Transgender athletes still face barriers to inclusion, U of M researcher says

The world of professional athletics is more diverse than it's ever been, and yet a "chilly climate" is still the norm in many sports administrations when it comes to the inclusion of transgender athletes, a University of Manitoba researcher says.

'It's a huge issue of diversity, inclusion and balancing people's attempts to be fair,' says Sarah Teetzel

Researchers from the University of Manitoba and St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia are currently interviewing athletes, transgender and otherwise, to gain insight into how to make the sports world more inclusive.

The world of professional athletics is more diverse than it's ever been, and yet a "chilly climate" is still the norm in many sports administrations when it comes to the inclusion of transgender athletes, a University of Manitoba researcher says.

"It's a huge issue of diversity, inclusion and balancing people's attempts to be fair and inclusive with concerns about performance advantages in sport," U of M researcher Sarah Teetzel said.

Teetzel and other researchers with the U of M and St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia are currently interviewing transgender athletes to figure out what kind of barriers exist in sport of all levels.

Sarah Teetzel is a professor in the University of Manitoba's faculty of kinesiology and recreation management. (University of Manitoba)

Paul Melia, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, said there has been an increase recently in sports teams approaching the organization for guidance on how to accommodate transgender athletes.

"We have to find ways to create a safe environment for trans individuals," Melia said.

Canadians seem to be coming closer to understanding important distinctions that underpin conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation, Melia said. But there is still a lot of confusion within the sports world.

"The main [challenge] was the binary understanding of gender, male or female, that sport is organized around," he said.

"Sport is classified as male and female … so an individual who may be physically presenting as one [sex] in terms of their anatomy but may identify as another gender, they were in a situation where they didn't know where they belonged in sport."

Melia said it's important for everyone involved in sport to recognize gender exists on a continuum, despite the binary categorization traditionally found in athletics.

One concern currently in discussion in the elite track and field world comes down to a perception that, for example, a transgender woman may have a competitive advantage over other women they would compete against.

"It's an issue that forces us to look at, how do we ensure a level playing field for athletes while at the same time respect their right to participate in sport with the gender they identify with?" Melia said.

"You can't necessarily turn sport upside down and say 'no gender classification,' because there are a lot of positive benefits actually to gender classification. We don't want to undo those but we do want the trans individual to be able to participate in sport in the gender they identify with without subjecting them to any unnecessary intrusions into their private lives or personal medical information."

Questions without easy answers

Teetzel has been researching ethics in sport for a decade, "combining kinesiology and philosophy to address the hard issues in sport that don't have easy answers," she said.

Very little sports policy that exists today was developed with first-hand accounts from high-performance transgender athletes, which is what Teetzel is currently researching.

We were trying to get out ahead of it, be proactive, be modern and in tune with change and just focus on equality.- Chad Falk, Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association

While her work is still in its early stages, Teetzel said one of the initial themes to emerge is that some parents of young athletes have a hard time understanding the concept of multiple gender identities.

"[There's] a lot of assumptions about unfair advantages that the scientific literature really doesn't establish or confirm," Teetzel said.

Some teams and athletes competing in Canada at the highest level fall under the International Olympic Committee's gender guidelines, which were revised in late 2016 to make them more inclusive.

But those rules don't have much bearing on the majority of athletes.

"Those apply only for Olympic participation but don't have much relevance at all, even at the national, provincial and especially at recreational sport level in Canada," Teetzel said, adding Manitoba is ahead of the curve thanks to the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association.

'In tune with change'

The Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association adopted its own policy on inclusivity and transgender athletes in February 2015.

"We were trying to get out ahead of it, be proactive, be modern and in tune with change and just focus on equality," said Chad Falk, executive director of the MHSAA.

The association's policy simply states, "Any transgender student athlete may participate fully and safely in sex-separated sports activities in accordance with his or her gender identity."

"All of those messages resonated with our board and our staff," Falk said.

One notable omission in the current policy is the lack of language reflecting gender non-binary or non-conforming student athletes. Falk said the association is open to revising its policy to include gender-neutral accommodations if students and parents feel that's what they want.

Teetzel said she plans to pass research results and recommendations on to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport in the future, in hopes of influencing policy to make transgender athletes feel safer in sports.

With files from Radio-Canada's Camille Gris Roy