Canada is half a decade behind the politics in the United States, says trans activist and former athlete Taylor Lakhryst. Which means if we don’t take steps to prevent it, anti-trans sports legislation could soon be coming to Canada.
“If I was a kid today, and I was paying attention to the news, I would be terrified,” she said. “You would think that kids just get to show up and just play. But I can only imagine how scary and frustrating it is to know that you just want to exist.”
In the last three years, 18 U.S. states have passed legislation banning trans girls and women from participating in women’s sports.
In 2021, at least 145 bills were introduced that banned trans people, particularly youth, from sports teams and bathrooms that matched their gender, or accessing gender affirming care. In 2022 that number climbed to 350 bills.
Last spring Florida passed what is commonly referred to as its "Don’t Say Gay” bill, banning classroom discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation until Grade 4.
When considered altogether, these bills are steps towards erasing trans people from mainstream society, Lakhryst says.
As a trans woman and former athlete, she is concerned about the future of trans kids and teenagers playing sports in Canada. But she also believes sports have the power to change minds.
“Sports is such an influential way to just say, ‘These people are valid as they are, who they are. Bring them in,’” she said, adding sports can influence politics, business and society at large.
Participation in sports shows tremendous benefits for kids, including physical benefits such as stronger hearts, muscles, bones and joints, and mental health benefits such as stress relief, and reduction in anxiety and depression. All kids — including disabled kids and trans kids — deserve equal access to these benefits, experts say.
So how does Canada compare to the United States when it comes to support for Two-Spirit and trans athletes?
Last fall United Conservative Party MLA Brian Jean proposed banning school-aged trans athletes from sports matching their gender when he unsuccessfully ran for the Alberta political party’s leadership.
At the same time multiple school board races in British Columbia and Ontario saw candidates run on platforms to remove school support for trans kids and ban comprehensive sex and anti-racism education.
The majority of those candidates, however, were not elected, while two trans candidates were elected as trustees in B.C. and Ontario.
Policies for trans athletes in Canada are still a patchwork
Multiple sport organizations in Canada at the grade school and post-secondary levels have joined the International Olympic Committee in creating their own gender identity and sexual orientation inclusion policies.
Where policies exist, they range from letting players join a team of their choice to requiring trans girls undergo hormone replacement therapy before age 12 in order to play on the team that matches their gender.
And with many sports firmly entrenched in the gender binary, non-binary players are required to pick the gendered team that best suits them.
Not every sport organization has policies pertaining to trans players, however. And sometimes, even when an organization has an overarching policy, gaps remain when it comes to educating coaches and putting that policy into action on the ground, leaving coaches and players to make it up as they go along — or leaving it up to trans players or their parents to speak up when their rights are violated, or the team is not inclusive.
“Which leaves these kids scarred for as long as the trauma holds on to them,” Lakhryst said.
“Sports has a responsibility to not just have inclusion cryptically coded in their policies and abuse resolution found deep in their websites, but actively and vocally command the awareness that their space is an inclusive space with no tolerance for bigotry.”
From self-identifying to medical transition requirements
British Columbia, Manitoba and Alberta are the only Canadian provinces or territories with transgender inclusion policies at the level of provincial sports organizations, says Lakhryst.
Over a decade ago, BC School Sports was the first provincial school sports organization to introduce a trans player inclusion policy. The handbook for BC School Sports, which oversees public and private secondary school sports, contains updated guidelines for school sport participation that states trans students should be able to play on the team that matches their gender, provided they are granted an exemption by an eligibility officer.
Non-binary students can choose the team that matches their gender, while genderfluid students can opt to vary which team they play on each semester, if they choose.
“An environment where intersex, transitioning and transgender students can exist and thrive should be provided,” according to the guidance offered to eligibility officers in the handbook.
viaSport, a non-profit responsible for distributing government grants to community sport organizations including those for kids and youth, recommends in its equity guidelines that trans players be allowed to play on whichever team aligns with their gender.
In 2021, Sport BC, which delivers grants through KidSport British Columbia to families who can’t otherwise afford to put their kids in sports, reported that just two of the over 4,000 kids they funded that year identified as a gender other than boy or girl.
That number doesn’t capture trans boys and girls nor does it cover the entire population of trans kids and youth who want to play sports in B.C. It’s certainly less than what Guylaine Demers, professor in the physical education department at Université Laval is seeing in Quebec.
“Just for the year 2021, the sport school system in Quebec, Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec, have received at least one trans or non-binary athlete per month who ask to play,” she said.
U Sports, the Canadian university sport organization, allows athletes to play on the team that matches their sex at birth or their current gender identity, provided they follow the Canadian Anti-Doping Program policy regarding testosterone.
The World Anti-Doping Agency policy uses test results to determine a person’s gender based on how much testosterone is in their blood. The Canadian Anti-Doping Program policy follows the world policy, with the exception that results from drug tests done for other purposes cannot be used to determine a person’s gender.
Gender tests such as the World Anti-Doping Agency policy set a dangerous precedent for trans and cis women athletes alike, says Michele Donnelly, assistant professor of sport management at Brock University.
“It creates a really toxic environment for any gender displays that aren't within a pretty narrow understanding of, particularly, what girls and women should be like,” she said.
“Then you have parents, coaches and athletes on other teams who can actually call into question the gender identity of their opponents, which is incredibly damaging for trans and also for cisgender athletes who are being accused of — most often because they're very good at their sport — not fitting whatever the expectations are.”
These policies have been mobilized to discriminate disproportionately against Black athletes — including cis, intersex and trans Black athletes, who tend to be coded, due to racist conceptions of gender, as more “masculine” in comparison to their more “feminine” white counterparts.
Testosterone: ‘A very simplistic argument’
In 2016 the International Olympic Committee released its first trans athlete inclusion policy, which required testosterone levels to be below a certain threshold for female athletes.
It has since moved away from that restriction, but calls on the governing bodies of individual sport organizations to create their own policies. Some of these bodies have kept the scientifically problematic trans inclusion policies, Donnelly said.
It is based on a misguided notion that anyone who has gone through testosterone-heavy puberty, as is the case for many trans women who started medical transition after or during puberty, have an advantage over cis women and girl athletes, she said.
“It's a very simplistic argument, I think, and one that really resonates with people because they think, ‘Yes, that's the science I understand: men have testosterone and women have estrogen,’ even though women also have testosterone and men also have estrogen,” Donnelly said.
“Bodies are far more complex than the binary gender categories that we use to organize sport.”
While testosterone helps with building muscles, Donnelly added, it is just one factor, in addition to flexibility, training regime, practice, skill and what sport they're playing, that determines a player’s abilities.
FINA, the international watersports body, allows trans athletes to play on the team that matches their gender. But for trans girls and women, that only applies if they began medically transitioning before age 12.
Last November, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which operates the Canadian Anti-Doping Program, published a scientific literature review that found there was not enough reliable data to conclude trans women had a biological advantage over cis women in elite sports.
Public sentiment about trans athletes in sports is unclear.
In 2021, for example, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute released a poll of Canadians on the participation of trans girls and women in sports. The poll told participants, without citing proof, that trans women are “often having greater muscle, strength and speed from being born male.” It then asked, “Is this fair to female athletes in your view?” In the context of the poll, two-thirds of respondents said it was unfair; it's unclear how or if this would change if participants had been presented with a more nuanced or complex set of facts about hormones, development, sports skill and gender.
Specifying that trans girls and women need to medically transition before the age of 12 in order to play on women’s and girl’s teams can limit youth and women who do not seek or can not seek gender-affirming care earlier in life. While emerging research suggests youth should be granted the ability to consent to medical transition — and that youth who begin identifying as trans at a young age overwhelmingly continue to identify as trans — not all youth have supportive parents, and the political and media climates around youth transition are often heated and polarizing, potentially having a dampening effect on whether or not parents support steps like puberty blockers.
It’s attitudes like the one reflected in the Macdonald-Laurier Institute poll that have kept Lakhryst off the softball fields since she came out as trans in adulthood, she said.
“I went from playing seven days a week, being invited to spare all the time, playing on two teams… to never playing again,” she said. “This is my motivation, to prevent these types of things from happening to kids.”
Like the anti-trans sport laws in the United States, the Macdonald-Laurier poll did not mention trans men or non-binary athletes.
Trans men are viewed incorrectly as “biologically female” and therefore not seen as a threat to male players, Donnelly said.
No one seemed to care about a lack of equity for girls and women athletes before trans people became mainstream, she added.
“They don't care that there's significantly less funding, fewer resources, less status, no media coverage, right? They don't care about fairness in women's sport: it's an anti-trans position,” Donnelly said.
“It's a very patronizing, minimizing discourse: the suggestion that if trans women were allowed to compete in women's sport, cis women could not possibly be successful. Which means that we're teaching girls that that's something they should believe. And there's just no support for it.”
Creating an inclusive environment
While Canada needs to bring in more overarching policies pertaining to trans inclusion, policies alone are not enough to help trans kids who want to play sports, says Demers.
“Very few of our coaches or phys ed teachers are trained to build inclusive sport environments. So queer, trans, non-binary kids can feel that they belong and they have the same space to enjoy sport as any other kid,” she said.
“I would say that for the vast majority, they really want to do good. But they just don't know what to do, because they're stuck in that system.”
Lakhryst says it will take sports organization boards who value trans athletes, funding for culture-changing initiatives, or trans athletes suing sports organizations for sport to become truly inclusive of trans athletes.
“Leaving the responsibility up to the child to have the courage to participate, the parents to protect the child, and the handful of allies to endure the abuse that family can receive is amazingly irresponsible,” she said.
Demers, who helped create the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport’s policy template for trans sport participation, is currently working on a research project with six provincial sport organizations in Quebec looking at the impact of co-ed youth sports on athletes, particularly girls. Data collection for the study started in January.
“I think that we are at that stage where we will keep doing research to understand with more depth the experience of those non-binary and trans athletes. And at the same time, we will explore other options to organize sport, because it's not by nature that sport is binary, it's that we have decided that this would be the way,” she said.
“So we can decide it won't be the way anymore. Ultimately, we have built the system that we have, so why not change it?”