‘We aren’t ready for the wave of students who see gender as non-binary’

Everything about school sport right now is based around binary gender options, but that will have to change, writes Cindy Adair

school sport needs to adapt to non-binary gender needs

As a white, cisgendered heterosexual, my place in the binary world of sport has never been in question. I am not male, but female sport in my lifetime has gone from strength to strength and continues to grow and develop. Girls now proudly compete in previously male domains with fierce talent and determination. Cricket, rugby, football and AFL boast established female leagues throughout the world, with increasing levels of professionalism.

As an athletic director, however, I feel that we are ill-prepared and not yet engaging in the right conversations to ready us to cater for the wave of Gen Z and Gen Alpha students who view gender as a non-binary construct. Everything about sport right now is based around binary options.

You change into your gendered sports kit in your gendered changing room before potentially heading off to your gendered PE class. In some cases, the curriculum varies for boys and girls with some activities offered only to the boys and others only to the girls. We hold trials for gendered competitive sports teams and compete in gendered sports leagues. Some sports by design have different formats and even equipment for males and female athletes (WAG and MAG gymnastics, for example). At the end of the year, we celebrate the “Best Female Student-Athlete” and “Best Male Student-Athlete” at our sports awards.

Regardless of your personal beliefs, most of us have at the core of our school mission and vision the concepts of equality and inclusion, and thus we cannot bury our heads in the sand. Sooner, rather than later, I predict we will be faced with students enrolling who identify as non-binary but aspire to be involved in school-based athletics. Like all students in our communities, he/she/they deserve to be afforded that option in a safe and supportive environment.

“Most of us have at the core of our school mission and vision the concepts of equality and inclusion.”

With anything new there is bound to be fear of the unknown, and many jump to the concerns around “level playing fields” most relevant in the world of elite sport and not so much in the school setting. We need to remind ourselves that a transgender teen who is “out” and living proudly may be juggling hormone treatments, considering surgery, facing down discrimination alongside the normal demands of getting an education and navigating the world as a young adult. If they find time and energy to play sports and seek selection on our teams, we owe it to these students to find a place for them if we can do so safely. I stand to be corrected, but I sincerely doubt a transitioning transgender youth has a “To Do” list which includes unfairly and unsafely dominating international school sports fixtures.

So where to start?

  1. Engage in conversations with PE teachers, pastoral leaders, school nurses, school counsellors and coaches about gender and sports. Provide professional learning opportunities around important topics such as the use of appropriate pronouns.

We have recently begun these conversations in two athletic conferences of which our school is a member. On both occasions I have been blown away by the positive and open-minded dialogue that has gone on and the improvements we’ve made to our policies and procedures as a result.

“I doubt a transitioning transgender youth has a ‘To Do’ list which includes unfairly and unsafely dominating international school sports fixtures.”

There has also been a range of fantastic forums and professional learning made available such as this one featured on Global Take which have helped me to learn more and see some working examples of solutions to issues I have not yet foreseen. As professionals we have to be willing to challenge the status quo and imagine a future which is more inclusive, as the way gender is viewed by Gen Alpha evolves.

  1. Formulate policy that puts the student at the centre of the decision-making. Everyone is individual and in most cases, you will be best placed to sit with the student and their parents or carers and listen.
  2. Consider options for gender non-binary and transgender students as you develop new facilities, uniforms, signage and enrolment forms. Small tweaks can make a huge difference to the welcome you afford a new student eager to fit in. Whilst a staff or disability toilet is a “stop-gap,” it is not an appropriate long-term solution.
  3. Consider how you will protect the privacy of student-athletes both from a general and medical perspective.
  4. Model brave and honest dialogue around some of the more challenging aspects of gender and sports. For example, how will you cater for transgender students (in particular trans females MTF) whilst also protecting the integrity of women’s sport? Huge strides have been made in this arena in recent years; we need to be sure we don’t negate those efforts in an effort to support a different community.
  5. Look for ways to incorporate more mixed gender sport. It’s fun, inclusive and makes everyone feel welcome.
  6. Gather student voice every step of the way.
  7. Start to think about the way you might handle a gender non-binary student who is selected for a sports trip which might require a home stay or hotel stay as a member of a team, whilst maintaining all other safeguarding needs.
  8. Read and educate yourself around this topic. Athlete Ally is a great website which shares ways in which you can be a better ally and build a programme based around equity and inclusion. The Athlete Equality Index is a fantastic tool for LGBTQI+ student-athletes who are looking to play sport in US colleges to assess their future options. The resources section of their website also includes a range of sample templates to help you improve the policies you have in this space in your athletic programme.

Recently I watched the cult hit Netflix show Sex Education. One of the highlights for me was the way they address with humour and compassion real stories of individual LGBTQI+ students as they navigate high school and growing up. Instead of presenting the issues affecting queer youth in an abstract way, they drill down to the individual level, and this makes me feel enormous empathy for the characters I have already grown to love.

No teen chooses to be the face of a movement; most just want to belong. This is where positive and proactive allyship of their teachers, friends and community can make all the difference.

“No teen chooses to be the face of a movement; most just want to belong.”

As Gayle Hernandez puts it, “It is my job to help all my students belong… This means part of my job is to educate the wider community about the needs of a child who might be perceived as ‘different’ to help them become embraced by the community.”

This article first appeared in the latest edition of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine, out now.