Ann Travers is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Simon Fraser University and author of The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) Are Creating a Gender Revolution.
When Wren was 4 and taking ballet at the local community centre, she wore the pink leotard and tutu that all the girls wore. The fact that her mom had to check “M” on the registration form, however, meant trouble loomed ahead. During the final performance, her teacher shouted out at her at full volume to bow not curtsy, because she was a boy. According to her mother, Wren was humiliated. Wren had yet to affirm a female identity but the anxiety her gender nonconformity produced for other people, and their insistence on making it her problem, was one of the factors behind it.
Sex-segregated and sex-differentiated sport and physical recreation spaces, facilities and programs – including day and sleepaway camps, activities and uniforms – place trans kids in harm’s way. These facilities and spaces are predicated on the taken-for-granted assumption that there are only two, fundamentally different sexes and that boys and men have an across-the-board unfair athletic advantage over girls and women. The predominant sex segregation of many sports and sex differentiation within some less segregated sports and recreation activities (for example, gymnastics, figure skating and dance) or different rules (for example, in basketball, golf, tennis and volleyball) play an important role in normalizing gender difference and inequality. For trans people of all ages, sex segregation of sport and physical recreation is a key obstacle to participation. Trans kids who identify as non-binary and those for whom appropriate health care is unavailable typically have no place to play. This needs to change.
Sport participation often plays a significant role in decision-making around gender transition for trans kids. At present, the majority of trans kids are invisible because they perceive their environments to be unwelcoming. They regularly experience crisis in spaces and activities organized around sex categories. And the difficulties faced by kids who want to identify outside the binary are often extraordinary. Neither side of the binary is right for some and fully mixed spaces (gender-integrated with unisex rules and uniforms) for sport and physical recreation are rare. Some trans kids who would otherwise affirm a non-binary trans identity decide to undergo binary transition in order to participate in sport.
While sport at the international level is organized around binary notions of biological difference between males and females, recent science reveals this two-sex system as a cultural rather than a natural phenomenon. The flawed science of sex testing has been in the spotlight since 2009 when South African runner, Caster Semenya, was subjected to sex testing for an appearance that her competitors deemed “too masculine.” The Court of Arbitration in Sport recently ruled that women athletes whose natural levels of testosterone are higher than what is considered normal may not be prevented from participating in women’s events until scientific evidence is presented that this constitutes a performance advantage. National and international sport plays a significant cultural role in determining sex boundaries and hierarchies that are difficult to challenge because they are widely understood to be natural. The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) acknowledges that the sex-difference science is flawed and therefore not a basis for organizing sport. In order to be more inclusive to transgender people, the CCES recommends that sport be transitioned away from the institutionalization of binary sex difference. As it stands, the two-sex system is foundational to the cultural and economic marginalization of women, gays and lesbians, and transgender people in the world of sport and beyond.
Trans kids signal the need to reconfigure space and social practice away from sex segregation and newly developed policies address trans inclusion in sport in Canada. In British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario, trans kids are able to participate in athletics at the high-school level according to their affirmed rather than assigned sex category. Various school boards include provisions for the participation of trans kids in physical education and sport on the same basis. These policies are ideal for kids who are comfortable with one of the two conventional sex categories and who feel safe to identify themselves as trans. But they fall short by lacking provisions for non-binary trans kids and recommendations for overhauling the sex-segregated and sex-differentiated structure of most school sports. Under these policies, kids who undergo medicalized transitions will be the easiest to accommodate.
For trans kids who transition to a binary identity, sport participation typically requires a switch from one gendered space to another, often but not always requiring medicalization for eligibility. Access to gender-affirming transgender health care is typically binary normative and more accessible to relatively resource-rich trans kids. Canadian provincial health-care policies regarding treatment for trans people vary from province to province and the quality of medical care in remote communities in general is poor, while Indigenous reservations in Canada and the United States are severely and systematically under-resourced. But some trans kids who would otherwise benefit from transitioning choose not to do so in order to continue participating in sport.
Canadian sports at the community and recreational levels have lost government funding, while professional and elite amateur sport franchises and programs receive investment in the service of nationalism. Reinvesting in more accessible community-based, gender-integrated physical recreation programs would extend greater access to trans kids as well as kids from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds.