Pride Active Conversations: “You can’t just step in there and say you’re a female and compete if you haven’t transitioned.”

It has been five weeks since LEAP Sports Scotland launched their Pride Active Conversations series, with special guests Philippa York, John Dickinson-Lilley, Beth Allen, Amy McDonald and Callum Skinner completing the line up for the first batch of interviews.

Cyclist York, formerly the UK’s most successful athlete ever in the sport as Robert Millar, was first up in the hotseat for a timely chat with host Emma Dodds considering trans rights have been a hot topic in the UK over recent weeks.

There has been controversy with the government’s decision-making over the Gender Recognition Act, while in a sporting context World Rugby announced plans to stop all trans women from playing the sport – a move that sparked outrage among the LGBT+ community for being a blanket ban even on those who possess no physical advantage in the contact sport.

As it stands, football deals with trans inclusion on a case by case basis, with players having to go through essentially an application process to get permission to compete in the women’s game. Other disciplines, such as powerlifting, introduced an ‘MX’ category to give trans athletes the option of competing in a designated category if that is where they feel more comfortable – although that did not shut the door on trans women competing in women’s competition if that was their preference.

Trans athletes was just one of the many topics York touched on in her interview, as well as the community’s visibility in everyday society and how she might have dealt with being trans as a youngster today.

“It’s one of the fears, ‘what if trans people suddenly decide they’re going to compete’, especially with male to females,” York said.

“The fear is that males are going to say they’re female and dominate in the sport, but the rules don’t allow that. The regulations that you have, to access top level elite sport, have limits. You can’t just step in there and say you’re a female and compete if you haven’t transitioned. It’s one of those fears that people always bring up, but in reality it doesn’t exist.

“I think you have to talk to people who have transitioned – and that probably means in athletic terms medically transitioned, that you’ve been through the whole hormone changes. If you talk to them you realise that the amount of athletic ability that they lose takes them to 25 or 30% less than they were before.

“It’s one of those fallacies that people who have transitioned keep the same level of strength and the same level of recovery. You don’t, you become a lot weaker. That’s ok, I’m perfectly comfortable with being weaker. There’s also the thing that you lose some of your competitiveness and aggression, so that has to be taken into account.

“There’s only so many people like myself who were competing at elite level who have transitioned. We have all transitioned after our careers, and when you talk with them they all say the same thing – as soon as you start hormonal treatment you immediately get weaker.

“There’s a few changes psychologically as well, which means you’re not as competitive, you lose some of the aggression that you need for elite sport. I’m sure if you apply that to younger people it’s going to be exactly the same. The differences competitively between male and female aren’t a lot at elite level, but there is a level of aggression that’s different because of the testosterone involved.

“I think you need to involve people who have actually transitioned in the discussion, or are going through those processes.

“There will be people who were looking at going towards elite level, and then they decided to transition – that’s if we can find any of them, because it’s so difficult to find people willing to talk about it.”

Skier John Dickinson-Lilley echoed those same sentiments, saying that the way for national governing bodies to make progress with the LGBT+ community is to simply ask people what their experiences are, and what can be done better.

Dickinson-Lilley is a vocal advocate for – among other things – LGBT+ rights and participation in sport. In his interview, he talked about how seeing targeted violence in his younger days towards LGBT+ people turned him into a campaigner, and he certainly had moments on the skiing circuit where he did not hold his tongue.

But he has been disappointed by the lack of action from GB Snowsport, despite taking the step to reach out to them and offer his services as a sounding board and ambassador.

“You almost have to start at the very basic level by saying we don’t know what we don’t know, and then listening to LGBT+ athletes and their experiences,” Dickinson-Lilley explained.

“Then you get a sense of some of the challenges, because once you know the challenges you can think about solutions. What you can’t do necessarily is look at it in a vacuum, go away and do their own thing and hope they get it right.

“British Athletics have an amazing LGBT+ network, so you can learn from other organisations too. You have to accept that you don’t know all those things, and ask people for their experiences and ask how they can convert that into something meaningful.

“That would be my starting point, and then be prepared to make mistakes. That’s absolutely fine, I would rather someone makes a mistake and then says ‘oops, we didn’t get that quite right but it’s ok because we’ve listened and we’ve learned’. That’s definitely ok, and any organisation should have the confidence to make mistakes.

“Equally, it’s ok for people like me to potentially be a critical friend. That’s ok too. I need to know that I can’t be critical all the time, I have to help them. I think that’s incumbent on anybody that’s involved in any sport. It’s absolutely fine to be a critical friend, but you also have to give people space to make mistakes. If you give them space, they get the confidence to learn.

“I think generally, anyone who is an advocate or a campaigner needs to strike a balance. I think sometimes we might get too harsh too quickly. If you don’t give people a space, actually what happens is that you fall into a pattern of a PR approach to crisis management, it turns into a crisis and not a point of learning, and that’s a pretty powerful tool.”

Mistakes can come from both sides too, with LGBT+ athletes themselves sometimes guilts of misjudging how accepting an environment can be.

That is what American golfer Beth Allen, who now lives in Edinburgh, has found when doing Pro-Am events Stateside.

As well as covering the many differences between men’s and women’s golf, the US and Scotland, and playing tournaments in countries where being gay is illegal, Allen touched on having hesitation in the past about how open to be when she is representing sponsors.

“Pro-Ams are one thing that I find difficult – I want to make sure that our sponsors are happy and in Pro-Ams that’s sort of our job,” Allen recalled.

“I often need to feel out a Pro-Am group before I can feel like I can be my authentic self. Sometimes I grapple with that, part of me wants to feel like ‘who cares’, but the other part of me knows I have a responsibility to my profession to make that person’s day the best it can be, and if I make them uncomfortable that’s not really fair.

“I always do a little feel of what the group is like, and then I wear a wedding ring, so people ask me if I’m married I say yes and it can go either way from there. ‘What does your husband do?’ is usually the next question, and I always correct them saying ‘my wife’.

“Usually there isn’t any sort of strange response, but every once in a while that conversation just ends there, which is fine. I think that’s the best way to leave it, but I do feel that’s probably the most awkward part of being gay and playing golf.

“You can be thrown into some situation where a lot of people are a little bit old-school and conservative. We’re not always just around each other on the circuit.

“I’ve totally made the mistake of misjudging someone too. I’ve made up stuff, thought ‘should I just say my husband’, and I’ve done that before and it totally backfired because they turned out to be lovely and accepting.

“I had to write an email saying I’m so sorry I misjudged you. That was my lesson learned, so now I’m just honest every time.”

Another thing that Allen takes seriously is being a role model, with her wife Clare being Scottish Golf’s performance director. She shares that with Rangers’ women’s and girls’ section manager Amy McDonald, who oversees the entirety of the women’s operations at the club from the academy through to the senior squad.

McDonald is not someone who particularly enjoys having the spotlight placed on her, preferring to remain quite private, but she is well aware of the impact that seeing a member of the LGBT+ community in her position could have on the younger generation.

The day before McDonald’s interview as part of Football v Homophobia’s Football Pride event, she was revealed as one of two club ambassadors for the Everyone Anyone campaign, which she hopes can be a point of change for people who may not feel able to get involved in football.

“It’s really important for Rangers – anyone that has stayed within Scotland for a long time knows there has been a huge divide in Glasgow,” McDonald reasoned.

“The club want to move forward, all the clubs do. Whether you’re protestant, catholic, gay, lesbian, black, white, any minority, I don’t think it matters. Football can be such a uniting force.

“At first when I was asked to be involved in the Everyone Anyone campaign, I didn’t really understand it, and then I went along and saw the videos of such a range of diverse people. It’s such a powerful movement, so when I got a phone call to say they wanted me to be an ambassador, it was a no-brainer for me.

“Something that pushed me into it – because I’m not in your face about my sexuality, but I won’t hide it – I remember one of the mums getting in touch with me and saying I had made it so easy for her daughter to feel like that was normal.

“At that point, I gave myself a shake, so now if I ever get asked to do anything like this, or speak, I find that it’s really important. It’s probably really important for other people, because we don’t realise the impact that we can have.

“For anyone watching, please realise the impact you can have. You don’t need to be a top sportsperson, you can be a doctor, a lawyer, anything, and you can have such an impact by telling your story. The Everyone Anyone campaign pulls all that together for Rangers, and that’s really important for the club.”

As McDonald says, anyone can have an impact and make a difference when it comes to inclusion in sport.

That includes allies – cis and heterosexual people who are supportive of the LGBT+ community – who can speak out and bring a different vantage point to discussions. The importance of that role was one of the recurring themes throughout all the conversations, and the series culminated by speaking to one such ally: Olympic gold medal winning track cyclist Callum Skinner.

Skinner himself struggled with his mental health – something many members of the LGBT+ community can relate to – and his dad and brother are both gay.

It was his father in particular that prompted action from the 27-year-old, when on the eve of the Rio Olympics in 2016 his dad said to him that it would not be an issue to hide “the gay thing”, and Skinner realised that he had been hiding his family make-up from the world – and vowed to change that.

Skinner’s parents split up when he was six, so he grew up with a mum and three dads, and his experiences as a youngster is something he wishes others could be exposed to more as it might change a few perceptions.

“I use the tag line that I’m from a bit of a modern family, but as time pushes on that will be less and less niche and more and more mainstream,” Skinner hopes.

“There will be more kids out there who have same sex parents, so if we can try and lay down that stigma slightly, again that’s for the better.

“I often think that if I ever end up meeting someone who is a bit closed-minded, I really wish that I would be able to share aspects of my childhood – meeting plenty of gay and homosexual people, people who were trans, and I think it was so enlightening and interesting.

“As a kid, it’s such a colourful way to grow up, where you realise that people can be whatever they want to be, and that’s ok. They can go on and raise a family successfully, and get married, and do whatever else people in society do. I really wish I could convey that experience to people who are on the wrong side of the argument.

“It’s important to be open because otherwise it’s self-inflicted suffering by society. I can’t understand people who are bigoted towards mental health, or bigoted towards the gay community. First of all, it doesn’t really affect you, and also why would you insist that people keep suffering from having to suppress who we are?

“To me, it seems like such a simple choice that I wish people who are bigoted about these things could just let go of. I appreciate it’s not that easy, but hopefully through things like this we can change the dial a little bit. That has always been my mindset, and maybe that was influenced quite young when I was introduced to such a colourful element of humanity through my dad’s friends that I never ever saw a problem with it.

“It goes back to what I said earlier, I just wish people could have had the same experience with that childhood before any of those prejudices are built in by society or someone else. It’s not a threat, it’s generally actually not really important how someone identifies, and it has zero influence on your life at all, so why would you advocate for some people to continue to suppress who we are? I just don’t understand it.”

LEAP Sport’s Pride Active Conversations will return with more episodes next month, starting with squash players Jenny Duncalf and Todd Harrity on September 8 and 9. There will also be a string of interviews to tie in with the European Week of Sport, which starts on September 23.

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