By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)

One of the things that tends to set LGBTQIA+ sports events apart from their mainstream counterparts is the more inclusive gender policies regarding non-binary, transgender, and intersex participants. After all, it wouldn’t be “LGBTQIA+” if we disregarded gender identity.  LGBTQIA+ sports events serve as a model for the greater worldwide sports community in representing non-binary, transgender, and intersex athletes and even more importantly, as the debate rages on, shows the world how to make inclusive policies for people of diverse gender identities to participate in sports.

Not many people know this better than swimmer, Emmanuelle Verhagen (they/them, she/her) who competed at the Copenhagen 2021 Eurogames swimming competition. The swimming competition, as all the sports competitions, include an inclusivity focused gender inclusion policy. Each sport has inclusive policies that are specific to the demands of that sport, but athletes can participate in the gender division of their choice without restriction and a third non-binary division as well.

Verhagen highlights the importance of gender inclusion in sports events, rather than focused on performance for medals, they focus on performance for personal bests, mental health, socializing and simply for being part of the event. Even more so, the discussion around the inclusion (and often exclusion) around non-binary, trans and intersex often is led by people who have no basic understanding or knowledge of what it means to exist outside of traditional gender binary.

In several of their swimming events, Verhagen was the only swimmer in competing in the non-binary category but despite the medals won, the focus of their competition was on the competition experience itself and how swimming “just feels good” along with the great feeling of being able to compete as oneself in an environment where gender identity is no longer a point of discussion. Having just changed swim teams in their home country of Belgium, Verhagen shared that switching to a new team that there was an adjustment period to the team dynamic but nothing that wouldn’t be expected in any other situation where a new swimmer joins a team. For Verhagen, their gender identity being a non-issue among their teammates is an important part of their experience in swimming, they are simply part of the team regardless of what gender division they compete in.

While the Eurogames, as the first major post-pandemic LGBTQIA+ sports event had a lower expected than turnout, it was still an important moment for non-binary, trans and intersex athletes like Verhagen to get back into sports. The event also helps lay a foundation toward greater representation and more inclusive gender policy design for upcoming sports events, both LGBTQIA+ specific and general sporting events.

Photo by Emmanuelle Verhagen