Written By: Dr. Tiffany Monique Quash
At this moment, the world is in chaos.
COVID-19 remains in our world and has greatly impacted racial minorities. The war in the Ukraine is affecting the lives of people with the lack of their daily needs being met. In the United States, the irrational behaviors and comments of government officials against the expertise of a Black Womxn remain a daily conversation. Our world is in chaos and our fellow humans are unable to live their true authentic lives as themselves. The turning point of this conversation is that certain humans with specific privileges in our society are making decisions about lived experiences associated with gender. Such decisions are impacting a sport that we all love, swimming.
How some of us were educated and conditioned to understand gender as a binary construct, is similar to the rhetoric associated with racism, heterosexism, ableist, and xenophobia. Simply put, our society and sport are reinforcing western white patriarchal (purposefully in lowercase) language and actions that are not inclusive of specific marginalized populations. Such an example is the policing of a Black Swimmers’ body during a competition on February 9, 2022 for wearing a swimsuit saying, Black Lives Matter. Swimmer Leidy Gellona was disqualified by a race official at a swim meet at the Duluth YMCA. Though the disqualification was overturned, the fact that Leidy received minimal support from the swimming community in that moment speaks volumes to what it means to be an accomplice. To better understand the difference between being an ally and an accomplice, I invite you to look at the following links and to do your own research:
Though the discussion around Leidy Gellona is about race, a dialogue must be had in connection to marginalized bodies and how we define certain individuals as a wo/mxn and/or as fe/male. Gender and sex are not the same. Gender identity and sexuality are not the same. For further understanding check out this link and continue to research on your own:
Please, reach out to scholars and organizations in this field to begin your journey. I am still on this journey and forever will be because being a human is complex and understanding the lived experiences of our fellow humans is even more complex. It is “okay” to fumble while trying to understand others, but it is more important to listen to others to grasp the full picture of such experiences. To truly be an accomplice for diversity, equity, inclusion, in swimming means to bring others to the table purposefully and not speak for marginalized communities. Currently, decisions and policies are being made to exclude an individual and/or group of individuals. This sounds familiar to the exclusion of Black people in our sport which has brought me to how our sport understands the experiences of transgender athletes.
Before getting into this discussion, I need to state that I, Dr. Tiffany Monique Quash, identify as a cisgender Black Queer Womxn. I do not have the same experiences as my transgender siblings. I take ownership in the fact that I have privilege as a cisgender womxn. I remain committed to educating myself, educating others, and being an accomplice to support my transgender siblings. This is reflected in personal/professional relationships. Doing this has resulted in taking an unfavorable stance with my colleagues in the swimming community. It is during this time that I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s 1988 text, A Burst of Light. It is here that she states, “[t]o acknowledge privilege is the first step in making it available for wider use”. I have the privilege to live my life as a cisgender womxn and not experience the lack of support as my transgender siblings in a sport that can dictate my experience based on my gender.
Being a human is a complex experience for all of us.
When discussing the experiences of swimmer Lia Thomas, I accept the challenge of calling-in others who question individual experiences and lack the knowledge of using inclusive language. I admit that I am not perfect in attempting to call-in others and am not all-knowing concerning all topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but it is important to understand that humans are multi-dimensional and are prone to making mistakes. Calling-in our colleagues while doing the work of diversity, equity, inclusion while simultaneously addressing the injustices in our society can be extremely exhausting and painful. Having said such, it is imperative to distinguish the difference between personal beliefs vs. personal experiences, policy vs. practice. When the language used by our athletes, coaches, and administrators’ mirrors hate, encourages violence, and alienates people in our swimming community, our priority should be to co-creating a safe inclusive space for all. I do not wish to focus on Lia Thomas, the person or the swimmer, but to offer an opportunity for us to reflect upon the meaning of privilege, our complex understanding of gender, and sport (overall). Most importantly, we must take the time to honor space and time for marginalized populations through multiple lenses.
Before reading further, write and reflect upon your privileges in society. Some examples may include (but not limited to):
not experiencing homelessness;
having consistent employment;
not being skipped over for a promotion because of your gender/race;
having health insurance;
not worrying about your next meal;
having a certain level of education;
being able to celebrate your religious beliefs.
Truly reflect upon times when you have not struggled and acknowledge that this is a privilege. This is not an opportunity to demonize you for who you are, but to grapple with your privilege in society.
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) notes that “members of the majority culture…in the United States, [are] made aware of one’s classification as linked to privilege is likely not a common or welcomed experience. Indeed, many people have never been asked or required to reflect on their own privileged status…”. Our sport is heavily comprised of white athletes with white cisgender straight men in prominent spaces of leadership. In swimming, athletes are identified and categorized by gender and age for practice groups and competition.
In a study conducted by Cleland, Cashmore, and Dixon (2021), the researchers cite Kamasz (2018) by stating that gender, “is a cultural and social construction reflecting in the differential self‐identities, behaviours and roles associated culturally with biological sex” (p. 573). Rather than explaining the entire article, I will pull out key aspects that are imperative for you to understand to help us move toward a culture of understanding.
Prior to reading this article, I would shake my head when constantly hearing the ongoing fear and seeing the tears of white cisgender womxn athletes about the unfairness of transgender athletes taking up space and opportunities. There is no data that can support these claims. Then right there in print, I read the following by Cleland, Cashmore, and Dixon (2021):
Travers (2018, 651) explains how trans participation in sport is intersectional given that ‘race, class, sexuality, gender and nation constitute assemblages of power and privilege’. In the context of race and gender, Anderson and Travers (2017, 3) state how, ‘assumptions of unfair male advantage, for example, lean heavily on a western image of white, middle- and upper-class female frailty.’.
The writers continue by stating that:
When disruptions to the natural sex/gender binary occur, Westbrook and Schilt (2014) outline how this can lead to a ‘gender panic’. In the case of trans women competing in women’s sports, Westbrook and Schilt refer to them as being seen to have an ‘improper body’ that gives them an unfair advantage when competing against cisgender (a non-trans identity where people’s gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth) women.
Cleland, Cashmore, and Dixon (2021, p.2)
In summary, the folx who are freaking out and the people who are making the loudest noise are sitting in the seats of privilege. The results from this study indicated that there is a mistrust of transgender athletes who were assigned at birth in sport. Ironically, “participants were supportive of the inclusion of trans women who wish to compete as the person they are (rather than as they were assigned at birth and socialized into) and consider attempts to keep them out of their chosen sport as exclusionary” (Cleland, Cashmore, and Dixon, 2021, p. 13). I highly recommend reading the findings of this article several times to best understand how the researchers came to their conclusion. It is not that this article is supporting one perspective over another, but that gender is complicated.
I had the opportunity to write a case study about the experiences of a Black Transgender Girl in a Physical Education class in the text, “Critical Race Studies in Physical Education” by editors Drs. Tara B. Blackshear and Brian Culp (2022) published this month. This case study is a combination of personal experiences shared with me and various text. Readers come away with an understanding of a singular experience through the lens of family members and educators. Towards the end of the chapter, recommendations and questions are posed to allow readers to discuss policies that are infringing upon the experiences of youth. Based on the statistics cited by the Trevor Project, “1.8% of youth identified as transgender”. Information found on the Gender/Justice quotes a 2018 article from the New York Times stating, “[s]cientists have repeatedly said there is no single biological factor[s] that determines sex, and sex assigned at birth is not the sole determinant of gender”. Most importantly, order and read Schuyler Bailar’s book, Obie is Man Enough. Schuyler is the “first transgender athlete to compete in any sport on an NCAA Division I men’s team”. Overall, become educated on “gender literacy and transgender competency” by registering and learning from LaneChanger.com. Schuyler Bailar has developed an “online learning series” that we can all benefit from to help move the conversation forward.
Seeing the Value of Inclusion
At the core of how we should interact with people is the word, inclusion. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (and others) define inclusion as, “the state of being valued, respected and supported. It’s about focusing on the needs of every individual and ensuring the right conditions are in place for each person to achieve [their] full potential”. Before making any decision, ask yourself: Am I providing a space for individuals to flourish and be their best selves? What mechanisms can I create to provide a space for all to excel and not feel regulated by policy and political ideology? As a community, let’s co-create a space for all to thrive instead of developing punishable methods to exclude fellow humans. In the words of scholar bell hooks, “[s]tereotypes abound when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make real knowing possible cannot be taken or are not allowed”. Let our sport reflect positive leadership to implement inclusive change for all bodies.
*Note websites are hyperlinked
Bailar, S. (2021). Obie is man enough. Crown Books for Young Readers.
Cleland, J., Cashmore, E., & Dixon, K. (2021). Why do sports fans support or oppose the inclusion of trans women in women’s sports? An empirical study of fairness and gender identity. Sport in Society, 1-16.
Kamasz, E. 2018. “Transgender People and Sports.” Journal of Education, Health and Sport 8 (11): 572–582.
Quash, T. M. 2022. “More Than a Bathroom: Black Transgender Student.” In Critical Race Studies in Physical Education edited by T. B. Blackshear and B. Culp, 52-61. Champaign: Human Kinetics.
Travers, A. 2018. “Transgender Issues in Sport and Leisure.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Feminism and Sport, Leisure and Physical Education, edited by L. Mansfield, J. Caudwell, B. Wheaton, and B. Watson, 649–665. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Westbrook, L., and K. Schilt. 2014. “Doing Gender, Determining Gender: Transgender People, Gender Panics, and the Maintenance of the Sex/Gender/Sexuality System.” Gender & Society 28 (1): 32–57. doi:10.1177/0891243213503203.
Tiffany Monique Quash, Ph.D. is a research methodologist specializing in qualitative and survey methodology with the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University. Dr. Quash has a background in narrative inquiry, phenomenology, and case study methodologies. She is interested in the intentional use of de/colonizing language when addressing aquatic accomplishments and barriers centered on the experiences of Black Womxn in swimming. Outside of her research, Dr. Quash was a Head Swim Coach, Director of Developmental, and Assistant Swim Coach for high schools and USA Swim teams on the east coast, west coast, and the mid-west. Outside of her role as the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director for Streamline Teams, Dr. Quash continues her work with theInternational Water Safety Foundation Research Team. The International Water Safety Foundation is a non-profit organization that raises drowning awareness while bringing basic swimming, water safety, and safe rescue skills to children.