The need to embrace more gender-diverse participation in university athletics
University sports mimic wider exclusionary sport structures, and thereby their flaws and barriers as well.
Historically, sports have categorized athletes into two leagues: men and women. This binary fails to consider athletes with non-normative gender identities—creating tension, discrimination, and disparity in their experiences and access to sports. Such athletes include those that are transgender or identify as non-binary, gender-fluid, or gender-queer.
Sports in university serve as both a professional and social activity for students. Some student athletes choose to participate competitively, while others participate recreationally. Being active in a competitive or semi-competitive university setting builds character, reduces stress levels, shapes self-esteem, increases respect for others, enables teamwork, and forges meaningful connections with like-minded individuals.
In both competitive and recreational cases, gender labels determine access to athletic spaces on university campuses. Elitist rules and regulations that do not recognize non-binary gender identities cause a cohort of university students to feel uncomfortable in gendered spaces. It has been argued that in high-level, professional sports gendered systems enable fairness and safety—although I think this reasoning is bleak—but, at the university level, such strictness on gender-related advantages should not be prioritized.
In 2018, Canadian university sports, including U of T’s athletic programs, announced that student-athletes who haven’t medically transitioned with hormone therapy had the choice to compete on the team in accordance with their gender identity. Adherence to the Canadian Anti-Doping Program is still in effect.
Although this policy is an inherently inclusive and progressive effort at accepting non-normative bodies in student athletics—an effort that isn’t always mirrored in wider sports outside university infrastructures—the binary between the male and female athlete, and the subsequent lack of inclusion for students that do not identify with these two labels, persists.
Published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, a 2021 focus group study conducted at four universities in England, suggested that gendered societal structures serve as major barriers to gender-fluid, non-binary, and trans athletes.
The student focus group expressed that even for trans university students who identify with one of the two gender categories, insufficient guidance and support at school, along with past negative experiences, may discourage participation and hinder their sense of belonging in student athletics.
Participants presented one way to address the experiences of trans, non-binary, and gender-fluid individuals: mixed-gender teams. The University of Toronto Mississauga offers some co-ed tri-campus sports, namely ultimate frisbee and cricket. Another competitive league offering co-ed participation are intramural sports. On a non-competitive level, drop-in sports at the Recreation, Athletics and Wellness Centre are also non-gendered.
Not only do university sports need to be considered on a gender continuum as opposed to a binary, there also needs to be a change in culture and the perception of trans, non-binary, and gender-fluid athletes. A shift away from cis-gendered activities and spaces will require informed acceptance and understanding that athletes may identify beyond the binary of male and female.
Editor-in-Chief (Volume 48 & 49) | email@example.com — Liz is completing a double major in Chemistry and Art History. She previously served as Features Editor for Volume 47, and Editor-in-Chief for Volume 48. Liz is extremely excited to have spent her time as an undergrad at The Medium, and can’t wait to inspire others and be inspired in her final year at UTM. When she’s not studying, working, writing, or editing countless articles, you can find her singing Motown hits at her piano, going on long walks by the lake, or listening to music. You can connect with Liz on her website, Instagram, or LinkedIn.