There seems to be an ever-rising wave of abuse targeted at the transgender community, and sport is not immune.
As human rights come under threat and the ability to exist in peace gets “debated” with increasing vitriol, bans have come into place to prevent trans people taking part in sport.
In the US, laws have been passed to ensure that even trans children cannot play school sports, while in the UK rugby union is possibly the most visible example of governing bodies taking a stand despite a severe lack of scientific evidence promoting their position.
Through such turbulence, then, it becomes all the more important for outlets to shout loudly that there can be a place for trans people in sport.
More than just talking about it though, some groups actively help to make it happen. Trans Active Glasgow is a group facilitated by LEAP Sports Scotland in and around Glasgow that brings trans people together to help them take their first steps into, or back into, all kinds of different sports and activities. This year, it branched out to Edinburgh as well.
Timing is everything, and although a launch in January 2020 almost immediately brought about challenges enforced by the Covid-19 pandemic, Trans Active did at least become a tangible entity that could help people through the isolation of the last couple of years.
“It started in January 2020, but then it really got off the ground about a year later when we started doing socially-distanced walks,” LEAP’s trans inclusion officer Mathew Wilkie said.
“It’s still quite new really. We had an initial cohort of people who came along, who kind of formed a peer-support and friendship group from it and now they go and do their own activities. They still come along to some of our activities, but then they meet up as a group themselves.
“We now have an evolving group of people who come along to our activities, and we’ll see what happens in the future with them.
“The fundamentals of it is that it’s a group for 18+ trans, non-binary and genderqueer people in Greater Glasgow. I facilitate the group and organise most of the activities. The main aim of the group is to support people to get the chance to get together and get involved in some activity or sport that’s accessible for them.
“Trans people face a lot of barriers to being in sport, whether that’s physical ones, regulations, changing facilities or it’s things like systemic trans exclusion, where they don’t know if they can come along and know their gender is going to be respected, or they have to be on certain teams. Because of that, trans people tend to be less involved in sport which means that as well as the barriers around gender people can also feel left behind in terms of expected fitness levels or skill levels.
“We are a space trying to get rid of all that by making activities as accessible as possible, and we do quite a wide range of stuff including things like gardening, physical activities that aren’t typically what you might think of when you’re talking about sports, because there are barriers to the whole area of sports, as well as to individual sports or for individual people.
“People might think they can’t play football, for example, because of the culture, so we make sure to run events where we can get them involved on their terms, get peer support and have a good time – and get what they want out of it.
“We also try to take away barriers around gender, expected skill levels, and we try to make sure that if anyone has any specific accessibility needs then we make space for that.
“We do an event every couple of weeks most of the time, depending on capacity and what else is going on, and we do things like a football series, pole fitness, kayaking, we’ve gone on walks – people often like to do those because they are very accessible. We’ve done snowboarding and skiing, roller blading, gym sessions, loads of things.
“We have people who are really fit that come along, but it’s generally aimed at the needs of the people who are least able in the group. We went to Dalwhinnie for a weekend of hiking, and there were people who are really used to going hiking and do it a lot, but then there were others who had no experience at all. It’s a real mixture.
“I try to support people to continue doing the activity. After the pole fitness, some people got really involved in that, some got really involved in gym sessions and have started playing for football teams too.
“Quite a lot of attendees think it’s really wonderful to be in a space that is a majority of, or entirely, trans people. It is rare that we are in a space like that.”
Equipping people to participate in sport
As ever, projects like Trans Active can change scope after launching to suit the needs of their members.
Wilkie has certainly found that to be the case. One of the initial ideas behind the group was for it to become self-sustaining, but whether because of the pandemic or the demographic Trans Active is targeted towards he is finding his role as a facilitator to be as active as ever.
In other cases, though, Trans Active is achieving exactly what it set out to do – in short, help build trans people up through sport.
“Our initial aims were really about the well-being of individual trans people, and building communities,” he recalled.
“It was very much about reducing isolation, improving mental health and confidence, and all sorts of different personal skills. We wanted to do that individually, but also for trans communities and networks together to give people skills to organise things, or even just to give people confidence to see that someone might be isolated and talk to them.
“Another aim was to support people to be involved in mainstream sports and activities. We did a series of pole fitness sessions, and now one person is involved with the ‘regular’ pole fitness sessions. We help people develop more confidence to access mainstream activities.
“At the beginning we envisioned that it would become quite self-managed. A key part of that is having community leaders who can take on the organising of events, and we do have that in parts.
“We do have volunteers and people involved in the group who organise events and volunteer at events – they might do yoga events or walking events. We have a couple of people who have done some coaching too, but the group still needs facilitation. It’s not that there are a couple of people who have taken over the overall facilitation of the group – even though there are bits there’s still quite a lot of work I have to do to find out what people want to do and making that happen.
“What LEAP tends to try and do is support communities to develop things themselves, then fade into the background a little bit. We’ll still support where needed, but we ideally wanted it to become self-running.
“The participants that come along to the Trans Active group, though, tend not to have the existing skills or desire to do that. A lot of people who come along don’t initially have the confidence to organise events or work with the community to find out what other people might like to do.
“Because it’s more aimed at introducing or reintroducing people to sport, I think it’s something that will need facilitation for a while at least. Who knows what will happen in the future, but that’s one way we have changed direction a little.
“Especially with the pandemic, there were a lot of people who felt quite isolated, and there were trans people who maybe weren’t out to flatmates or people they were staying with. Because we do have a very wide age range involved, we have people who are staying with family members, and people who are on their own.
“Quite a lot of people who come along say they want to make connections, so if we can support people to develop the skills and confidence to arrange their own activities, that’s absolutely brilliant.
“People have a confidence that the activities we run will be accessible to them now, and that’s a journey and something we’re always trying to improve on. People can come along to an activity that interests them, but they don’t feel like they have to come along to every thing.
“We’re constantly trying to improve on those group activities that we do, so we often ask people what they would like to do and try to facilitate that, and as a result we have started to do a couple of longer-term series of events. This year we had about five different football events over the summer with the same coach, and some people came to all of them, some people came to one or two.
“We did a thing with Bike For Good, who help support people to get cycling. So that series was aimed at people who could cycle but maybe hadn’t cycled since they were a kid, or people who liked cycling but didn’t have their own bikes, or weren’t confident on the roads, or cycled quite a lot but wanted to learn how to cycle in groups.
“They also do things for people who haven’t cycled before, so that was a 10-week course and each Friday, a group would go out cycling. Those projects are things that have developed as the group has become more established.”
Challenges of transphobia
While inclusive clubs and groups are more difficult to find in Scotland than south of the border, trans-specific groups are at a premium.
As hate becomes more common on social media, national outlets and within sport, then, it becomes crucial that groups like Trans Active exist.
Serving as an introduction to sport means that they can avoid the scope of bans like the RFU has imposed on rugby union in England, but Wilkie has still seen the rhetoric have an effect.
“Because we’re not really entering competitions or anything like that, we’re not really affected practically by the bans,” he reasoned.
“People often ask before they come long to events if they are allowed to come, and it’s very much my role as the facilitator to be in touch with the coaches or groups to make sure that there are no issues.
“We don’t necessarily focus on mainstream sports, or we work with coaches and facilities that are trans inclusive. There have been some issues around swimming, and clothing policies, but when it comes to the bans we’re not doing any competitions so we don’t really engage with that.
“We are very much a grassroots, participatory level, so we don’t see much of a drop-down influence – it’s more people who are coming along who worry if they are allowed, or ask if they have to do certain things to be able to come along.
“We do have more people who would have gone to mainstream activities that come along to Trans Active now, because they don’t feel like they would be welcomed.
“Maybe they would be welcomed, but they don’t have the confidence to ask if they can come along, or there’s not visibility of individual teams saying they don’t agree with the policies that have been introduced.
“That might make people think they don’t really understand what it means for trans people, so we have had people come along who feel like they can’t be involved in the sport they want to be in. It’s a very up in the air time for different sports because they are developing guidelines and policies.
“There has been such a rise in transphobia, and it’s so socially embedded from these strategic positions. It’s within all media and all social media, so even if someone celebrates their trans identities they will be affected by that.
“There are negative stereotypes and environments, so trans people always feel like they have to explain or make sure they are palatable, a very ‘normal’, mainstream trans person that just wants to live their life.
“There’s definitely a lot of that happening right now, and especially if people are just coming out to themselves or coming out to other people, there almost feels like a pressure to send a message that trans people don’t want to steal any rights or harass you.
“Having a space like Trans Active where we can joke around is great. We just want to live our lives quietly in the background, and have fun whilst doing it to try and be joyful.”
A place to celebrate
Trans Active certainly seems to provide a rare beacon of positivity to people finding it difficult to stay optimistic.
Wilkie has seen the effects of that first hand, which only reinforces the need for Trans Active to be a place for celebration.
“I think it’s a really important project,” Wilkie insisted.
“A lot of people who come along have said that it’s absolutely changed the way they feel and think about sport, and it has allowed them to connect with other people.
“It is something that isn’t going to a nightclub, or focused around evening activities or alcohol or drugs, and people have said that it has been a really magical space where they don’t need to worry about how they are perceived.
“It has been really fundamental to some participants’ transition from lockdown to being around communities again. It has also been people’s entry in to doing sport and activity, or even other things like visiting tourist spots where they are still getting up and doing something.
“Even if people have been doing a lot of exercise and sport outside of the group, people have mentioned that attending has changed how they feel about their bodies.
“They have found a place they can train that helps them feel more connected to themselves, rather than training because they don’t like parts of them.
“We focus every activity on trying to reduce all the background noise of transphobia and celebrating trans identities. It’s joyful, group members all happen to be trans but it’s also wonderful to be trans. We can really make it a celebratory space rather than one that’s awkward.
“For me it’s a wonderful thing, and the reason for that is because of the people who come along who are really keen and get that it’s a space for anybody that’s trans and non-binary.
“They understand that people may have had different experiences than them, have different trans identities, but it’s a space where everyone respects each other and respects different abilities and skill levels – and different things they want to get out of it.
“The environment is really made by the people, and it’s great to see people develop their confidence and communication. During the football it was really obvious that some people started out not really sure what they were doing, but by the end they were calling each other’s names, getting in front of people to tackle them, and they were just more okay with being on the pitch and being part of the group.
“Obviously seeing people starting to organise their own events, even if that’s just going for a walk with their friends, that’s something we might not have seen before.
“We have quite a lot of people who come along that talk about interacting with different groups, where they can see you don’t have to be a certain body shape, you don’t have to have had certain experiences or be young to take part in sport. You don’t have to be this gender or able bodied, or any of these different things. Trying to quiet those unconscious assumptions or fears that they have is the biggest thing, so that’s great to hear.”