The participation of transgender youth in sports — particularly trans girls — is a hot-button topic in the United States, where legislation has passed in at least 20 states banning trans girls and women from competing against and with cisgender women.
North of the border, Alberta’s United Conservative Party MLA Brian Jean told supporters last year he would back a ban on trans and non-binary youth participation on teams that didn’t match their “biological” gender.
And last spring, Conservative Party of BC Leader John Rustad said it was a “dangerous and unfair situation” for trans girls to compete against or on teams with cisgender girls. His statement was made in response to news that a nine-year-old cisgender girl had been harassed at a Kelowna school sports day by an adult who believed she was transgender.
Yet Canada has not seen any research into young athletes who are non-binary, an umbrella term for those who don’t fit within binary man or woman categories, including but not limited to agender, third gender and genderqueer people. Until now.
The "2023 Canadian Non-binary Youth in Sport Report" uses data from responses to sports-related questions in the online UnACoRN (Understanding Affirming Communities, Relationships and Networks) survey of nearly 4,500 young people aged 15 to 29 across Canada, over half of whom identified as non-binary.
The survey found just 11 per cent of non-binary youth currently participate in organized sports. Of those who didn’t, 66 per cent avoided organized sports because of binary gendered teams, 80 per cent because of the open-concept layout of locker and change rooms, and 50 per cent because of treatment from coaches and other players.
Report authors Martha Gumprich, who recently earned a master of science in health science from Simon Fraser University with a thesis on non-binary participation in sport, and Nicola Hare, program co-ordinator of the Trans Connect community program in the Kootenays, also convened group sessions in Castlegar, in Nelson and online with 20 queer, non-binary and transgender youth aged 14 to 26.
In the sessions, young people talked about their personal experiences in sport but also solutions for ending overt and covert discrimination against non-binary athletes. Suggested solutions included having gender-neutral, single-stall change rooms; arranging teams by competitiveness rather than gender; coed teams; allowing non-binary youth to pick the gendered team they play with; discipline for harassing non-binary athletes; and better education on gender and sex diversity.
“If we act now and put in place proactive and protective policies, these youth may join and stay in sport, which we know leads to many mental and physical health benefits,” Gumprich said.
“This is especially important to this population, as it is well known that LGBTQ2S+ people have worse mental health outcomes compared to those who are heterosexual or cisgender.”
The Tyee interviewed Gumprich about the report’s findings, which solutions non-binary youth prefer and why young athletes of all genders benefit from a safe environment for non-binary athletes. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: What sparked your interest in non-binary youth participation in sports?
Martha Gumprich: While we're starting to see more visibility of non-binary people in Canada, we know that non-binary youth are uncertain about how welcome and safe they are in gendered spaces, like team sports. And there's been some previous research on transgender participation in sports. But no research on participation rates and experiences of non-binary youth in organized team sports in Canada.
In order to make sport a safer space for all participants, we have to first listen to those both participating in and avoiding sports to see where changes need to be made.
The report relies on something called the UnACoRN survey. Could you describe what that survey is?
That was how we gathered all of our data. It was an online survey for anyone and everyone across Canada, ages 15 to 29. It included many modules, and within it were the questions that I created regarding sport. This is how we got all the data that we show in the report.
How did participants find that survey?
We did a multitude of different recruitment methods. We had multiple researchers with questions in the survey and they helped promote it. We also had community organizations promoting it. And we did paid advertising through Meta.
Were you involved in the survey as well?
Yes, I was a research assistant on the project and that was how I got all my data for my thesis.
Why focus on non-binary youth versus all the youth who might be considered trans?
While trans and non-binary youth face some of the same barriers in sport, those who do not identify with a binary gender will have unique needs in comparison with those who do identify as a man or boy or a woman or girl. And these needs to our knowledge have not been studied nor addressed in sport in Canada and it needed attention. The suggestions that I report will benefit everyone in sport, not just non-binary youth.
Can you expand on how they would benefit everyone?
An example would be making gender-neutral changing areas with single stalls. A lot of youth in our sessions, even ones who do identify with a binary gender, aren't always comfortable changing in front of other people. This is the case for people of all ages and all genders and all bodies. So implementing gender-neutral single-stall changing areas would help make a lot of people feel more comfortable in sport.
How did you find young people to connect with in group sessions online and in person?
I wanted to find a community partner who had direct connections to youth that would be impacted by the results of my study. And I wanted to get the results back into the community as soon as possible and partner the results with solutions, so action can be taken immediately. So I partnered with Trans Connect, and we used their connections to sessions they already run and connections to other groups that they know of in the Kootenay region.
Am I correct that it wasn't just youth who fall under the non-binary umbrella that you connected with?
Correct. But I believe almost everyone who attended was not cisgender.
What did you hear from young people in the group sessions about their own participation in youth sports?
Basically all of the sentiments that we found in the data, representing a lot of exclusion and discrimination in sport. These youth had experienced what the data shows. And all the solutions in our report are ones that they identified are the most pressing and we feel are also the most implementable in sport.
Did they have any preference for the solutions? Like were there some they preferred over others?
I wouldn't say a preference. All of the solutions posed — well, nearly all of them — are things that the youth want to see change in sport but are not currently happening. I wouldn't say there's a preference for one over the other. Almost nothing is being done. So all of these need to be implemented.
What I mean by preference is, if you break the teams down by competitiveness, gender wouldn't determine which team you'd be on. Versus dividing teams into male and female, but giving non-binary students the option to choose their team. Those are very different solutions. Did participants say, ‘What I'd really like to see is this solution, but if that's not possible, then I'll go with this one’?
It was more what they thought would be realistic in every situation. I don't think major sports organizations are all going to change it to have different teams by competitiveness. I think that's more applicable to schools. So [physical education] classes could start implementing that, that'd be great. And if that is not going to happen, having youth being able to choose the gendered team they want to participate on if organizations are choosing to still divide teams by gender and not have coed teams, that would be the next best thing.
Who should read this report?
Anyone and everyone. Our report includes a lot of education about why this issue is important and who stands to benefit. Everyone in sport can benefit. And with the amount of misinformation and disinformation about trans and non-binary inclusion in sport, even those who are not involved in policy-making in sport can still have a big, either positive or negative impact on youth experience in sport.
The more educated someone is, I think the more inclusive they will be. So they read our report just to see what youth are going through and experiencing. And I hope this will increase people's senses of empathy to others, and hopefully an understanding of others as well.
What are you hoping this report is going to achieve?
I hope sport becomes safer. People who are in a position to make change in a sport, whether it be a teammate, a coach, a policymaker, a principal or a [physical education] teacher, I hope they take our report seriously, as our data shows that youth are having a pretty hard time in sport and are experiencing abuse and exclusion, which is unacceptable. They need to follow our suggestions and make the changes that youth want to see.
What's next for you?
I want to move into influencing policy in sport and consulting and guiding sports organizations who are ready and willing to make these changes. And for those that feel that they don't know enough, I could come in and consult for them and help educate them on these issues and guide them in their best practices for making all sports safer and more inclusive for all genders.