July, 2013 / Author:

World of sport slowly opening to non-binary view of gender

Gender is often viewed as a binary in North American culture, with the general belief that everyone is either female or male. The world of sports is no exception. In fact, the separation of male and female athletes is a norm in sports competition. The clothing athletes wear reinforces a gender binary in sports, much as it does in daily life. Throwing a wrench into the mix are queer and transgender athletes at both recreational and professional levels—people who demonstrate that gender isn’t as binary as many would like to think. 

The dividing world of professional sports

A ‘shining’ example of gender binary sports gone wild is the Lingerie Football League, founded in 2009 and now boasting 16 teams across North America. The league features teams of women playing football clad in lingerie, knee pads, shoulder pads, helmets – and nothing else. Playing to sold-out crowds, the league recently decided to attempt to make its athletic image more serious. Renamed Legends Football League, players won’t wear lingerie on the field and the league’s logo will stop depicting “sexy” female figures. The league stands as an extreme example of gender-segregation in sports attire.

In a more professional realm, many were shocked when the Badminton World Federation attempted to enforce a new dress code in 2011, requiring all female players to wear skirts. Claimed as an attempt to popularize the sport and raise TV ratings, the new dress code was shelved a year later amidst backlash.

Yet despite some growing resistance, women in all sports generally wear more revealing outfits than men. 

“One of the most telling examples relates to [Olympic] beach volleyball; the women have to wear bikinis and the men wear tanks and shorts. They’re required,” said Ann Travers, a sociology professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, whose work focuses on sports and gender. Gymnastics, track and field and regular volleyball also require Olympic female athletes to wear skimpier outfits than their male counterparts. 

In her academic work, Travers dissects how sport is male-dominated and how sex-segregated professional and amateur sports play a role in defining the world of sport for everyone. She writes in The Sport Nexus and Gender Injustice that sport, as it is today, “contributes to gender injustice, homophobia and transphobia by promoting the ideology of the two-sex system.”

Trans discrimination

Transgender athletes get stuck in the middle of the system, as trans people do not fit neatly into the binary division of gender. Fallon Fox, the American transgender female Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter who was outed in March, has had to deal with upheaval in her career, facing a sporting body that does not understand the issues of transgender athletes and has no policy in place to deal with it. It’s unclear whether Fox will be able to continue to be licensed to fight in the MMA.

Other sporting bodies have developed policies for transgender competitors in recent years.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has one of the more progressive policies, according to Cyd Ziegler, editor at OutSports. In the NCAA, a transgender woman has to undergo one year of hormone therapy before she can compete against other females. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a transgender policy that requires two years of hormone therapy and genital reconstruction surgery before athletes can compete. Travers thinks the IOC’s policy is unfair. “Most transgender people do not have sex reassignment surgery, at least not genital reconstruction. [At] the International Olympic Committee, the requirement is for genital reconstruction, even though there’s absolutely no basis for it in terms of fairness or anything like that.”

Transgender people have been fighting for access to sports and against discriminatory policies for many years in different leagues and sports. In athletics, their issues are often intertwined with those of intersex people. Their genders are not clear-cut according to a two-gender system since they were born with genitalia or bodies that do not fit into neat male and female categories.

Travers, whose recent work concerns the relationship between sport, inclusion and gender identity, said that swimming and gymnastics are two particular areas where transgender athletes face problems because of the snug-fitting costumes. 

“There are transgender athletes who avoid certain sports because of the clothing; because of what they either want to show or not show. I’ve interviewed some transgender children who love swimming but have given it up. They were competitive swimmers but they gave it up because of that very issue.

That may change in the future, but right now that’s a huge issue.”

LGBT sporting teams and leagues do exist in most major urban centres, but participation of transgender athletes is not typically high.

Wally Mah, who organizes Winnipeg’s Out There Sports running group, said he has never had a transgender runner join the LGBT group. And he said the female and male participants wear sporting attire typical of their genders.

Thomas Novak, co-ordinator of Out There Sports, said he’s had one transgender badminton player join the team. He noted that women are generally allowed more flexibility in clothing styles, whereas for a man to wear a skirt would be more notable. 

Battling the divide, one team at a time

There is one place where all of this is changing. In Vancouver, a new dodgeball league intentionally seeks to foster inclusion for a diversity of genders. Double Rainbow Dodgeball advertises itself as a queer and trans-positive league. It was born when co-founders Kathryn Best and Coree Tull grew tired of playing dodgeball in environments that felt unsafe for them and their friends.

Since September 2012, teams with names like Group Therapy, Spandextrous and Friends of Dorothy have competed in a growing league. Players wear creative costumes, and Best said the space for non-gender binary outfits is wide open. “I don’t even know that that’s a thought or a question,” she said.

Best used to play in a queer women’s floor hockey league, and when some of the members came out as trans, the league organizer decided to institute a no-trans policy. Best and a few friends left the league and agitated to change it. 

When she started Double Rainbow Dodgeball, Best said, “It soon felt a bit more like activism, because it broke down gender norms.” Partner-in-crime Tull said, “Something that I think is really cool about the queerness of our league… [is] I think dodgeball has opened up sport to a group of people who don’t always fall within that gender spectrum to play on a women’s league or a men’s league… It pulls people of all genders together.”


– Larkin Schmiedl is a travelling freelance journalist visiting San Francisco, Calif. He acts as LGBTI contributing editor with rabble.ca, hosted a queer-issues radio show called Gaydio for two years, and loves more than anything to write about social and environmental justice.  

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