Non-binary athletes navigating Canadian sport with little policy help

The Canadian Centre For Ethics in Sport published policy and practice guidelines to create inclusive environments for trans people, yet states those guidelines don't address non-binary people.

Some sports organizations feature transgender guidelines, but leave grey area

Ottawa's Kat Ferguson, right, is shown playing for Team Trans in Boston in a 2019 handout photo. The 41-year-old non-binary person is one of many individuals playing sports at a time with minimal policy to accommodate self-identification. (Chris Harrington/HO - The Canadian Press)

Playing men's and women's hockey can feel like a minefield for Kat Ferguson.

The 41-year-old from Ottawa is a non-binary person who doesn't identify exclusively as male or female.

Ferguson prefers gender-neutral pronouns "them" and "they" in reference to self, instead of "he" and "she." Teammates on their women's hockey team try to remember that.

"Most of these women have known me since I was a kid," Ferguson told The Canadian Press. "I get called 'she' a lot at hockey, but the girls are pretty good to correct themselves now."

Ferguson doesn't press pronouns on male teammates.

"Typically, men's hockey locker rooms aren't the most friendly to other identities and sexualities and all that stuff," they said.

"I still feel like I want to say 'listen, I know you guys have been calling me "he," but that's not my identity.' It's just a pickup beer league group, but it's not nice to feel you have to keep secrets or be nervous."

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Sara Petrucci grew up playing soccer with both males and females in Bolton, Ont.

Petrucci's five years goalkeeping for the University of Toronto women's soccer team started a journey towards identifying as non-binary.

"I felt largely when I was playing for the varsity team that I had to conform to a certain identity of what it meant to be a female athlete," the 27-year-old said. "I always felt very uncomfortable with that. I didn't feel confident in myself and it showed in my playing abilities.

"I never strongly felt like a man or woman growing up. I didn't really have the space to express that until I really figured myself out."

'I hide as I walk into the arena'

Ferguson, who grew up as a girl, braces for judgement from people even in women's hockey where they find more acceptance.

"Playing in the women's leagues now and presenting as male, even though I'm very accepted in the league on my team, I'm always nervous walking into the arena, that somebody in the arena or watching their kid practise is going to say 'hey, who is that guy and why is he going into a women's change room?"' Ferguson said.

"When I walk into the arena when I have a women's game, I put my hoodie over head. I hide as I walk into the arena.

"I'm scared that somebody is going to make a stink about 'why is this person there?' Then I'm going have to spew a whole bunch of human rights stuff at them."

Bill C-16, passed in 2017, added gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act, joining sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, age and disability among others.

Jesse Thompson, a transgender hockey player from Oshawa, Ont., got the ball rolling on sport policy change for trans athletes by filing a complaint with Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal in 2013. Education on transgender athletes is now mandatory for all of Ontario's minor hockey coaches, trainers and managers.

Lack of support through policy

Some sports organizations now have transgender policies that don't necessarily incorporate non-binary athletes.

The Canadian Centre For Ethics in Sport published policy and practice guidelines to create inclusive environments for trans people, yet states those guidelines don't address non-binary people.

The CCES started work in that area by inviting Canadian sport organizations to participate in a survey about non-binary inclusion.

"Sport organized itself around this binary understanding of gender," CCES president and CEO Paul Melia said.

"Inclusion is not about making room in your existing system for marginalized people. Inclusion is about creating a new system where everyone feels safe and welcome.

"It's about re-thinking sport, how we're organized, how we deliver it and thinking about how it can be done in a way that does create safe and welcoming spaces for trans persons and now non-binary persons."

A dozen national sport organizations, eight provincial sport organizations and a pair of community sport groups have expressed interest in the survey, Melia said.

"When I think of non-binary, gender-fluid and gender non-conforming folks, if we're having a policy and we're trying to work in a binary, but our identities don't fit into a binary, then where do we fall in this grey space?" Petrucci asked.

Embracing gender diversity

Melia hopes Canadian sport organizations want to embrace gender diversity.

"The truth of the matter is, if we end up inadvertently or otherwise discriminating on the basis of gender, it'll end up before a human rights tribunal no doubt," he said.

Emotions become heated around gender and fairness when financial stakes and rewards rise. Women's sport is becoming a gender battleground.

"It's based on a fear or a concern that a male is going to impersonate a female in sport competition," Melia said. "As I understand it from sport historians, there's never been a single incident of a male impersonating a female to try to win a sport competition."

South African runner Caster Semenya and female athletes like her with high natural testosterone are barred from racing certain distances internationally unless they undergo hormone treatment six months prior to racing.

Idaho became the first U.S. state in March to bar transgender females from participating in girl's or women's sport. The legislation is undergoing a challenge in U.S. federal court.

Arizona has since introduced similar legislation.

"Folks who argue that people are going to impersonate another person's gender, especially a male person wanting to play on a female team, I really don't think that's going to happen," Petrucci said.

Ferguson says there are non-binary people who don't know where to go or what to do to get involved in sport.

"Let's just get people playing sports," they said. "Most of us just want to blend in and exist and not have to worry about anything.

"I just want to play with my friends."

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