It’s hard to remember a time before the Olympics had very open, very gay athletes like we do now, but the first openly gay Olympian didn’t appear until 1988 in Seoul.
Thirty years later, there’s still residual public outcry. Even Vice President Mike Pence had a low-key Twitter meltdown about openly gay ice skater Adam Rippon. So it won’t be long before athletes on other parts of the LGBTQ spectrum come to the Olympics to compete and cause similar waves of gratuitous handwringing.
Of particular concern are non-binary and genderqueer athletes, or people who don’t identify as either male or female and otherwise fall outside the traditional gender binary. Sports are rigidly sex-segregated, and the Olympics are no exception. It’s part of the reason why non-binary athletes and activists are pushing for change at more local levels (high schools, colleges), hoping their advocacy can find a way to trickle out, downward, and up.
Whether the Olympics will be prepared for them is a whole other story — and it’s something advocates behind the scenes are working hard to change.
Lauren Lubin is a non-binary athlete, advocate, and founder of the “We Exist” campaign for non-binary inclusion in sports. Lubin —who uses they, them, and their pronouns — made headlines when they became the first non-binary athlete to compete in the New York City Marathon in 2016.
For Lubin, the first step in helping the Olympics to embrace non-binary athletes is simple recognition. Many people, the athlete contends, aren’t aware this community exists at all. Genderqueer and non-binary athletes often don’t make their presence known out of fear of rejection.
“Recognition is the most fundamental step — and our first major obstacle,” Lubin says. “You can’t have hopes, dreams, and aspirations if you’re not recognized … And sports, systematically, is the most entrenched [institution] in gender norms.”
Lubin is working to elevate the community by focusing on basic education. Their upcoming film, We Exist: Beyond the Binary, centers stories from non-binary, genderfluid, and genderqueer people. Once some kind of baseline recognition is achieved, Lubin hopes, it’ll be easier for non-binary athletes to make waves in the Olympics and elsewhere — easier, not easy, being the operative word.
The obstacles facing gender and non-binary athletes differ from other athletes on the LGBTQ spectrum. An athlete’s sexual orientation doesn’t challenge the gender binary in sports — gay men and lesbian women can still compete in their separate, sex-segregated divisions. Trans athletes cause more moral panic than cisgender gay athletes, but trans women and trans men still fall into our culture’s gender binary system, even as they challenge its violently cruel rigidity.
Chris Mosier understands this dilemma well. As a triathlete, Mosier became the first openly trans athlete to compete on a U.S. National Team when he joined Team USA’s sprint duathlon men’s team for the 2016 World Championship. Through his work at Transathlete, Mosier fights for trans* inclusion at all levels of sports, identifying key disparities along the way.
“We are trying to get transgender athletes full inclusion in sports. Depending on the sport and league, policies [for trans athletes] are all over the place,” Mosier says. “We haven’t even begun to discuss the inclusion of non-binary and genderqueer athletes in sports. Most people are just not ready for it yet. Even leagues that are trans-inclusive struggle to understand where genderqueer athletes fit or … where they would play … There’s a lack of understanding of what that means.”
The struggle is real and painfully slow. Genderqueer and non-binary athletes on the ground, even on college levels, are nonetheless trying to fill that gap.
Twenty-two-year-old G Ryan is a genderqueer swimmer who competes for the University of Michigan. Though the Olympics are a long way off for Ryan (who uses they, them, and their pronouns), they have identified concrete, tangible steps every college can take to better serve non-binary and genderqueer athletes — guidelines that more prestigious leagues and competitions like the Olympics could stand to learn from.
“I have helped to install gender-inclusive restrooms … We have a gender-inclusive intramural recreation building,” Ryan says. “It’s really hard when you’re non-binary and really challenging to manage dysphoria in gendered spaces.”
Those experiencing gender dysphoria can feel discomfort, dissatisfaction, or conflict with the sex or gender label assigned to them at birth. Non-binary athletes like Ryan are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of challenges, especially when they’re asked to navigate sex-segregated spaces.
“One of the great ways to combat that is language and establishing linguistic choices that are inclusive,” Ryan says.
Though Ryan participates as part of a women’s team, the group avoids the gendered label in practice, and instead informally refers to itself as “Team 43.” It’s the team’s way of embracing all of its members’ gender identities, even if it’s just conversationally. Ryan views “Team 43” as an imperfect model, even as they identify multiple ways forward for non-binary and genderqueer inclusion in sports.
For sports leagues that want to continue to have men’s and women’s teams, Ryan argues, non-binary athletes should be able to choose which team they participate in. Teams should use more trans- and non-binary-inclusive language. Leagues should have more relaxed uniform requirements, which are challenging for anyone who doesn’t fit conventional gender norms. Bathrooms and locker rooms should be gender-inclusive.
These are minor adjustments that Ryan believes could have a systemic impact on every level of sport, including both collegiate and Olympic.
Don’t angrily tell me “this is the women’s room”,
Apologize “I thought you were a man…sorry”
then say to your friend while I can hear you “Oh my God, that was so embarrassing. How was I supposed to know? I thought it was a guy!”
I’m not an ‘it’.
— G Ryan (@G_RRyan) January 21, 2018
It’s also possible to have sports leagues that don’t have segregated men’s and women’s leagues, Ryan explains.
“It’s all about giving people the additional choice,” they say.
There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. In January 2016, the International Olympic Committee wrote new guidelines making it easier for trans athletes to participate in the Olympics. Trans men can now compete against other men without restriction. Trans women now no longer need gender re-assignment surgery to compete. (However, the IOC still requires trans women to undergo at least one year of hormone replacement therapy in order to participate.)
And trans athletes have their sights set on 2020. New Zealand weightlifter and trans woman Laurel Hubbard, as well as American volleyball player and trans athlete Tia Thompson, are both fighting to compete in Tokyo.
IOC guidelines currently don’t say anything about non-binary athletes. Lubin is confident the Olympics will soon having non-binary athletes competing, whether they’re conscious of it or not.
“We have amnesia about our own history,” Lubin says. “It’s silly to think there won’t be any [non-binary] athletes. We exist.”
Title IX, which mandated inclusion for women in sports, was passed only 46 years ago, Lubin reminds us. Think of how many female athletes we’ve seen rise to international fame since then.
“My hope in the years to come — the easiest, most basic step any committee can take — is recognizing internally that there are and will be non-binary athletes. That’s the beginning,” Lubin says. “And that alone communicates so much more to the entire world of sports.”
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