SocietyMarch 22, 2023

Giving trans kids a sporting chance


Sports can be hugely beneficial for children but there are still many barriers for trans kids wanting to play, writes researcher Julia de Bres.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about trans athletes in high performance sport, much of which derives from a broader anti-trans project rather than a desire to improve gender equality in sport.  

Often left out are the experiences of trans people in sport at other levels.

Sport New Zealand recently released guiding principles for the inclusion of transgender people in community sport. Trans young people in Aotearoa experience considerable health and wellbeing disparities, as a result of stigma, discrimination and violence.  They face challenges within their own families, at school, in medical settings and in their wider communities.  

Engagement in sport has positive effects for psychological and physical wellbeing, academic performance, and sense of belonging, and can be a source of passion – a strong protective factor for mental health.

Sport has the potential to be a force for good in trans young people’s lives. But what is their actual experience?

The recent identify survey of rainbow young people in Aotearoa found that only a minority are involved in sport.  For many trans kids, this is for reasons other than gender, such as physical disability or neurodivergence, or simply not wanting to be involved.  

Others initially enjoyed sport but experienced gender barriers that caused them to withdraw.  Reasons given by parents include lack of privacy (not allowing kids to choose whether to be open about being trans), gendered teams (either not being allowed to be in the team for their gender or being non-binary and having to choose between binary teams), gendered uniforms and gendered changing environments.

“My son switched football clubs when moving from a girls team to a boys team. As we progressed through the year, it was harder and and harder to get him to practice and games. Partly due to some times when they were playing shirts vs skins, or when they had to switch from home to away shirts if there was a mix up. He managed to avoid most PE (especially swimming) at school last year.”

The identify survey found low accessibility of sports and physical education for trans and non-binary students, with only a minority of schools providing gender-neutral changing areas (12%), allowing trans and non-binary students to play on a social sports team that matched their gender (34%) and not requiring students to be on blockers or hormones to play competitive sport (28%).  

The point is that many trans kids would play sport if the conditions were made safe and inclusive for them.  It is not the kids’ gender that is the issue, but policies that do not accommodate kids of diverse genders.  

While such experiences can lead to trans kids dropping out of sport entirely, some are in sports and loving it.  Parents speak of sport providing a vital source of joy, contributing to their resilience in facing other challenges.  

Inclusive policies that help trans kids stay in sports include lack of gender separation, recognition of non-binary genders, and privacy measures, supported by strong leadership from principals, PE teachers and coaches, and supportive team members.  Simple things like using a child’s correct name can contribute to them feeling part of the team.

“My son was playing football and was captain of the children’s football team for the last two years. Until the beginning of this year the kids were always calling him his old name and then halfway through it was: ‘Theo!  Theo!  Theo!’ Going to the last few games and seeing the kids all interacting with him as Theo was just fantastic!”

Like all kids, trans kids need to be able to aim high, have sources of inspiration and role models, and see a future for themselves in sport. Some kids are having positive experiences in school and community sport, but their parents are worried about what comes next:

“We have quite a few experiences already: dance, swimming, netball, touch rugby, athletics, skateboarding, gymnastics, waka ama. As my daughter is 10 and very into sport I’m really keen to know what lies ahead – will she be able to play sports at a higher level if she chooses to have that as a goal?”

Parents have reason to be concerned.  

I spoke to a parent whose daughter is an international athlete. Sport is her daughter’s happy place. It feeds her soul and is her drive, keeping her satisfied, well and healthy. She had good experiences in sport in her earlier years and it was only when she got into high performance sport that things got “very, very difficult”.  

In this athlete’s experience, the idea that effort equals outcome does not apply. She reached the top level of her game and saw non-trans teammates performing at a lower level being offered contracts she was not. Despite talk of a level playing field, she feels she starts with a handicap “below ground zero” and has to perform significantly better than anybody else to get to the same place. She hears it said that trans people should be content with just doing sport for fun, but for athletes like her competing is completely enmeshed with pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. Whenever she places on the podium she is brutally attacked by fellow athletes, coaches, and the public, in the form of online bullying at the level of “extreme hate”. Her mother said:

“Some kids have an inner drive to absolutely excel – for those kids it is going to be an incredibly sad and demoralising experience.”

While Sport New Zealand’s guidelines for including trans people in community sport specify that they do not cover elite sport, these levels cannot be separated for trans kids and their families.  

Recent coverage of a surfer protesting the inclusion of trans women in surfing led to one parent’s sporty teen feeling despair about ever being accepted in sports:

“100% my daughter being told or seeing in social media that she is not wanted or accepted in elite sport is affecting her within community level sport. She has spoken about wanting to be good enough to represent her country. After [this news story] where she felt she will never be accepted, she’s not sure she will continue at community level. To say she is disheartened is putting it mildly.  To limit her future contributes to feelings of hopelessness…  It is heart-breaking for her.”

Parents are torn between encouraging their child’s dreams and managing their expectations. Some find themselves hoping their child isn’t good enough to play at high levels, so their dreams aren’t dashed due to being trans but by reaching their natural ceiling in the game.

There are many issues to be addressed to better include trans young people in sport and no one is saying there are easy fixes. But the human impact is massive and policy development must be approached in a way that centres the lived experiences of trans people, including trans kids. 

I asked parents what advice they would give to sports organisations to better include their kids and they said: talk to trans kids and their families, avoid disinformation about trans people in sport, undertake research to base policy decisions on scientific evidence rather than preconceived ideas, and prioritise fair and realistic guidelines that take individuals into account over blanket homogenising policies.

If we want trans kids to experience all that sport has to offer, let’s give them a sporting chance.

Keep going!