Judy Virago shares her own experience of being a trans person in sports and fitness spaces, and believes after 15 years of trans athletes being eligible for the Olympics it is time one wore the silver fern and showed the world that ‘they are us.’
The mood was mighty cold for a hot yoga locker room in mid-summer. I was 9 months on hormones, breasts-budding, non-binary in gender presentation and suddenly very unwelcome in the changing area.
“What the hell are you doing in here? This is the men’s room!” Is the kind of locker room altercation that happened twice more before I spoke to management. I let them know I was transgender and that for my safety, and the comfort of the men whose space I had shared, I intended to start using the women’s changing room. They did not allow me this option, requesting that for the comfort “of all patrons” I was welcome to use the staff room to get changed instead.
It was made clear that I was seen as a discomfort to everyone and that my own comfort was not a consideration. Each time I visited I had to ask for the key from the front desk and explain why I needed it. The other patrons could hear this exchange and see me going in and out of the staffroom. It was humiliating. The space I relied on for my physical and mental wellbeing had firmly erected a barrier to access and become an unsafe space. I could have stood my ground, asserted my fundamental UNESCO ratified rights, and fought for them, but instead, I quit. I stopped all sports and recreation that required the use of a changing room entirely.
It makes sense then that many of us don’t play sports the way our cisgender neighbours do. According to research from the University of Waikato (Counting Ourselves Survey, 2019) only 14% of transgender participants were involved in sporting events, just over half the rate of the general population (26%). Many more reported actively avoiding sports clubs (50%) and gyms or pools (58%). We don’t have many transgender sports champions, and if you can’t see it, you can’t be it; but that is changing.
Laurel Hubbard is someone who has not let the fear of exclusion get in the way of her dreams. She is the first openly transgender sportsperson to be included in the Olympic Games (15 years after this was first allowed in policy) and her inclusion in New Zealand’s Olympic contingent is a major milestone for global humanitarian development. New Zealand has said that ‘She is Us.’ Hubbard said: “The mana of the silver fern comes from all of you and I will wear it with pride.”
There are millions of trans people around the world who will never have the opportunity to publicly acknowledge their identity or feel safe to be who they are. Allowing Laurel to compete at the Olympics in the female category shows the globe exactly what the Olympic values of Friendship, Excellence, and Respect look like in practice; that if you work hard, regardless of your struggle, you have the right to play on the Olympic stage – you will be included.
While we are elevating trans sportspeople on the world stage, we have some work to do at home. Proposed changes to the Births, Deaths, Marriages & Relationships Registration Act (BDMRR) will make it easier for people to update their gender marker on their birth certificate to accurately reflect their truth, and bring the process in line with other documents (e.g: passports). This documentation matters. It wasn’t until my documents aligned that I felt welcome to enter sports and recreation again. I signed up to an explicitly inclusive yoga studio with an F on my passport, safe in the knowledge that my country recognized my gender. I was free to sweat with pride.