Ensuring an inviting space for all individuals to compete through athletic endevours.
This was a paper that I wrote for one of my Exercise Psychology classes. With the recent wave of anti-trans legislation, I thought it might be useful for people to have some scientifically backed reasons as to why it is important to include trans individuals in sport. Obviously this topic is obviously very personal to me, so I hope you find it useful !
Part One: General Information and Terms
Transgender individuals face some of the highest levels of depression, anxiety, and dissemination within the United States. According to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 40% of trans teens reported feeling depressed most, or all, of the time (HRC, 2017). These individuals also face ‘rampant discrimination in health care, increased rates of drug or alcohol misuse, and a suicide attempt rate of above 41%’ (The Task Force). Yet, when these children turn towards sports and athletics for social camaraderie, gender-affirming experiences, and positive exercise, they are often turned away, ostracized, or tokenized. Not only are these students actively discriminated against, but many times they are not even acknowledged as existing. According to a 2017 survey, only 11.5% of US schools had policies that were meant to support trans students (Kosciw, 2017). The benefits of proper exercise for treatment of depression, anxiety, and suicide are well-known, and for a group that faces these issues so prominently, it should be imperative that they are able to receive those benefits (Craft&Perna, 2004). This paper aims to outline best practices for creating positive and affirming spaces for gender expansive individuals.
A guideline of terms and language that is inclusive for the LGBTQIA+ Community:
Sex: Sex is often seen as a binary, male or female, based on the apparent visible genitalia present at birth; penis, or vulva. While characteristics associated with biologic or chromosomal sex are often used as a reason that trans athletes have an inherent advantage or disadvantage, many institutions fail to take into account that even biologically, sex is inherently not binary. For example, there are medical conditions of sex reversal, ambigeous genatalia and/or intersex presentation.
Gender: Gender is a socially constructed idea, generally thought of as split distinctly between men and women. These two gender roles come with a series of expected presentations, mannerisms, careers, social roles, clothing choices, etc. Many trans and nonbinary individuals find themselves as identifying outside of the gender binary. This often means that they would not wish to use gendered language, e.x. sir or ma’am, rather gender-ambiguous terms such as Mx. (pronounced Mix).
Cisgender: Someone who is cisgender (cis) identifies as the gender that was assigned to them at birth (AGAB=assigned gender at birth). Someone who was born with an apparent vulva, assigned female at birth, and identifies as a woman would be a cis-gendered individual.
Transgender: Someone who is transgender (trans), usually identifies with a different gender than their AGAB. Trans individuals can, but do not always, identify as strictly male or female, regardless of their choices regarding taking hormones (HRT=hormone replacement therapy) or surgery (GAS=gender affirming surgery).
Nonbinary: Someone who is nonbinary (NB) does not identify with either of the binary genders (man/woman). They may choose to use gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them or xe/xirs but that is not always the case. Some nonbinary individuals continue to use binary pronouns (he/him,she/her). Nonbinary individuals do not always choose to medically transition (HRT, GAS), nor do they always choose to present androgynously.
Transexual: Transexual is an outdated term that was used to describe trans individuals when gender was seen as intrinsically related to sex. Some individuals may still choose to identify with this label, and it is still prevalent in literature. For further reading on the history of trans languages and issues see Whittle, A Brief History of Transgender Issues.
Sexual Identity: Sexual identity refers to one’s sexual attraction, or lack thereof, towards other people. Sexual identity does not have a causation relationship with gender identity, although the two can impact one another. For example, if a trans woman were to have been exclusively attracted to women before beginning transitioning, and continues to after, that individual would not be straight (as they are a woman attracted towards other women) and may identify with the Lesbian label. It is important to allow all individuals to feel comfortable expressing their sexuality, and extra effort should be given to ensure there is no discrimination based on an individual’s sexuality.
Gender-non-conformity: Gender-non-conformity (GNC) is the act of refusing to conform to the societal expectations of gender. Many trans and NB individuals may also identify as GNC, but cis individuals can also intensify as GNC without also identifying as trans/NB. GNC can come in any form and would require speaking with the individual that is GNC in order to understand what things make them comfortable or not.
Gender Expansive: Gender Expansive (GE) is an umbrella term to refer to anyone whose identity or relationship with gender differs from the standard societal views of binary gender. GE individuals makeup between one and two percent of the US population. This term will be used throughout this paper to mean anyone who does not identify as cis.
Pronouns: Pronouns are often an important part of transitioning and can be an affirming or traumatic item for those transitioning. While most cis individuals use the pronouns given to them at birth, she/her-he/him, GE individuals may choose to switch their pronouns or use gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them. All individuals should be respectful and considerate around pronouns.
Deadname/Chosen Name: For many GE individuals their chosen name is not the same as the legal name that is on their birth certificate. For someone who identifies as trans, using their legal name in place of their chosen name is known as deadnaming. This act can be an incredibly traumatic experience for trans individuals and extra care should be taken by all supporting members to ensure that the trans individual is able to interact with their deadname as little as possible.
Gender Dysphoria: Dysphoria, as defined by The American Psychiatric Association is “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity” (Turban, 2020). While not all GE individuals experience dysphoria, it can be an enormous struggle for those that do. Dysphoria can be brought on by both physiological triggers or social interactions. It is important to note that dysphoria is diagnosable under the DSM-5 and all possible steps should be taken to alleviate GE individual’s dysphoria.
Part 2: Providing a Safe Place for GE Individuals in Group Sports and Activities
The burden of feeling safe in sports should not fall on the shoulders of GE individuals. Rather, that work should belong to the school systems, coaches, sports leagues, and community. The abysmally low rates of school policies that are inclusive of GE, as previously cited, points towards GE students being required to individually campaign for equitable protection in their area. This failure is unacceptable and it certainly does not bode well for creating safe places for GE individuals to recreate. The power dynamic that this unfortunate situation creates can also be a barrier for GE individuals even attempting to step into athletics or sports. For these reasons, it is imperative that succinct, positive, affirming, and protective legislation and guidelines be implemented for allowing GE individuals to recreate and compete in sports.
Recreational Environments: Recreational environments, or those which are purely meant for exercise, fun, and social bonding should allow every individual to recreate with the team that best fits their gender identity. These recreational environments can be positive and affirming spaces for GE individuals to grow and develop. By allowing GE individuals to self-select their environment, they can be sheltered from the negative side-effects of not having gender-affirming experiences. These negative side-effects can include “loss of interest in school, heightened risk for alcohol and drug use, poor mental health and suicide” (HRC). Recreational sports and activities are also where many children form important friendships. This observation is relevant because 58% of trans individuals reported losing at least one close friendship due to transitioning (AVP). If GE children are forced to abandon their recreational environments due to their status as GE, they risk losing vital friendships at a critical time in their lives when they need the most support.
Semi-Competitive Environments: semi-competitive environments may contain competitions, games, or tournaments, but do not present prize money, scholarship, or tangible reward beyond that of the intrinsic nature of success. These environments offer many of the same benefits of recreational environments, with the addition of the rewarding feelings brought on by succeeding. Just as in recreational environments, these spaces should allow GE individuals to choose what team they fit onto best without any outstanding requirements. These spaces, such as high-school teams, present fantastic opportunities for GE individuals to connect and improve themselves. It becomes especially important for GE individuals to stay involved in sports throughout adolescence, as athletic participation increases GPA (NCAA). This increase in GPA allows GE individuals to stay involved with sports that have GPA requirements and decreases their likelihood to engage with illicit substances (Heradstviet, 2017).
Competitive Environments: Competitive Environments may contain prize money, sponsorships, scholarships, or other forms of monetary reward for performance. These spaces present phenomenal opportunities for GE to flourish and compete at the highest levels. But, sadly many organizations have put in place major roadblocks to prevent GE individuals from competing as their identified gender. For competitors who are not competing professionally, no medical records or requirements should be installed. For GE individuals who do not have parental or guardian support, they are unable to even access HRT or GAS options until turning 18. These medical options are also intensely personal decisions that children or young adults should not be forced to make in order to compete for the team they feel comfortable on. In addition, there should not be a waiting period between declaring an identified gender and being able to compete under that gender. Those types of rules only further distance GE individuals from the social support networks when they are needed most.
Outfits, Bathrooms, and other Gendered Items:
Outfits: Uniforms should “be gender-neutral (For example: Do not require women to wear dresses or skirts. Instead require attire that is neat, clean and appropriate for the occasion)” (NCAA). This idea should be applied to all areas of dress for athletes. All athletes, cis and GE, have different clothing needs, and should not be restricted to specific gendered clothing, or required to stand out in order to feel comfortable. By giving all athletes the individual choice to find clothing that best suits them, GE individuals are not forced to stand out in order to feel comfortable. For example, in swimming, it is required that swimsuits adhere to certain criteria depending on gender. For men, swimsuits must not go below the knees or above the navel, and for women, suits must not go below the knees or extend past the shoulders. These requirements, however intentioned, present problems for GE individuals. For a trans man who has not had GAS top surgery (double mastectomy), they may wish to cover their chest. Yet with the rules put in place by USA Swimming, that individual would be unable to cover their chest without submitting an official appeal to USAS (USA Swimming, 2020). GE individuals are more than capable of making their own decisions about what clothing choices make them feel comfortable in their body, and the possible exploitations of GE inclusive policies by opportunistic cis-gendered individuals should be not a reason to mistreat GE individuals.
Bathrooms/Locker rooms: GE individuals should be given complete freedom in their choice of changing area. Some GE individuals may prefer to use a single-occupancy or gender-neutral area, and others may wish to use the locker room of their identified gender. Regardless of individual preference, no attempt should be made to make it difficult for GE individuals to access a specific locker room or bathroom.
Practice Segregation: Practices in multi-gender sports, e.x. swimming, rock climbing, running, etc., should not arbitrarily split their practices by gender, even if the competition is gender divided. Allowing all members of the team to train together will improve team cohesion, individual self-image, and friendships (Reason, 2018). In addition, according to the American Institute of Pediatrics, there is no reason to separate boys and girls in recreational or competitive sports activities (Prentice, 2020). Providing gender-inclusive athletic opportunities also helps to prevent cis individuals from developing strict associations with gender. This inclusivity allows all individuals to compete in, present, and enjoy whatever athletic pursuits bring them the most joy regardless of their AGAB or identified gender.
Interactions Within and With Other Teams:
Within Teams: Within a specific team or group, special care should be taken in order to respect all identities. This should include fostering a culture that is kind and accepting towards its members. In the case of a GE individual who is already on the team or joining the team, extra effort should be made to make them feel comfortable. The burden of informing team members should fall on the coach. While the GE individual may wish to speak with the team as a whole or with specific individuals, if they do not wish to do so it is the Coach’s job to ensure the GE individual is treated with respect. This may include informing other teammates of a name change, pronoun change, wish to use/not use gendered terms, specific questions the GE individual does not wish to be asked, etc. Coaches and teams should not have tolerance for teammates that attempt to not support the individual and it must be made apparent to all team members that the respecting of the GE individual’s identity is a requirement. This course of action helps to protect the GE individual from feeling guilty correcting teammates who make mistakes and removes any possibility of tolerated harassment.
With Other Teams: When competing against other teams it is important for the Coach to inform the other Coach that harassment or bigoted language will not be tolerated. By setting this tone, all individuals are protected and the specific GE individual is not ‘outed’. An individual’s status as GE may not be public information, and they may not wish to openly disclose this fact. If the GE individual needs for their status as GE to be known for specific reasons such as preferred pronouns or chosen name differing from legal name, the Coach should address this matter with the other team(s) prior to competition.
With Parents: Similar to the response within the team, Coaches are responsible for communicating with parents regarding a GE individual. While parents, due to their age, may be more likely to be personally non-supportive of LGBTQIA+ individuals it is imperative that they are informed on how to respect LGBTQIA+ individuals (Greenberg et al, 2019).
Part Three: Why is This Important?
GE individuals face incredible rates of discrimination and mental-illnesses and have a suicide attempt rate that is 18 times higher than the general population (Herman, 2019). It has been shown that group exercise (mountain-hiking), was linked to lower levels of depression, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation (Sturm, 2012). This link between GE individuals, suicide, and exercise underscores the vital importance of providing affirming and safe spaces for GE individuals to engage in exercise with peers. Although there are arguments that GE individuals may possess advantages or create uncomfortable situations for peers, the truth is that GE athletes are not dominating sports, and young Americans are the most supportive age group of trans individuals (Jones, 2019). Providing this underserved and systemically discriminated against community an affirming space to exercise with peers is a needed step in the fight for GE equality.
Exercise is an important part of any individual’s healthy life, but it is especially so for GE individuals. According to the Mayo Clinic increased maximal aerobic capacity has been shown to decrease the rates of hospitalization; this is important for a community that faces high rates of medical discrimination (The Task Force). Exercise is also an important factor in individual weight. While there exists ongoing research on the subject of weight-inclusivity, BMI is still used as a requirement for many surgeries. This fact is especially important for the GE population, as many individuals within that group wish to undergo GAS. In a study by Healio endocrinology, even with their intense motivation, trans individuals who were above the BMI threshold for surgery were not able to lose enough weight in order to qualify for surgery (Safer, 2019). By involving GE individuals in positive and affirming exercise early in life, they can be protected from that kind of situation. Exercise is also an important determiner in overall health (May Clinic, 2019). And, due to relationships with exercise developing during youth and adolescence, it is important that GE individuals are able to develop a positive exercise relationship early on. Unfortunately, in comparison to the general population, GE individuals need outside help in order to healthily participate in exercise environments without facing harassment or bullying. By providing an affirming place for GE individuals to learn to love exercise early, long-term health can be dramatically improved.
Cisgender Individuals Benefit Too
All individuals suffer from strict views of gender, regardless of their personal gender identity. While GE individuals may actively desire to subvert cis-normative expectation, many cis individuals wish to escape these confines as well. Cis girls that wear traditionally masculine clothing are often criticized and told that their behavior will negatively impact them. Surrounding that type of individual with expanded ideas of what gender expectations should be, would allow them to more freely express themselves.
“No child should be prevented from pursuing their passions simply based on others’ perceptions of their gender. By sending a message that certain pursuits are off-limits simply because of a person’s gender, we lose access to an incredible source of human potential” (Orr).
GE individuals possess a unique level of self-reflection that the majority of the general population will never achieve. These individuals have an incredible amount of insight and experience to share but are often not given the ability to do so. By providing affirming spaces for GE individuals, cis peers can benefit from their GE counterpart’s knowledge and experience.
Part 4: Conclusions
All individuals deserve to be treated with respect, be protected equally under the law, and feel safe in their environments. The unfortunate truth is that for the majority of GE individuals, simple acts such as going to the grocery store can be a terrifying and traumatic experience. Athletics should be a safe place for all athletes to bond with peers, learn to love exercise, and compete. Ensuring that all athletic environments are safe for GE individuals allows those environments to be safer and more positive for all. In addition, creating space for GE participation in sports improves GE mental health, physical well being, performance in school, and allows for cis individuals to be exposed to differing views on gender.
Although the lack of GE equality in America will not be easily solved, providing these individuals an environment to flourish is an important part of the process. Coaches and athletic teams hold an invaluable part of the equation that is GE equality. Because of this importance, the athletic community must come together to uplift GE individuals for the benefit of all.