Children playing soccer. One with light brown skn and black curly hair is dressed in a black and white striped jersey and black shorts, black socks, and red and black cleats, about to kick the ball with a determined expression. Another child has white skin and blond hair tied into a ponytail, wearing a red jersey, red shorts, red socks and black cleats, running after the ball with a determined expression.
"In Canada, Alberta premier Danielle Smith announced sweeping anti-trans provincial policies, including proposed rules that would ban trans women and girls from taking part in competitive women's sports," Tobin Ng writes. (Photograph by Lars Bo Nielsen)

Topics: Justice | LGBTQ2S+

Why more non-binary athletes are avoiding organized sports in school

Physical education programs discriminate against non-binary youth because they're forced to pick one gender and one team


Joseph Caple was getting ready for his first year at high school in Nelson, a city in B.C.’s southern interior. Caple, a gender non-conforming trans man, was just starting to figure out his identity. As he looked over his course sign-up sheet, he realized there were only two course options that he could take to fulfil his mandatory physical education (PE) credit: boys’ PE or girls’ PE. “I’m just like, ‘Okay, I don’t fit into either of these,” Caple says. “‘What am I going to do?’”

Caple brought the issue to the school principal, who told him that nothing could be done—that’s how PE classes had always been. But he was determined to change the system. “I didn’t take no for an answer,” he says. He approached the vice principal with a solution, proposing that the two gendered PE classes become gender-neutral competitive and non-competitive classes. The vice principal said they’d consider implementing the change next year.

When Caple entered tenth grade, the school opted to turn its two gendered PE classes into a large co-ed class. Caple was glad to see the change, but he soon realized that the shift was superficial. “It was the same thing,” he says. “They still almost divided us based on our gender.” Feminine-presenting students were paired with the female teacher, while masculine-presenting students were assigned to the male teacher.

As the only two out queer students in the class, Caple and his friend were picked on. His classmates called him names and often picked him last for teams. “I was definitely frustrated about it,” says Caple.

Caple isn’t alone in his experience. According to a recent report on Canadian non-binary youth’s experiences with organized team sports, more than half of young non-binary athletes have witnessed discriminatory comments. More than one in six have witnessed gender-based physical harassment. 

Person holding their wide brim black hat. They have blond and black hair, dark brown eyebrows, a black spacer in their ear and a silver septum piercing. They are wearing a black hoodie.
Joseph Caple. (Photograph courtesy of Joseph Caple0

Martha Gumprich, the lead author of the report and a health sciences graduate from Simon Fraser University, hopes their research will serve as the first step to addressing trans inclusion in sports. “If we want to make sport a safer place for all participants, we need to start listening to those both participating in and avoiding sports to see where changes need to be made,” they say.

The report draws from the results of the 2022 Understanding Affirming Communities, Relationships and Networks (UnACoRN) study, an online survey that examined Canadian and American youth’s experiences with their gender and sexual identities. The report also uses data collected through several group sessions for queer, trans and non-binary youth, which Gumprich hosted in partnership with Trans Connect, a health and community program for trans people in B.C.’s East and West Kootenays regions.

The report found that only eleven percent of non-binary youth in Canada currently play an organized team sport. Two-thirds of non-binary youth who have avoided participating in a team sport did so because they would have to choose between playing on a men’s or women’s team. Four in five did so because of changing room layouts. 

Gumprich says this avoidance of team sports deprives many non-binary youth of the physical and mental benefits of group fitness. Participating in team sports can mitigate mental health issues, encouraging the development of social skills and friendships while building self-esteem and perseverance. Those benefits could be particularly supportive for trans youth, who face poorer mental health outcomes than their cisgender peers, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The study notes that trans youth in Canada have a higher risk of reporting psychological distress, self-harm, major depressive episodes and suicidal thoughts. 

Transforming the culture of team sports isn’t a simple feat, though. Gumprich’s thesis—whose findings informed the report—points to norms of aggression that deter many non-binary youth from participating in group fitness. “From hazing and sexual abuse to toxic masculinity, organized team sport can often constitute a violent and traumatic environment,” they write.

The discourse about trans people in sports is often dominated by misinformed claims about fairness and equity. Anti-2SLGBTQ+ groups often suggest that allowing trans athletes to participate will hurt cis women and girls, claiming that trans women have an unfair advantage over their cis competitors. However, a 2021 report from E-Alliance, a Canadian research hub studying gender equity in sports, found that biological data on trans women athletes in elite sport is “severely limited, and often methodologically flawed.” The report also noted that biomedical research is overemphasized in the creation of sports policies, and social science studies are often sidelined. 

The prevalence of anti-2SLGBTQ+ myths about trans athletes has real consequences for youth. In the U.S., these narratives have fuelled legislation that bans trans youth from taking part in school sports. According to estimates from the Movement Advancement Project, an American nonprofit think tank, thirty-seven percent of trans youth aged thirteen to seventeen live in states with laws that bar trans students from participating in sports that match their gender. 

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In Canada, Alberta premier Danielle Smith announced sweeping anti-trans provincial policies, including proposed rules that would ban trans women and girls from taking part in competitive women’s sports. The changes are slated to be introduced in Alberta’s fall legislative session.  Canadians are also subject to trans-athlete bans implemented by international sports federations. Last March, World Athletics—the international governing body for track and field—decided to ban trans women who have undergone “male puberty” from elite women’s competitions. In July, the cycling governing body Union Cycliste Internationale similarly tightened rules by blocking some trans women athletes from racing in women’s events. “These bans on trans women competing at global levels can be discouraging for younger athletes who dream of competing on the international stage, or who may fear that teams at lower competitive levels share the same exclusive policies,” writes Gumprich in their thesis.

Nicola Hare, an author of the study and the program coordinator of Trans Connect, says there needs to be greater recognition of the difference between high-performance sports and youth recreational fitness. She says conversations about gender inclusion in youth athletics are often conflated with debates about trans women in elite sports. “I think that’s a red herring,” says Hare. “We’re talking about care and all youth having opportunities to grow into the most affirmed version of who they are, regardless of whether they’re cis or trans.” The focus should be on ensuring that every young person can participate and access the benefits of team sports.

Guylaine Demers, a professor in the PE department at Université Laval in Quebec City, agrees with the distinction. She works with the university’s laboratory for the advancement of women in sports in Quebec, which is currently focused on non-competitive athletics—high-performance sport is a different ball game. “Ninety-seven percent of the kids who are doing sport in Quebec or Canada won’t get there,” says Demers. “If we make sure that that ninety-seven percent is good, I think we’re good.”

Demers says that PE teachers and coaches often want to support non-binary youth, but they don’t know where to start. Many of these sports leaders feel as though they must wait for organizations or larger institutions to implement new policies before they can enact change in their own spaces. “They see it as, ‘That is so huge, I cannot do anything,’” says Demers.

Gumprich and Hare’s study tackles these feelings of helplessness by offering concrete solutions. The report offers recommendations such as allowing non-binary athletes to pick the gendered team they’d like to play on, building gender-neutral changing rooms and improving education on gender and sexuality. “All of the reasons non-binary youth are avoiding sport are preventable,” says Gumprich. “Nearly all of them can be addressed immediately through education and policy changes.”

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The two researchers have been working with local sports leaders to improve non-binary inclusion and implement the solutions in the report. “There is this real opportunity for coaches, team captains and PE teachers to set the culture and have a role in shifting the tone around sport,” says Hare. 

Meanwhile, Demers has been studying different gendered sports arrangements at the lab. The team is starting a project with queer sports leagues in Montreal, examining how their participation models could be applied to mainstream sports. The researchers also plan to begin piloting more inclusive ways of organizing sports. If PE classes are co-ed earlier on and teams are split based on performance levels, kids might grow up less fixated on gender in sports, says Demers.

For Caple, who now lives in Victoria, B.C., team sports isn’t something he does often anymore. “I’ve kind of just resigned to, ‘I will do my own thing, and I’ll advocate for it, but I don’t think I’d get back into it,’” he says. He goes to the gym alone, where he doesn’t have to interact with many people. “I haven’t had any real problems there,” he says.

Demers is optimistic that a shift will happen. “In sport, we are so attached to our way of doing, so it’s hard to change anything,” she says. “It is a challenge at the moment, but things are moving.” Parents are increasingly pushing for room for their children to participate, and more and more sports leaders are working to make the field more inclusive. “The sports system will have to adapt,” she says. “There’s no choice.”


Tobin Ng is an associate editor at Maisonneuve Magazine. They live in Ottawa. 

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