Communication and inclusivity in sport: Reflections on heteronormativity and gender identities
Updated: Apr 30
To begin with, in the past 20-25 years the context of sport has become a far more inclusive and welcoming environment. And this blog does not aim to detract from that, and so by virtue, I am taking the time now to highlight that excellent progress has already been made. Those who work in the realm of sport are now considerably better informed regarding how to implement appropriate safeguarding, provide inclusive activities, and demonstrate non-discriminatory behaviour, to name a few examples. And these milestones are certainly worth celebrating.
However, said progress has taken a long time, and that progress merely shows how far sport is yet to come. While human rights legislation and ethics guidelines have been developed and improved (to some degree, at least in the UK), the extent to which that is reflected in the context of sport is more limited. Sport, unfortunately, still trails behind. Even at the most elite level, where funding is highest, and there are a variety of supposed ‘experts’ operating with and around athletes, there are still numerous ethical challenges and harmful incidents (for an example, see the Whyte review investigating allegations of abuse in gymnastics, 2012). Which does not bode well for how sport operates at the grassroots or recreational level.
Sport, at least as far as I believe, is supposed to represent a platform for encouraging positive social behaviour, such as cooperation, teamwork, communication, as well as for developing desirable individual traits and experiences like determination, motivation, achievement, enjoyment, and self-improvement. In some instances, which I have seen first-hand, sport is wholly fulfilling this mission statement. Unfortunately, it would seem that, within sport, there is also room for negative experiences like bullying, verbal (and physical) abuse, marginalisation, discrimination, and even trauma – which I have also witnessed. And therein lies the purpose of this blog, to illuminate some of the uglier features of sport, and that which you (as the reader) should be aware of. Moreover, this blog may encourage you to reflect on what your role in sport means in terms of challenging these situations. Whether you are a parent, an athlete, coach, physio, or spectator, we each play an important role in shaping the future of sport.
Communicating heteronormativity in sport
If we begin by addressing the term ‘heteronormativity’. This term essentially reflects an attitude (not shared by all, but certainly promoted by some) that there are really only two genders, your traditional biological male and female. And by and large, it is ‘normal’ that individuals are attracted to the opposite sex. This is the heteronormative supposition, and if you, or something, are/is heteronormative then being attracted to the opposite sex is deemed as being the ‘normal mode’ of sexual orientation. Now, regardless of whether your personal belief is in line with this supposition, for the best part of human history sport has embodied heteronormativity. Only in the past 20-25 years has the heteronormative characteristics of sport really been challenged and have there been (if any) systemic alterations or policy changes.
***I should also note that, having a personal preference towards the opposite sex, in terms of who you are personally attracted to, is distinct from having heteronormative beliefs. You may well be a heterosexual, and very much attracted to the opposite sex, but you may not hold the belief that heterosexual attraction is the ‘norm’.
Before I embark into the nitty gritty of the heteronormative features of sport, I might add that it is common practice to examine sexuality topics by assuming that gay/bisexual/transgendered individuals can be categorised as being part of the same group (for example, LGBT, or the more inclusive LGBTQIA+). While this approach is appropriate when considering policy changes and legislation with respect to human rights, when we consider the heteronormative challenges in sport a more nuanced approach is required. For instance, let’s consider the traditional characteristics of sport such as physicality, aggression, being hyperverbal (loud, basically), sweaty, muscular strength, and a certain sense of being muscular in body shape. These are, arguably, and certainly historically, key components of male/masculine culture. Then, consider the traditional characteristics of female/feminine culture, such as elegance, beauty, being gentle, leanness, cleanliness, and typically smaller in stature. It is safe to say that, from the beginning, sport resembled a significant threat to the hegemony (i.e. the leadership or dominance of a certain group) of femininity. Thus, to treat homosexual male (gay) and female (lesbian) athletes as being the same seems inappropriate, because their respective challenges in the realm of sport are quite unique.
The ‘male apologetic’ and ‘female apologetic’ are examples of heteronormative environments encouraging athletes in sport to disclose information about their sexuality. For men, it can mean ‘coming out straight’, that is, trying to overtly demonstrate heterosexual traits, like offering rationales as to why they are interested in fashion or highly visible girlfriends so to maintain their ‘masculinity’. And for women, it might be wearing make-up on the athletics field, wearing certain types of clothing, or posing for a photo off-the-court (so to speak) as to avoid being seen as ‘mannish’ in the context of sport. These actions resemble the behaviours of those in the limelight, who compete on the bigger stages in front of the larger audiences. For those at the grassroots level, heteronormativity can come in greater doses.
For instance, young boys and girls at school are sometimes segregated into different sports. Boys are encouraged to try ‘manly’ sports like rugby, and girls are taught how to play more ‘feminine’ sports like netball. These situations only reinforce the heterosexism at play, that is, the normalising of some sports being more acceptable than others depending if you are a boy or a girl. If a boy were to choose ice figure skating over ice hockey he then may be subject to negative stereotype labelling, such as being more ‘feminine’, or less ‘masculine’. And because of such labelling, that individual is more likely to be seen as being gay, as a result of not conforming to those core assumptions about what it means to be a ‘normal’ man. And this goes the same for women who want to compete in ‘manlier’ sports like rugby or football, who are often incorrectly labelled as being lesbian because they demonstrate behaviours that heteronormative systems would label as ‘manly’. While society broadly begins to more readily challenge heteronormative structures, and homosexual individuals are now less likely to be criminalised or marginalised (at least not in the UK), sport so often represents an exception and somehow has managed to protect and preserve outdated and discriminatory assumptions.
Transgender experiences of exclusion in sport
Furthermore, in the context of sport, gender identities continue to be a challenging subject and therein lies significant implications with respect to policy changes and facility reconstruction in sport and exercise settings. An example, that continues to represent a significant barrier to increasing sport participation and inclusivity, is that of transgender experiences.
Specifically, there are generally two different types of transgender identifying individuals, ‘gender conformers’ and ‘gender transformers’. Gender conformers are those who feel as though they are ‘trapped in the wrong body’, and often desire hormonal or surgical alterations to realise their truer sense of identity. Whereas gender transformers generally reject the binary definitions of gender, preferring to view gender as more like a continuum, and as a result do not feel as though they need to undergo physical transformation. For gender conformers policies such as the International Olympic Committee’s Stockholm Consensus (2004) allow athletes to compete in sport provided they can medically verify that they have completed the physical gender reassignment process. However, for gender transformers this policy merely promotes the two-sex binary, and also ignores the economic, cultural and racial inequalities in being able to access gender reassignment surgery.
‘You’re neither one or the other’ The changing room problem
Changing room spaces can represent a significant challenge for transgender individuals, such that it can be a source of anxiety or stress. For many transgender individuals there is much mystery about using the ‘other’ gender changing rooms, such that (for example) if they grow up using male changing rooms, to suddenly start using female changing rooms they can feel uncomfortable, as they may not understand the norms and traditions associated with the ‘other’ gender changing room.
Furthermore, for transgender people another concern is the effect they have on others. For some, it can be as though they are ‘violating’ others, physical features such as attire and prosthetics may lead transgender individuals to feel alienated because of how others perceive them. Many transgender athletes might actually refuse to use communal changing rooms because they believe it to be wrong, and even after successful transition, they still may feel as though they are not like the men/women around them.
For those who haven’t transitioned yet, they may be required to use the changing room of their natal sex (the sex they may be born with), and by doing so feel effectively excluded or discriminated against. Transgender athletes might describe feeling caught in-between, while they do not feel comfortable within the changing room of their natal sex, neither do they feel welcome in the changing rooms of the sex they are transitioning towards.
An obvious solution to these challenges is to introduce individual cubicles in changing rooms, or to create infrastructure that accommodates changing rooms that are gender neutral – which would contain private spaces for getting changed. These cubicles would represent an opportunity for transgender athletes to feel more secure, avoid drawing attention towards themselves, and to reduce the feeling that they are ‘violating’ others or making others feel uncomfortable in some way.
Public sports and recreation: A ’Catch 22’
Before they can receive any kind of physical surgery or prosthetics, transgender individuals are often required to ‘prove’ themselves over the space of 2 years. However, during this period of ‘proving’ themselves they often come face-to-face with embarrassment, public complaints, being banned, and alienation. This makes the transition particularly difficult. And in the context of sport, when individuals reveal their transgender status public reactions can often be hostile causing them to withdraw from the sport completely. As a result, often the capacity for transgender individuals to tolerate and endure distressing situations is a key variable in whether they begin or continue participation in sport.
Often transgender individuals need to be in good physical shape in preparation for their transition surgery, but this may prove to be challenging if there are barriers to sport or exercise participation. In addition, the social, health, and wellbeing benefits associated with sport may be absent when transgender individuals cannot wholly participate. While improved physical fitness and health is an important benefit of sport, transgender individuals may also struggle with the costs in terms of developing social relationships. As previously mentioned, being transgender can attract hostility, or make others feel uncomfortable, hence some individuals may try to hide or conceal their transgender identity. Moreover, transgender men or women may find it troublesome entering into a masculine or feminine athletic environment, respectively. For instance, despite leaving ‘femaleness’ behind, a transgender man (i.e. transitioned from a woman to a man) may still feel alienated by ‘normal’ male sporting cultures, such that masculinity is often associated with athletic ability.
And while there are ethnic minority leagues, and gay or lesbian sport clubs, which might be more inclusive towards transgender people, often due to social norms and sporting climates it is challenging for transgender athletes to engage in mainstream sports, for example, booking a five-a-side pitch to play football. Due to visible differences in terms of physical appearance and athletic ability transgender groups often feel alienated and ‘othered’.
Finally, for transgender people there are significant financial challenges. The costs of transition are often great, with respect to surgery and prosthetics. Notwithstanding the case that transgender people often find it challenging to get a job, so often settle for a low paid job. Hence, being able to pay for leisure activities, like sport equipment, facility hire, coaching etc. can become a large barrier. And for many transgender people, sport falls low on the list of their priorities, and their disposable income is often directed towards more important matters.
Some concluding thoughts
While there are numerous challenges that face transgender individuals, sport participation in particular resembles an obstacle. Many of the characteristics about sport that make it challenging for transgender individuals to participate largely reflect societal norms and public discourse. However, since sport resembles a heightened manifestation of heteronormativity, where the masculine and feminine traditions/cultures are more pronounced, it may be even more challenging for transgender individuals to enter and engage in sports.
Without doubt a lot of the work that needs to happen will need to come from the top, such as from sport governing bodies, initiatives, and changes in policies/regulations. Furthermore, until societal attitudes aligned with contemporary views of sex and gender are more popularized, and traditional concepts of masculine and feminine identities are challenged, it may be unrealistic to expect sport to change in such a big way. And for many of the public, coming to understand the challenges of transgender people, being able to emphasise with their struggles, and changing their own personal views of sex and gender identities and what they believe to be acceptable, may take considerable time.
The biggest takeaway from this blog, really, is that we all have a part to play with respect to making people feel safe and welcome in the environment of sport. And that means all people, irrespective of their sex, gender, race or ethnicity. Even its having a conversation with someone who might be feeling excluded, encouraging participation, or challenging the views and opinions of others. While we wait for the changes to come into effect from governing bodies, and the beginnings of new initiatives, we must also play our own individual roles in making the environment of sport feel as welcoming, inclusive, and enjoyable as possible.
Hargie, O., Mitchell, D., & Somerville, I. (2015). ‘People have a knack of making you feel excluded if they catch on to your difference’: Transgender experiences of exclusion in sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport., Online. https://doi.org/10.1177/1012690215583283
Lensky, H. J. (2012) ‘Reflections on communication and sport: On heteronormativity and gender identities’ Communication & Sport. Online. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2167479512467327?journalCode=coma