Binary genders may not be the first words that come to mind when you talk about high school varsity sports — but it’s a whole new world for Manitoba school gyms and fields.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/2/2017 (1559 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Binary genders may not be the first words that come to mind when you talk about high school varsity sports — but it’s a whole new world for Manitoba school gyms and fields.

It’s a world in which boys’ sports and girls’ sports as the definitive and exclusive genders no longer cut it, a world with more than two genders, in which a student can choose with and against whom to play, and in which a student can request to be accommodated with a separate change room should the student wish.

This is the second academic year of the Manitoba High Schools Athletics Association’s groundbreaking transgender policy.

Yet, "Sport at high schools is still boys and girls, men and women," said University of Manitoba graduate student Jaxon Rae Hutton, who’s researching the new transgender policy for his master’s thesis in kinesiology and recreation management.

High school athletics suffer from what Hutton academically labelled "binary genders."

For transgender athletes, it’s not just choosing whether they will compete with and against boys or girls, with the full support of the education system, "It’s all up to the individuals if they’re comfortable or not, using certain change rooms or facilities. Something like having to ask for a bathroom to be made available for one student, suggests there’s something different about that student," he said.

"I was surprised to hear it was enacted," he said. "Throughout my youth, a policy like that would have been useful."

Ten years ago in rural Manitoba, Hutton was confronting gender barriers.

The 26-year-old Hutton isn’t comfortable getting into much detail about his personal experience — it’s all about his research, not about him, said Hutton.

Hutton, who is comfortable with being referred to by male pronouns, played on the girls high school sports teams at Minnedosa Collegiate and used the girls change room.

The home court was welcoming; gyms on the road were a different story.

"Conflicts arose when going to other towns — the hecklers," remembered Hutton. "With me, it was a non-conforming presentation of my gender."

But that experience helped inspire his choice of thesis research, and gives him a level of empathy to reach out and truly listen to transgender student-athletes.

"The main part of my project is to talk to trans youth, to see if the policy is making a difference," he said.

So far, Hutton is conducting his research in high schools with gay-straight alliances in four school divisions. Under the terms of his ethics review committee, Hutton can’t identify them, though the Brandon School Division school board reported in its public minutes that it granted Hutton permission to approach its high schools.

The chain of permission goes from the superintendent to the principal to the alliance supervisor, at the end of which it’s up to students to step forward, he explained. Several have, but he won’t comment on their specific situations. However, some Manitoba school divisions turned him down.

"I’ve been surprised by the lack of media coverage on it," Hutton said. "I am writing a history of the policy, how the policy was created. It’ll be interesting to hear what kinds of accommodations are made."

Hutton said the main argument of critics is that girls sports could be dominated by a transgender student much taller and heavier than the average high school girl: "That argument follows a sexist view of sports," he said.

Hutton’s thesis adviser, University of Manitoba Prof. Sarah Teetzel, is herself conducting national research into transgender athletes, along with colleagues at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. There are 20 Manitobans already being interviewed, some of whom did not transition until they had left high school, she said.

"There were many students who didn’t feel comfortable in either boys or girls sports and didn’t choose to participate," she said.

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports "really encourages" the coach to ask transgender athletes about where they are comfortable changing and what their needs are, Teetzel said.

"Are they even requesting a separate space?" she said.

Teetzel said some opposition may come from other athletes or their parents if a transgender athlete uses the same space. "It’s not a fear when you get to know the person," she said.

Teetzel pointed to the U of M’s Active Living Centre as a model for an inclusive change room. Designed for one person, it’s used by persons in wheelchairs, by parents with children and by people who are not comfortable with the men’s or women’s change room, she said.

MHSAA executive director Chad Falk said he’s heard no issues raised around the transgender policy since he started the job last July.

Hutton’s research criteria allow students to contact him directly, even if they go to school outside the divisions in which he is permitted to work. He’s at umhutto3@myumanitoba.ca.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca