By Dirk Smith, MSc, SDL (He/Him).

The topic of inclusion in sports for transgender, intersex and non-binary people in sports has been quite hot lately. With notable athletes such as Caster Semenya, Dr. Rachel McKinnon, Mack Beggs and others making an impact on sport. There has never been a time in which the need of discussion for education, inclusion and action has been more relevant. How can we make sports and exercise more accessible for transgender, intersex and non-binary people?

What is “transgender” “intersex” and “non-binary” and what makes them different?

  • Transgender is defined as someone who feels that the sex/gender they were assigned at birth does not match with their internal sense of self. The word “trans” or “transgender” is the appropriate descriptive term for people who identify as such.
    • This identity includes people who identify with the opposite binary gender, identifies with both genders, neither gender or who has developed their own sense of gender.
  • Intersex is defined as individuals born with any variations of sex characteristics, including chromosomes, hormone or genitals that do not fit the typical definition for biologically male or female bodies.
  • Non-Binary is defined to describe an individual’s gender identity that is neither exclusively male nor female. This can be represented in many forms, including “gender fluid” or “gender queer” among others.


Understanding what these terms mean sets a foundation, but they are not the only terms used when talking about gender identity. It is important to allow a trans, intersex or non-binary person to define their own gender identity and let them tell you. If you don’t understand, just ask. Gender identity is a complex issue, so it’s okay not to know everything and to make a mistake. If you make a mistake, apologize and correct it so you can learn.

How does being transgender, intersex or non-binary affect access to sport?

Sports and exercise serve many unique and important roles in our society. It promotes healthy exercise habits, social support networks, cognitive development programs, mental health and stress release, youth development programs and education that extend beyond the sport itself. Every person, including transgender, intersex and non-binary people have a right to sport. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

A common argument is that transgender, intersex and non-binary people engage in sport to win. The “unfair advantage” argument is used to justify policies that are meant to exclude trans, intersex and non-binary people from participating. According to Flores, Herman, Gates & Brown (2016) 1.4 million adults in the United States or 0.6% of the total US population currently identify as transgender. Despite these statistics, there have yet to be any openly transgender or non-binary individuals participating in sport on the elite level, let alone winning medals or setting world records.

For intersex individuals, a few athletes have been represented on the elite level. However unnecessary intrusions into their own private lives without their consent have pushed the narrative into a question regarding human rights. With “intersex” being a gender identity that exists outside the existing binary definitions of biological sex, it is not up to anyone outside the individual themselves to define their gender identity.

Based on current research, there is no consistent nor reliable evidence that shows people who are undergoing transition retain any athletic advantage during their transition when compared to their cisgender counterparts (Jones, Arcelus, Bouman, & Haycraft, 2016). However, this field of research is still young, so it is important to acknowledge the need for further research, especially on the individual sport level. Unfortunately, this future research is impacted by the low number of trans athletes active in sports due to inaccessibly of safe and inclusive environments.

Sports and exercise are rife with discrimination, transphobia, bullying, and other issues that make the environment unsafe and inaccessible. Additionally, the infrastructure of sport and exercise itself is unaccommodating for trans, intersex and non-binary people. This can contribute to negative mental health, lack of acceptance, low self-esteem and a tendency to avoid these situations and thus contribute to the low participation numbers in sport.

Exercise and sports are not a safe nor accessible places for trans, intersex and non-binary people.

Understanding how exercise and sport can be a beneficial for trans, intersex and non-binary people.

  • Physical Health- Exercise and sports promote good physical health. Regular exercise can also be beneficial for people undergoing transition by helping the body to become more resilient and better able to adapt to the physiological changes inherent to transition.
  • Mental Health- Consistent exercise and sport participation have positive effects on mental health. It is well documented that exercise is an effective treatment for people who live with depression, anxiety, chronic stress and other conditions. Transgender, intersex and non-binary face a disproportionate number of mental health issues due to discrimination, stigma, lack of acceptance and abuse, (Robles et al., 2016). Exercise has positive effects on mental health and psychological wellbeing.
  • Social Health- Sports in particular can provide a resource of social support that is beneficial on every level for any person. Building self-esteem, self-confidence and a community of acceptance can go a long way toward improving one’s own quality of life and experience.


How to make your sports or exercise space more inclusive for transgender, intersex and non-binary people?

  • General Good Practices
    • Use more thoughtful language including correct use of pronouns (a person will inform you of their pronouns), gender neutral language, proper terms, etc.
    • Ensure confidentiality.
    • Consider the uniforms and sports kits to be gender neutral when possible.
    • Give inclusive options on forms and databases.
    • Establish or connect with LGBTQI groups or activities.
    • Remove unnecessary gender divisions. Especially “boys and girls” things such as exercises, drills, groups, etc. Created mixed gender spaces based on ability instead.
    • Recognize potentially difficult situations, such as travel, away matches, locker rooms/bathrooms, perception of fans, other teams, etc.
    • Make your good practice visible!


A key point here is making sure to be visibly supportive. A sports and exercise environment are intimidating for anybody, let alone trans, intersex and non-binary people. Being visibly supportive is a key component to alleviating these intimidations so that the athletes in your environment have one less stressor.

  • Making Facilities More Inclusive
    • Respect everyone’s gender identity.
    • Include non-binary people
    • Adapt changing facilities to accommodate non-binary and all gender spaces.
    • Ensure privacy for all in gendered spaces such as changing rooms, showers and toilets.
    • Be creative and flexible with existing infrastructure.
    • Assume that people will choose the facilities that are the best fit for them.
    • Policies should be based on behavior not bodies.


What’s important to remember, is that just because someone is not “out” doesn’t mean that they are not there. An athlete or participant may identify as trans, intersex or non-binary but chooses not to disclose it, especially if they feel unsafe. If a trans, intersex or non-binary person feels unsafe they may quit without you having any idea why. This makes it difficult to learn from our experiences and to adapt to be more accommodating. Environments such as changing rooms and showers can create a lot of stress and anxiety over the fear of being “outed”, which in turn creates a barrier that makes sport and exercise inaccessible.

  • Establishing Policy
    • Distinguish grassroots and recreational levels from elite sports.
    • Start from an assumption of inclusion and build your program to be accommodating for everybody.
    • Focus on participation rather than competition.
    • Inclusion means everybody is included in accordance with their gender identity; non-binary people can take part on the team or space they’re most comfortable.
    • Allow for individual flexibility on a case by case basis.
    • Develop non-gendered options and language when possible.
    • Visibly address harassment and discrimination. Make it a learning experience for the whole team/ group.


Sports cannot change overnight, and every day is a new opportunity to learn how to adapt and grow. As the discussion continues and we debate the best way to be inclusive, we will learn by doing. Making sport and exercise more accessible and inclusive will help encourage participation. With more participation we will continue to learn how to shape the future of sports and exercise to be inclusive for all.

“Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space for everyone.”- Dr. George Dei, Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport Trans Inclusion Guidance

For more information visit http://genderedintelligence.co.uk/ 

By Dirk Smith

Citations

Flores, A. R., Herman, J. L., Gates, G. J., & Brown, T. N. (2020, April 27). How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States? Retrieved June 03, 2020, from https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/trans-adults-united-states/
Jones, B. A., Arcelus, J., Bouman, W. P., & Haycraft, E. (2016). Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies. Sports Medicine, 47(4), 701-716. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0621-y

Robles, R., Fresán, A., Vega-Ramírez, H., Cruz-Islas, J., Rodríguez-Pérez, V., Domínguez-Martínez, T., & Reed, G. M. (2016). Removing transgender identity from the classification of mental disorders: A Mexican field study for ICD-11. The Lancet Psychiatry, 3(9), 850-859. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(16)30165-1Photo Credit: VIDA Fitness