Justice for transgender athletes not on the radar, Olympian says

Transgender athletes who've had to quit sports to transition might not see justice for themselves anytime soon, says Olympian Mark Tewksbury, the first Canadian athlete to voluntarily declare he was gay.

Former swimming champion Mark Tewksbury praises 2 N.B. athletes for pushing issue out in the open

In 1998, Olympic swimming star Mark Tewksbury was the first Canadian athlete to openly declare he was gay.

Transgender athletes who've had to quit sports to transition might not see justice for themselves anytime soon, says Olympian Mark Tewksbury, the first Canadian athlete to voluntarily declare he was gay.

Alex Hahn, who quit university soccer to transition, and Jacob Roy, who quit rugby, swimming and soccer because coaches wouldn't let him play, are among the transgender athletes taking the hits now, Tewksbury said.

But the two New Brunswickers are pushing the bar for justice for the rest of the community, he said.

"When everyone can see the people behind these and understand their feelings, things will change," said Tewksbury, who won Olympic gold in 1992, several years before he openly talked about his sexuality and became a gay activist.

Tewksbury said change is not happening as fast as it could for transgender athletes, but sports organizations "are talking and trying to figure out" how to create policies for them.

According to him, sports have not yet caught up to the times and it will take a while until they do.

"They're so gender split, so old school, there's a long way to come to the realities of 2017."

The athlete, who won the gold medal in the 100-metre backstroke, officially came out as gay in 1998, then lost a six-figure contract as a motivational speaker because he was "too openly gay."

Tewksbury said that eventually, society moved and took "lots of little steps."

Little steps in New Brunswick

On May 5 this year, the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission took a step of its own.

Changes under the Human Rights Act prohibited discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

Marc-Alain Mallet, director, New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, encourages transgender athletes to file complaints when they feel their rights have been violated. (Submitted)

Prior to the changes, the LGBTQ community still had access to protection, under a "sex" section.

"But to keep pace with the rest of the country and to make it clearer in terms of protection and obligation, gender identity and gender expressions were added to the code," said Marc-Alain Mallet, director of the commission.

Transgender athletes who feel discriminated are advised to get in contact with the Human Rights Commission.

"Anyone who feels that their rights have been violated can call the commission," said Mallet. "We take complaints by phone, email, person, fax."

The commission will not make a determination if it's a case of discrimination or not.

"That's the role of the labour and employment board," said Mallet.

But it the commission will determine if there's an arguable case.  

Evolution of sports

Although sports are far behind the times, they're slowly "moving towards mixed events in things like swimming and athletics," Tewksbury said. "In sports, that has never happened before."

He said the integration of everybody into coed teams would ultimately be the goal.

"But people need to be educated before this happens," he said.

That's where athletes like Hahn and Roy come in.

"They force everyone to start a conversation."