Inclusion of transgender and intersex people in sport
Peter Hyndal from Tran-formative Solutions talks about the inclusion of transgender and intersex participants in sport.
Alright, I’ll start by saying that my area of expertise is predominantly around transgender issues so although some of what I’m going to talk about is also applicable to intersex inclusion there are a range of intersex specific information and issues that I’m not going to address today.
I think before we begin any meaningful discussion about transgender or intersex inclusion in sport we really have to just take a step back and reflect a little bit on some of the assumptions that we have about sex and gender in general. I think these are concepts that we tend to take so much for granted that we rarely really ask ourselves what it is that we mean by them. We assume for example that all people can be categorised completely neatly as either a man or a woman and that just isn’t true so instead of thinking about sex and gender like two completely separate discrete boxes it can be really helpful to start thinking about biological sex characteristics, gender identity and gender presentation as three quite separate continuum like this. We all have biological sex characteristics and it’s true that most of us would be located at either end of that line but there’s a whole range of people who for a variety of reasons find themselves much more towards the middle maybe because like between 2 and 4% of the population they were born with an intersex variation; maybe because they’re transgender and they’ve altered parts of their biology through surgery or hormones or maybe because they’re neither intersex nor transgender but they have different biology for different reasons; a woman who’s had a hysterectomy, an older man with unusually low testosterone levels.
We all also have a gender identity, a way of thinking about ourselves in the world engendered terms and again most of us probably would locate ourselves at one or other end of that spectrum but there’s a growing number of people who identify somewhere in between. Some of those people are transgender and some of them aren’t and the third thing that we all have in common is a gender presentation, a way of communicating to the world who it is that we see ourselves to be and on this continuum I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t actually think of themselves at the extremes of that line. These days most people choose to present in ways that don’t always correspond exactly to those stereotypical notions of completely feminine and completely masculine.
So what’s all that got to do with sport? In a sporting context participation is almost exclusively segregated by sex and we tend to just assume that it’s always going to be completely self-evident about whether someone should compete in the women’s comp or the men’s comp but we’re not very clear on which criteria or which group of criteria we might rely upon in order to make that assessment. The reality is that biological sex gender identity and gender presentation do not always fit at exactly the same point on all of those continuum and it’s this reality that we need to acknowledge and address when we’re talking about transgender and intersex inclusion.
There is absolutely no doubt that over the last 5-10 years transgender people and issues have increased massively in general visibility but despite this and despite growing legal recognition and legal protection transgender people still experience really high levels of stigma and discrimination. Beyond Blue says that 90% of transgender people experience discrimination. Other Australian research shows that 40% of trans-people experience that discrimination in almost all areas of their lives on at least a weekly basis. Now this leaves transgender people more likely to be out of the workforce, not in any intimate relationship, perhaps estranged from family and friends and possibly in insecure housing.
All of these things increase social isolation, decrease self-esteem and result in significantly poorer mental health outcomes.
I’m sure that everyone in this room is really aware of the social, general health and mental health benefits that sport offers. I think it’s really important that we don’t ever underestimate the power that sport has to significantly and positively change the lives of marginalised people so what do we know about transgender people’s participation in sport?
This all comes from two ACT-based surveys which really only serve to validate what it was that we already knew anecdotally. We know that almost all transgender people want to play sport and that less than 20% of them do. Very few of those 20% participate in organised formal sport. Even fewer of them participate in team-based sports and very few of them are out about their status as transgender. More than a third of transgender people have identified bullying and harassment in a sporting context but a far greater number, more than 50% identified that there were other reasons why they weren’t involved in sport.
So what’s stopping them? The single biggest issue impacting on transgender and intersex people’s participation in sport rests on the fact that almost all sport is sex segregated. Even mixed sporting competitions usually have quotas for the number of men and the number of women. When the reality of someone’s biology, gender identity and gender presentation does not all fall neatly at the extremities of that sex gender continuum what is it that sport actually means when they say ‘a woman’ or ‘a man’? Do you mean my biology? Which bits of it? My chromosomes? My hormones? My reproductive capacity? My genitals? What if I’m a person who has chromosomes that are neither xx nor xy? What if my ID documents show my sex differently to the way that I identify and present and what if my ID documents show that my legal sex is neither male nor female but is x? I’m pretty confident that even those of you who come from organisations who have a policy on this stuff would struggle to articulate clearly exactly how that policy would apply in each of those situations.
The point here is not that we should do away with sex segregated sport. The point is just that when we choose to make a particular competition sex segregated we need to be really clear about why and we need to be really clear to ourselves, our participants and our potential participants exactly what it is we mean by those words in that context.
There’s unfortunately no universally right or wrong answer to these questions. The answers that you come up with will depend on the sport that you’re involved in, the level of competition that you’re talking about; your legal compliance obligations and other factors and it’s actually not important that all of us reach the same conclusion on these issues. What is important is that we all ask ourselves the questions, come up with solutions that are going to work in our sports and then clearly articulate that position because when our position isn’t clear what is it that transgender and intersex people should do? Do they disclose everything including potentially completely irrelevant highly personal information about their medical, surgical and hormonal status? Is that information that you’re even entitled to have or do they disclose nothing and run a risk of being found out or accused of cheating never knowing where it is that they stand if those kind of claims are made?
It’s a really tricky situation and it’s no wonder that almost all transgender people respond to that situation by simply deciding not to participate and it’s not a good outcome for them and it’s not a good outcome for sport.
I think it’s really interesting that almost all the talk we hear about transgender participation in sport is about whether and under what circumstances male to female transgender people can participate in women’s sport. We don’t hear any similar discussion about whether trans-men can participate in men’s sport and there’s a really important completely unspoken assumption here. It’s an assumption that all men are better at all sport than all women and people produce evidence to demonstrate this fact like for example the fact that the average man has greater aerobic capacity and greater muscle strength than the average woman but they ignore the equally true fact that not all men have greater aerobic capacity and muscle strength than all women and they also ignore the fact that aerobic capacity and muscle strength are not the most important factors in all sports at all level of competition that determine performance.
People also often refer to International world records where men routinely run faster and jump higher and throw further than women but again they ignore the fact that at a non-elite level the differences between men’s and women’s performances are usually far less than the common ground.
Now the rules for participation in International elite sport are largely beyond our control but the majority of people participating in sport in Australia are not participating at an elite level. What motivates people to participate in non-elite sport is really different and the factors that influence their performance are also far more varied and complex.
The legal compliance issues around non-discrimination are also different. It makes sense in this context that we have inclusion policies for non-elite sport that reflect these realities yet the vast majority of local sporting clubs tend to just cut and paste their inclusion policies from a National or International body.
There’s often a tendency I think to think about transgender and intersex inclusion in sport as if it’s kind of the same thing as tackling homophobia in sport. Let me be really clear. It just isn’t. The issues are different. The solutions are different and the strategies that we need to adopt to get there are also different. The primary issues limiting transgender and intersex people’s participation in sport are about systemic policy and procedural inequity. They’re not about bullying and harassment.
Part of us understanding the issues is as simple as us reflecting on our assumptions and stereotypes and although there’s a huge amount of work involved in developing more inclusive practices there’s also a range of very real benefits and there’s also safety for sporting organisations because in a context of recently expanded discrimination protections and definitions following best practice guidelines in this area is your most effective risk management strategy and the truth is you won’t be able to avoid having to respond to these issues. If you haven’t had to do it already it is simply a matter of time and working through this stuff in a proactive rather than a reactive way always produces better results.
I think in doing this work it’s also really important to think carefully about your implementation strategies because to do it well it’s critical to meet your existing participants and administrators wherever it is that they’re at and to bring them along with you even if that takes a lot more time.
So this is work that we have to do but it’s also work that I think we can do really well. We certainly have the capacity to do it really well. Some of it might feel a bit new and we’re bound to make mistakes along the way but none of us are alone in those things. Work together with other sporting organisations; learn from the progress and mistakes that have already been made. Seek engagement from your current participants. You probably have expertise there that you don’t even know you have. Make connections to relevant non-sporting community groups and organisations and think of innovative ways that you can work together on projects in partnership and read some of the great resources that are already available.
I’ve included two there and that means that every single one of you and every single one of your organisations now has a really concrete thing that you could undertake to do next week that will start to progress this work.