Hey there beautiful people.

This past weekend I had a really neat opportunity. I was invited to be a panelist at a conference for student trustees of the Ontario Public School Boards–so, y’know, a bunch of teenagers from high schools all across the province–getting together to discuss LGBTQIA inclusion in schools. Gender neutral washrooms. How to be more affirming in classrooms. Safe space discussions. Awesome stuff.

I was supposed to be one of four panelists, but then there were three cancellations, so it suddenly turned into The Eliot Show (but I mean, I’m awesome, so what’s wrong with that? 😉 ). This generally I think was a good thing though–the other panelists were all representatives of organizations and so a lot of their commentary would have been, I think, rather canned. I didn’t have any particular affiliation or agenda (I mean, other than The Gay Agenda, obviously).  I was able to just speak from my experiences and talk about what I saw as possible ways forward. From feedback at the panel, I would say I was generally well-received (and I wouldn’t be surprised if I get some emails from the local students to maybe do some school visits, which would be great).

By and large, the panel was a really positive experience. Most of the people in attendance were at least queer-friendly, with a few LGBTQIA-identified folks mixed in as well (I rather expect that, unfortunately, any really conservative schools would have kept their student delegates from such a conference anyway). And before I get into the bulk of this post, I want to stress that–most of the attendees were awesome. They had insightful questions, interesting commentary, and the necessary knowledge on how to go back and implement some of the changes we talked about. One of the school boards had already implemented gender neutral washrooms. Another had “equity lenses” and a committee that reviewed all policies to make sure they were as inclusive and accepting as possible. Even from where my high school was when I graduated (and let’s be clear, my high school is probably one of the most progressive in the province), I was amazed at how some of these places are doing.

But there was one incident at the panel that I do want to talk about, because I think it highlights a really important issue and I want to dissect it a little more than I was able to last weekend, now that I’ve done some research.

We were actually quite a bit of the way through the panel before this issue came up. I think we had been talking about the issue of policy and gender neutral washrooms (because these were all student reps on school boards, Policy is a big deal for them). This lead to a different kind of policy question, one that would take up nearly the rest of the panel, despite my best efforts to get away from it. There were two young men sitting at the back of the room and we’d reached a lapse in formal “panel” questions where I was taking thoughts from people on the floor. I took a question from one of the two, something to the effect of:

“What about trans kids playing sports?”

To which I responded something like:

“…. what about them?”

“What about, like, y’know, if a trans woman — am I saying that right? Like, someone who is biologically male and wants to play on a women’s team?”

Red flags are going off in my head, but these are high school kids, and they mean well, and they’re at a conference about specifically how not to be this kind of person, so I count to ten before replying.

(If it isn’t apparent to you why this phrase is problematic, here’s a mulligan for you:

Trans women are women, and their biology is not male, because they are not male.)

[ Eddie Izzard sitting at a talk-show panel. Interviewer: Famously, you've dressed up in women's dresses -- . Izzard: No, I wear dresses. They're not

This argument also applies to fashion. Thank you, Eddie Izzard.

“Ooookay. Well, look, I’m not really a big ‘sports’ person but to me the answer is fairly obvious, which is that trans women are women and should be allowed to play on women’s sporting teams.”

“No, but like, you know, if they have bigger muscle mass or broader shoulders or–” –here he falters, probably because I am unable to completely control the sneer that is forming on my face– “–Just, like, what would you say should be the policy on this sort of thing?”

And admittedly, I am not a super “policy-minded” individual, so I responded with,

“Well… I mean, why do you even need a policy, how likely is this to actually happen–“

but I could see that wasn’t satisfactory, so I tried again:

“I…. if you really need me to say something about it, the best I have is that I would deal with it on a case by case basis. We don’t really know how much hormones affects people’s body types at a grand scale, and there are so many variables, like if you hit puberty at all before you go on hormone blockers, how long you take hormones, what sport you’re playing, whatever…”

I admit, I was unprepared for this question, and that was what came out of my mouth in the moment. But the kids weren’t done. Another young man at the back waved his hand, nodding to his comrade in the ~Sports Protection Committee~, and took up the same tack, asking me if it wouldn’t be better if sports were divided by sex. (Another mulligan: no, no that would not be better.)

But I’ve had some time to really look into it, so let’s have some real-talk about this: what’s the deal with trans people (read: trans women) in sports?

Who’s Really Offside? “Fairness” and Sports by the Numbers

The immediate response to the idea of trans women in sports (and let’s be honest, because what people are really imagining here is some caricature of a hulking football player in a tennis skirt, which is insulting to literally everyone and also is accurate to literally no one) is simple: it’s not fair!

But let’s break that down a little. To whom is this situation unfair? In what way?

For the guys at the back of the room in my panel, it’s not fair to the women on high school sports teams. Issues that were brought up in the protracted discussion on this issue included men being taller, having broader shoulders, higher muscle mass. Being stronger, being bigger, being statistically faster. This is why men don’t play against women (they argue)!

And like I said before, this is not actually a problem, because there are no men playing on women’s team in this scenario. There are only women playing on a women’s team.

But because not everyone is going to buy into that, let’s look at some of the science:

Variability in Cisgender Athletes

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Beautiful art by Sarah and Catherine Satrun; you can get a print of this in their Etsy!

Everybody wants to talk about how trans women have an “unfair” advantage but everyone completely passes over that the type of athletic build for different sports is incredibly variable and cis athletes come in all shapes and sizes too.  What, average athletes don’t suit your style? Here’s an article of 15 of the most famous female Olympic athletes, which range from (for example) Lisa Leslie, the four-time Olympic gold basketball player who is 6’5″ and weighs 170 pounds, to Nadia Comăneci, who is 5’4″ (weight unlisted) and was the first woman to get a perfect score in Olympic gymnastics.

Since I have literally no background in sports (anyone who has met me can attest to my clumsiness), I talked to some people who actually do sports and, one better, have studied it in great detail. One of my best friends is Rebecca Alley, who has a B. Sc in Human Kinetics and 10 years of experience in coaching. She is currently studying occupational therapy, was formerly the national team coach for Quidditch Canada, and is a current volunteer for the International Quidditch Association, as well as a Coach Development Team volunteer for Quidditch Canada. She’s also certified to coach flat water paddling.

And while we’re at it–she’s shorter than I am, could probably bench press my weight, and she’s no stranger to diversity in sports, and the conflicts that can come with that. When Bex was about to graduate highschool, she went to her school boathouse in tears because she couldn’t find a grad dress that fit her properly–her back muscles were so developed that she couldn’t get into the dresses her classmates were wearing. One of the coaches at the boathouse then told her, and Bex told me, this anecdote which perfectly lays out cis female diversity in sporting:

The rowing coach where I used to train had a great story about [this] … He coached the junior national team, and one of his girls showed up to practice one day in tears and he asked what was wrong – she had failed gym class, because the gym teacher was an ex-gymnast and had them doing activities accordingly. This girl went on several years later to win a medal in rowing at the Olympics.

Bex went on to tell me about how variability in sports is really common–so common that you train to accommodate it.

“So, a sport like soccer – if you’re a faster runner or bigger to box out another player, that’s useful, but a smaller, smarter player can easily outmaneuver them or cut in at the right point, and if that smaller player has better footwork they’ll beat out a bigger, faster player a lot of the time.”

And aside from this body diversity in sport being incredibly common–I would go so far as to say it’s in the very nature of sports itself. Sports are competitive physical challenges designed to play to certain physical attributes–not everyone who tries out for a sports team makes it, and that’s because people are naturally different and, by talent and hard work and whatever else goes into sports, there will always be players that are better than others.

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This is normally used to talk about disparity between math and reading skills, but if you’re like me you’ve definitely been in gym class and felt like that fish trying to climb a tree.

The Role of Hormones in Sports

Here’s the thing about hormone therapy. Even the best science we have doesn’t know a whole lot about it, because institutional and societal prejudice has made access to hormones a tricky thing, and, as you’re probably not surprised to hear, human genetics are complicated. But here’s the general gist of it:

For Feminizing Endocrine Therapy:

  • Decreased muscle mass/strength starts at 3–6 months for trans women, is done in 1–2 years.
  • Typically, within the first 1-6 months there is gradual redistribution of body fat to more closely approximate a female body habitus, decreased muscle mass and decreased upper body strength, softening of skin, decreased libido and possible difficulty reaching orgasm, reduction of ejaculate, and decreased spontaneous/morning erections. (Endocrine Therapy for Transgender Adults in British Columbia, Suggested Guidelines)
  • The degree and rate of physical effects depends in part on the dose, route of administration, and medications used, which are selected in accordance with a patient’s specific medical goals (e.g., changes in gender-role expression, plans for sex reassignment) and medical risk profile. There is no current evidence that response to hormone therapy… can be reliably predicted based on age, body habitus, ethnicity, or family appearance. (World Professional Association for Transgender Health [WPATH] Standards of Care, emphasis mine)

For masculizing therapy, things are similarly unclear, but we do know the process takes longer — up to three to five years.

It’s also important to point out that a lot of people who are high-school aged would actually be on hormone blockers and not estrogen or testosterone. Depending on when youth encounter this treatment, hormone blockers would in theory stop puberty (and the associated changes we all think of–increase in testosterone for cisgender men, and increase in estrogen for cisgender women–from happening in the first place. (Testimony to a Committee on Puberty Blocking and Hormone Therapy Needs of Adolescents).

Bex also explained to me that, within a high school context, the argument that (male) testosterone makes people inherently better at sports is completely untrue. It may hold water at high-performance level testing, where a fraction of a second is the difference between placing and going home empty-handed, but for junior and senior sporting…

“Testosterone increases the body’s capacity to build muscle tissue. If you don’t train the body, though, that testosterone won’t do much. A person with less testosterone who is highly trained will be infinitely more useful in any strength or endurance contest than an untrained person with higher testosterone. And all training’s not equal, either : somebody who runs two hours every day probably has better cardiovascular fitness than somebody who lifts weights two hours every day. But the lifter would have far larger capacity to lift heavy things.”

She then concluded, “Unless you’re competing internationally or professionally, people should care far more about the amount and type of training and far less about the amount and type of hormones that somebody’s genitals happen to produce.”

The tl;dr here is that whatever you think you anecdotally know about what a trans woman looks like or can run like or can lift like, you’re wrong, and it would be awfully difficult to prove in a reasonably sized study that trans women are any more variant than cis women.

About Scholarships

Something else that came up several times from the floor in this discussion was the issue of sports scholarships. No one said it out loud, but I got the sense that some of the people in the room were feeling tense because they felt they could end up with a raw deal because some trans athlete was going to waltz in and steal an athletic scholarship out from under them.

But here’s the thing about professional sports, and the scholarships associated with them: you’re more likely to get struck by lighting, and being struck by lightning might actually be more profitable to you than an academic scholarship.

Much has been made of the fact that sports scholarships in Canada are capped at 70% of the athlete’s tuition costs (and most scholarships are much less than that). In contrast to America, where sports scholarships commonly result in a “full ride” to an American college, the Canadian average of a $1,060 sports scholarship seems like nickels (y’know, ’cause we got rid of the penny). And as a current Canadian university student, I can tell you that $1,000 will cover one course and its textbook, if you’re lucky. I certainly wouldn’t say no to a free thousand dollars for school, but let’s not pretend it’s the difference between you attending and not-attending, because regardless of where you attend school in Canada, it will not make a significant difference.

As for professional sports…. well. For Canada’s national pastime, your odds aren’t great. 0.02% of hockey-playing boys in Ontario will make a ‘career’ out of hockey. And your Olympic ambitions are even less likely to pan out.

And that’s if you’re male. Women’s sports are smaller, tend to pay worse, and the competition is proportionally higher (despite the fact that, socially, they get a lot less cred than men’s sports).

Now who’s being unfair? And while we’re on the subject….

Social Fairness and Being Trans

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Art by Mikhaela Reid.

For folks who have seen me speak before or follow my blog, a lot of this will be review. So let’s keep it short and sweet (or short and…. really unpleasantly bitter, as the case may be).

  • 74% of trans students, 55% of sexual minority students, and 26% of non-LGBTQ students reported having been verbally harassed about their gender expression.
  • More than one in five (21%) LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted due to their sexual orientation. 20% of LGBTQ students and almost 10% of non-LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted about their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • 37% of trans students, 21% of sexual minority students, and 10% of non-LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted because of their gender expression.
  • The two school spaces most commonly experienced as unsafe by LGBTQ youth and youth with LGBTQ parents are places that are almost invariably gender-segregated: Phys. Ed. change rooms and washrooms. Almost half (49%) of LGBTQ youth and more than two fifths (42%) of youth with LGBTQ parents identified their Phys. Ed. change rooms as being unsafe… More than two-fifths (43%) of LGBTQ students and almost two-fifths (41%) of youth with LGBTQ parents identified their school washrooms as being unsafe.
  • Female sexual minority students were most likely to report feeling unsafe in their school change rooms (59%). High numbers (52%) of trans youth reported feeling unsafe in both change rooms and washrooms. It is notable that these places where female sexual minority and trans students often feel unsafe are gender-segregated areas. Not only does this contradict assumptions that most homophobic and transphobic incidents take place in males-only spaces, but it also points to a correlation between the policing of gender and youth not feeling safe.
  • In 2010, 47% of trans youth had thought about suicide and 19% had attempted it within the preceding year.
  • Adolescent youth who have been rejected by their families for being LGB are over 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.

(Sources: MyGSA and Egale Canada)

Another of my close friends, Maëlys, had this to say about her experience as a trans woman who uses public gyms (not high school, but you can imagine it being even worse without the adult autonomy, right?):
So going in, I was scared shitless. I went in with all the words through my head about how trans women shouldn’t be in change rooms, how we were the same as sexual predators. I was afraid of other people. I was earlier in my transition too, before I was comfortable using multi-stall washrooms. The saving grace was two things: 1. the gym I went to had private change stalls, and 2. the staff knew and supported me using whichever change room.
I only had a few minor incidents: After I went to try leggings at Old Navy for the gym, the staff person followed me around to eye me down and give me a look of disgust. At the gym, one lady gave me an evil eye as I walked into the change room. Another, as I left, did a double take… Made sure in a over-dramatic way that it was the women’s. Still, I avoid [speaking] in change rooms. I’m afraid someone will talk to me, because I can’t ignore them, but if they hear my voice, then people might turn on me. Or so the fear goes.
That said, my experiences are overall really positive. My trainers have been great, the desk staff have been great, and have gone out of their way to make me feel like I belonged.
[But] I still change in private stalls. I’m afraid that people will see the bump from my oversized clit through my underwear as I change and react. I still fear talking to people.

With those statistics and that story weighing on you, I have just one question left on this issue: what is our ultimate goal with high school sports?

“It Doesn’t Matter Whether You Win or Lose….”: Why Sports Matter

Since I have approximately the coordination of a bundle of sticks, I’ll defer to my friend Bex, the coach/person doing her masters in occupational therapy. She had this to say:

The main thing is that high school sport is fantastic for life skill and social skill development.

I don’t see anything in that statement about scholarships or professional sportsing or the eternal glory of your grade 11 high jump record. In fact, Bex’s comments line up pretty closely with that adage that I’m fairly confident everyone has been told, no matter how much experience they have with organized sporting: it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose: it’s how you play the game.

So to sum up what I’ve been saying all along–the issue of trans people in high school sports is not an issue of “fairness” for the other players. It’s an issue of opportunity, and opportunity for people who are routinely and societally marginalized, to fit in. To be part of something larger than themselves. For the privileged to rub elbows with the lesser-off and for both of those groups to learn how to be a team.

What I ended up saying at that panel, when pressed to respond five or six times to the same statement, wasn’t so eloquent as what I’ve typed here. I know at one point I became frustrated and finally said, “ultimately what it comes down to is that you’re being transphobic and placing your desire to win over these kid’s desire to be part of something when they aren’t part of anything else.” But I hope to end it here a little more optimistically.

We have an opportunity here. An opportunity not unlike the one that crops up in every sports movie I’ve ever seen. We have a marginalized, underdog group of people who want to be part of something. And though most high school athletes, statistically, aren’t going anywhere, their legacy can be something that, I would dare to say, is more important than that. We have an opportunity here to lift up the downtrodden and help them be accepted. Because the numbers on the scoreboard will fade from your memories–but that feeling of being part of a team will not fade from theirs. For some, it may even be the difference between a high school life, and a high school suicide.

I encourage you to think about that the next time someone begins fear-mongering about transgender athletes.

A few small footnotes:

  • This blog post got REALLY long, so there are a couple of things I didn’t get to address in as much detail as they really warrant. I am sorry.
  • Sexism in sports is a really big deal, and a lot of people who are a lot more informed than I am have a lot to say about it. This article has some stats and a good opening discussion on the issue.
  • Related to that, a lot of the fear-mongering around trans people is sports is really only about trans women in sports. This is tied up in a broader culture of transmisogyny, or women-hatred specific to trans women. Julia Serano has an excellent book on this topic called Whipping Girl, and also has a brief primer to the issue of transmisogyny more generally here.
  • I didn’t want to conflate these two issues (and couldn’t find any reliable sources), but intersex athletes also face a whole host of challenges and other issues, none of which have been addressed by any reasonable policy in sporting at any level. Here is a list of some of the most famous intersex athletes in the world–note how many of them were stripped of their athletic recognition because of, well, prejudice.

aaaaand finally

If this post taught you something or made you think, please consider donating to the author or commissioning me to make you a rad accessory! I am a currently unemployed queer kid with serious mental health problems and lots of school debt, and these posts do take a lot of time and effort, so I really appreciate any kickbacks. Likes and shares also help other people learn and grow!