Giving trans kids a sporting chance

Sport can be of great benefit to children, but there are still many barriers for trans kids who want to play, writes researcher Julia de Bres.

There has been a lot of talk lately about trans athletes in high-performance sport, many of which stem from a broader anti-trans project rather than a desire to improve gender equality in sport.

Often the experiences of trans people in sport are left out on other levels.

Sport New Zealand was recently released Guiding principles for the inclusion of transgender people in community sport. Trans youth in Aotearoa experience a lot differences in health and well-being, as a result of stigma, discrimination and violence. They face challenges in their own families, at school, in medical settings and in their wider communities.

Being involved in sport has a positive impact on mental and physical well-being, academic achievement, and a sense of belonging, and can be a source of passion—a powerful protective factor for mental health.

Sport has the potential to be a positive force in the lives of young trans people. But what is their actual experience?

The recent Identify survey of Rainbow youth in Aotearoa found that only a minority participated in sports. For many trans children, this is for reasons other than gender, such as physical disability or neurodivergence, or simply a desire not to be involved.

Others initially enjoyed the sport but experienced gender barriers that led them to withdraw. Reasons given by parents include lack of privacy (children cannot choose to be transgender), gender teams (either they are not allowed to be on the team because of their gender, or are non-binary and need to choose between binary ones). teams decide ), gender-specific uniforms and gender-shifting environments.

“My son switched football clubs when he went from a girls team to a boys team. As the year progressed, it became increasingly difficult to get him to train and play. Partly due to some times they played shirts against skins or when they had to switch from home to away shirts when there was a mix-up. He managed to avoid most of the physical education classes (especially swimming) at school last year.”

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The identity survey revealed low accessibility of physical education and physical education classes for trans and non-binary students, with only a minority of schools providing gender-neutral locker rooms (12%) that allow trans and non-binary students to play on a social sports team who matched their gender (34%) and who did not use blockers or hormones to engage in competitive sports (28%).

The point is that many trans children would play sports if the conditions were safe and inclusive for them. It’s not about the sex of the children, it’s about policies that don’t take children of opposite sexes into account.

While such experiences can cause trans kids to drop out of the sport altogether, some are in the sport and love it. Parents say that sport is an important source of joy and contributes to their resilience to other challenges.

Inclusive policies to help trans children stay in sport include non-gender segregation, non-binary gender recognition and privacy measures, backed by strong leadership from school principals, physical education teachers and coaches, and supportive team members. Simple things like using a child’s correct name can help make them feel part of the team.

“My son played football and was captain of the children’s football team for the last two years. Up until the beginning of this year, the kids used to call him his old name, and then half of it was, ‘Theo! The O! The O!’ Going to the last few games and seeing the kids all interacting with him as Theo was just amazing!”

Like all kids, trans kids need to aim high, have sources of inspiration and role models, and see a future in sport. Some children have positive experiences in school and club sports, but their parents are worried about what will happen next:

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“We’ve done a lot: dancing, swimming, netball, touch rugby, track and field, skateboarding, gymnastics, waka ama. As my daughter is 10 years old and very enthusiastic about sports, I am very excited about what lies ahead – will she be able to play sports at a higher level if she chooses to make that her goal?”

Parents have reason to worry.

I spoke to a parent whose daughter is an international athlete. Sport is her daughter’s happy place. It feeds their soul and is their fuel that keeps them happy, good and healthy. In her earlier years she had good experiences in sports and it only became “very, very difficult” when she entered competitive sports.

In this athlete’s experience, the idea that effort equals result does not hold true. She reached the highest level of her game and saw non-trans teammates performing at a lower level being offered contracts that she wasn’t. Despite talk of a level playing field, she feels she is starting with a handicap “below zero” and needs to do significantly better than everyone else to get in the same spot. She hears that trans people should be content to play sports just for fun, but for athletes like her, competition is completely entangled with pleasure and a sense of achievement. Every time she takes the podium, she is brutally attacked by fellow athletes, coaches and the public in the form of online bullying at the level of “extreme hate”. Her mother said:

“Some kids have an inner drive to excel – for those kids, it’s going to be an incredibly sad and demoralizing experience.”

While Sport New Zealand’s guidelines for the inclusion of transgender people in community sport state that they do not cover elite sport, for trans children and their families these levels cannot be separated.

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Recent coverage of a surfer protesting the inclusion of trans women in surfing left one parent’s athletic teen despairing of ever being accepted into the sport:

“100% of my daughter being told or seeing on social media that she is not wanted or accepted in elite sport impacts her in sport at a community level. She has spoken of wanting to be good enough to represent her country. After [this news story] Where she felt she would never be accepted, she is unsure if she will continue at the community level. To say she’s discouraged is putting it mildly. Limiting her future contributes to feelings of hopelessness… It breaks her heart.”

Parents are torn between nurturing their child’s dreams and meeting their expectations. Some hope their child isn’t good enough to play at a high level, so their dreams won’t be shattered by being trans, but by reaching their natural limit in play.

There are many issues that need to be addressed to better include young trans people in the sport, and no one is saying there are easy solutions. But the impact on people is massive, and policy development must be approached in a way that focuses on the lived experiences of trans people, including trans children.

I asked parents what advice they would give sports organizations to get their children more involved and they said: talk to trans children and their families, avoid disinformation about trans people in sport, conduct research to inform policy decisions scientific proof instead of preconceived notions, and prioritize fair and realistic, individual-aware policies over blanket homogenization policies.

If we want trans children to experience all that sport has to offer, we give them a sporting chance.

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