Reprinted from the Nourishing and Moving Our Bodies issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 19 (1), pp. 24-25
Which tent do I go into? That was the issue I was trying to resolve after having already swum 2.2 miles in the clear waters of Mirror Lake and biked a monstrous 112 miles through the Adirondack region surrounding Lake Placid, New York. I was partway through the Ironman, preparing myself for running the final leg, a full marathon. Instead of focusing on my race and transition zones, I was running up to the tents trying to determine where I belonged.
Physical activity has always been a part of my life, whether it’s been playing street hockey with my father and sister growing up or in more organized fashion, like club basketball. Though I loved all things sport (watching or participating), I often felt like my physique did not fit the mold of an athlete. I was heavier set and uncomfortable in my body, lacked confidence in general and wondered why I felt so different. Fast-forward to my earlier 30s when all the slow-moving puzzle pieces connected. The truth became obvious: I am a transgender man, and I had been living my life in an anatomically female body.
For many individuals, physical activity can be a place of self-discovery, an avenue for catharsis and a way to build community. I would say I have used sport and physical activity in all these ways—and more—over the course of my life. It has been a means of engaging in my physical environment, like carving a line down a mountain on my board. I developed skill sets that still serve me in my day-to-day life as a result of being a college athlete.
In sport, I found a community of passionate individuals who loved to challenge themselves with not just one, but three activities all lumped into one day. Training for, and immersing myself in, triathlon helped me process grief and loss in both retirement from college athletics and the death of a friend. Sport and physical movement were my safe space, my happy place.
Yet suddenly I found myself feeling compartmentalized by an activity that had historically given me freedom. I had to choose: men’s or women’s tent to change out of biking apparel into running gear (because, let’s be honest, running a marathon wearing padded biking shorts is no one’s idea of a good time). I had already been on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for over eight months at that time; however, I had not had additional gender-affirming care yet, such as top surgery.
Unfortunately, these are the challenges that gender-diverse individuals face every day, and for some, they can become barriers to living a full, healthy and happy life. Our society and physical spaces continue to remind folks that the predominant view is binary. While there are improvements, it can be an obstacle to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in a setting you are trying to experience to the fullest. Hard to do that when there are reminders, either overt or covert, that communicate a lack of inclusion for all identities. And don’t get me started on the possibility of threat, such as harassment, or even, like in Florida as of 2024, of jail time if an individual uses a bathroom in line with their gender identity rather than their biological sex.
As one person, I certainly do not have the answers for how to make all sports inclusive and fair. I do not have the silver-bullet solution for how to make all brick-and-mortar environments include every need for every person and their multitude of intersecting identities. However, that should not stop people, systems or institutions from looking at what can be done to make small but meaningful changes in the here and now.
Not an end-all-be-all roadmap for how to do it, but a few ideas I can think of to help get you on your way include:
- show inclusivity: For example, an additional tent designated as “open to all” would have allowed me and others to self-select what environment felt most comfortable to us, rather than someone else deciding what options were available or satisfactory.
- build in gender neutrality: Facilities with gender-neutral locker rooms are fantastic—so long as managers make sure cleaning staff don’t block the entrance. (This can lead patrons to question whether they really have a space to change into workout gear, even after making it to the gym in the morning, which can be its own challenge...and may have been my own personal experience.)
- maintain zero-tolerance: Demonstrate inclusion and a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination at physical activity facilities. That way, folks know where your values stand and that you would support them, if it ever came to that.
- self-educate: It is not the responsibility of folks with marginalized identities to support your education as an ally or help you advocate for meaningful change in your community. Sure, some people, like me, will offer up personal experiences, resources and recommendations. However, every experience is different, and it is personally exhausting to feel like you are responsible for educating the masses. Take ownership over your own education. Seek it out yourself.
Being active is a healthy and holistic choice that offers new challenges, skills development, social openings and participation in something bigger than ourselves. We as individuals, as settings, as organizations and as a society need to continue to strive to welcome all without placing unnecessary barriers in the way. We will be a happier, healthier, more collaborative and loving society for doing so.
And just in case anyone was curious, the answer to the question I started with is simple: the men’s tent, because I am a man. I am grateful that while I had already decided to use the tent that was appropriate for my gender identity, a friend who was volunteering that day found me and accompanied me into the tent while I was changing, for support and backup.
Challenges existed, but not so many as to prevent me from completing my goal. Let’s continue to strive to allow others to achieve theirs as their true selves.
About the author
Mac is a licensed clinical and sport psychologist. He has worked in college counselling centres, private practice, embedded in athletics and, more recently, for the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee. In his spare time, he has enjoyed marathons and Ironman triathlons, snowboarding and other outdoor adventures