone identifies as a woman, they are being authentic to themselves – they are not doing this to cause harm to others.

This issue is similar to the myth that trans women should be prohibited from using the women’s bathroom because they will take advantage of others who use the washroom. There is no evidence to support the notion that trans individuals use facilities to harass or assault others. In fact, trans people are the ones at higher risk of being victimized, harassed or assaulted in washrooms and change rooms.

No harm will come to developmental or recreational sports when we allow transgender athletes to participate and compete in the gender with which they identify. When we choose inclusion over exclusion in sports, our communities are strengthened.

Policies in the Global North

Allowing transgender athletes to participate in the gender with which they identify has been a contentious issue. The trans inclusion recommendation from the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports (CCES) states:

Individuals participating in any [level] in Canadian sport should be able to participate in the gender with which they identify and not be subject to requirements for disclosure of personal information beyond those required of cisgender athletes. Nor should there be any requirement for hormonal therapy, unless the sport organization can prove that hormone therapy is a reasonable and bona fide requirement and where this is the case, only require this at the high performance levels where international rules become a factor.

Despite the evidence against the “protect girls sport” tagline, many places have restrictions on trans inclusion. In the United States, 7 states have laws targeting transgender student athletes, with a further 21 states with bills currently being introduced in their state legislators. The map below, taken from transathlete.com, shows which states have these policies.

In the United Kingdom, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 allows governing bodies involving a gender-affected sport (a sport where physical strength, stamina or physique of average persons of one gender would put them at a disadvantage to average persons of the other gender as competitors in events involving the sport) to restrict trans athletes where it is necessary to do so to ensure fair competition or the safety of competitors. 

In their Trans and Gender Diverse Inclusion Guidelines, Sport Australia, supports the inclusion of transgender and non-binary athletes in the sport of their gender identity. However, under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, competitive sporting activities in which strength, stamina or physique of competitors is relevant are exempt (this exemption does not apply to coaching, officiating, administration or for children below the age of 12 years).

In Canada, all provinces allow transgender students to play in the gender with which they identify on school teams. U Sports, the governing body of university sports in Canada, has a gender inclusion policy, allowing all student athletes to compete on the sport team that corresponds with either their sex assigned at birth or their gender identity.

Building an inclusive sports culture

How do we build a sports culture of inclusivity in our grassroots communities and school sports for trans athletes? For a more inclusive sporting environment, there must be support from across the board.

First and foremost, athletes should be allowed to participate in the category that matches with their gender identity, in grassroots and school sports. It is also important, then, that trans participants are allowed to use the washrooms, changerooms and other facilities that correspond with their gender identity, and it must be ensured that they have private enclosed areas that they can access.

It is also important that team uniforms respect participants’ gender identity and gender expression. Further, coaches, trainers and other facilitators must ensure that they use inclusive language. Instead of using gendered terms such as “boys,” “girls,” or “guys,” try using gender neutral terms such as “everyone,” “team,” and “folks.” Gender neutral language must be used in greetings and player forms as well – instead of using terms such as “sportsmanship,” simply use “sport.”

Coaches, trainers and facilitators must learn to use the correct pronouns and chosen names of the athletes. To build a more inclusive environment, avoid gender segregated sporting activities, and instead divide groups based on other criteria (for example, to divide participants into two groups, one group can be made of those with birthdays between January and June and the other group with birthdays between July and December).

Sport organisations should include trans voices in consultations, increase their representation in governing bodies such as the Board of Directors, and ensure that they are included in other capacities, such as on promotional materials, on their websites and on social media.

Finally, we must reframe the way we understand the issue. Instead of putting the onus of the problem on the trans people participating in sport, we must realize that the fault lies in the sport system which perpetuates a limited diversity of genders to be recognized. By reframing the problem, we can come up with more sustainable solutions for including trans people in sports.  

This article was written by David Thibodeau and Dennis Quesnel. They are members of the LGBTQI2S+ Sport Inclusion Task Force (SITF) in Canada.

Dennis Quesnel (they/he) is a queer sports enthusiast focusing on the promotion and investment of education in sport. Dennis has an academic background in human rights and social service work which have both developed his abilities in practicing empathy and allyship. Outside of work, you'll find them spending their time in the Canadian dodgeball community, with experience as a coach, an organizer, and most recently qualifying for Dodgeball Canada's 2020 National Championships. 

David Thibodeau (he/him) is a former competitive swimmer and current swim coach. He founded Sports for Social Impact to explore sport policy and provide insightful analysis to those working in the sport industry. He is an advocate for better inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in sports and gym classes. David was selected as a Young Sports Maker for Global Sports Week in Paris in 2020.