(photo courtesy Kinnon Ross MacKinnon)

Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games: an opportunity to make sports more LGBTQ-friendly

Access to sport a human rights and public health issue, says U of T powerlifter

Public health researcher and competitive powerlifter Kinnon Ross MacKinnon says it's crucial that as the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games prepare to host thousands of athletes from 41 countries, advocates and organizations such as PrideHouse Toronto are supported in their work to ensure all athletes feel equally welcome – regardless of gender or sexuality.

MacKinnon says the issue of access to athletics is not only one of human rights, but also public health.

“We know that LGBTQ individuals experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance use, and smoking when compared to heterosexual and cisgender groups, which means that sexual and gender minorities have poorer mental and physical health outcomes,” said MacKinnon, who is pursuing a PhD at U of T's Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “Engaging in regular exercise, and playing sports can mitigate these health concerns, as research shows that regular physical activity improves mental and physical health.”

The world of sport has long been the domain of men who are heterosexual and cisgender (a person whose gender identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex). MacKinnon says that in the minds of many fans and participants, physical ability is often tied to traditional ideas about masculinity.

With this idea consistently reinforced by sports media coverage, he says, it can be nearly impossible for those who don’t fit into that traditional ideal to find a place for themselves in athletics.

“Reducing discrimination based on gender identity and sexuality in sporting culture is the key to increasing participation, at least at the amateur levels,” said MacKinnon. “This work needs to begin with youth, because 49 per cent of Canadian LGBTQ youth already identify that their physical education change room feels unsafe. So, how likely are these youth to play on sports teams when they don't feel safe in their locker rooms?”

Current conversations about LGBTQ inclusion in sports tend to centre around established athletes feeling comfortable with being open about their sexuality, MacKinnon says. He emphasizes the importance of athletes feeling at ease in expressing their true selves, so they can focus on performing at their best. And celebrating “out” role models in sport is key to inspiring aspiring athletes, he adds.

But MacKinnon also notes that a significant number of LGBTQ persons avoid playing on sports teams or going to the gym before they ever have a chance to become an athlete.

“Sexual minority youth are 46 to 76 per cent less likely to play team sports when compared to their same gender heterosexual peers. In Ontario, a study conducted by the Trans PULSE Project found that 44 per cent of trans people avoid going to the gym for fear of experiencing harassment or being outed,” he said. “So I think while we encourage LGBTQ athletes to come out, and celebrate those who do, we also need to be working on decreasing the barriers that sexual and gender minority persons encounter when trying to participate in recreational level sports and athletics.”

By hosting events aimed to foster growth in sport, MacKinnon says organizations like PrideHouse Toronto – a province-wide initiative dedicated to engage LGBTQ people in sport, para-sport and recreation – do a lot to promote inclusion in sports in ways that will hopefully have a positive impact beyond the Pan Am games.

Allison Burgess, from U of T’s Sexual and Gender Diversity Office, says the university community recognizes that sports need to be made more inclusive. This year, along with their annual series of events surrounding the Pride Toronto Festival, they also hosted an event on June 19th called “Transforming Sport: LGBTQ Athletes in Action,” featuring former George Washington University basketball player Kye Allums and Olympic rhythmic gymnast Rosie Cossar.

Burgess said Allums and Cossar shared personal stories reflecting on the relationship between their identities and their athletic careers.

She added that Pan Am “will be an incredible opportunity for the University of Toronto community to reflect on the great work around diversity and inclusion that has already been done, but also to point to the places where we can continue to challenge homophobia, transphobia and all forms of discrimination in sport, across our campuses and in all aspects of our community.”

The Sexual and Gender Diversity Office works towards equity and challenging all forms of discrimination, especially discrimination based on sexual and gender diversity and at the intersection of all other identities, says Burgess.

“One of the ways that we do so is by engaging the campus communities in ongoing learning. By raising the profile of LGBTQ voices at an event such as 'Transforming Sport' on the University of Toronto campus, we work to eradicate stigma by sharing the personal stories of these tremendous athletes who are leaders for our time in the struggle to challenge homophobia and transphobia in sport and in our communities.”

MacKinnon says that kind of discrimination is one he is all too familiar with as a former competitive soccer player, golfer, and nationally-ranked skier and snowboarder. He observed homophobic and transphobic slurs made by other athletes.

“Comments about teammates' gender presentations, or speculations about sexuality were topics of conversation that came up from time to time, which ultimately does affect the level of comfort for LGBTQ-identified athletes,” he explains. “As a trans athlete today, though, I have personally experienced transphobia and sexism.”

MacKinnon says strength, the number one deliverable in powerlifting, is still considered an inherently male quality. He has been asked if he uses performance enhancing drugs by people who discover he can bench press 255 pounds and was not born male, a question that he says would not be asked if he were a cisgender male.

“I would be simply congratulated on my strength and motivation levels,” he says. “Instead, I have been suspected of cheating. This is just an example of sexist ideas that contribute to transphobia within sports and athletics, that trans male athletes must deal with when disclosing their identity.”

MacKinnon says the upcoming Pan Am/Parapan Am Games are a great opportunity for Torontonians to help make sports a more inclusive environment, but many questions remain.

“How do we ensure that LGBTQ individuals are going to have access to facilities free of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia? How about women? We know that women also experience barriers to participate in sport. How do we ensure that economically marginalized individuals can afford to access the new sports centres? How do we make these new athletic programs open to individuals living with physical limitations, or mental health issues?” he asks.

“These are questions that must be addressed leading up to, during, and following the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games in order to make access to sports and athletics more equitable. And this is the perfect time to do it – while the world is watching Toronto. We have the opportunity to set an example and be role models for other international sporting events.”

Sarah McDonald is a writer with University of Toronto Communications.

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