We spoke to LGBT+ Cambridge students about their experiences in sport

On gendered language, problematic socials and trans-exclusive competition rules

CN: incidents of homophobia, transphobia, body dysmorphia

“There’s something here for everyone” is a phrase that I, and many others, heard repeatedly as a fresher. This certainly seemed to be the case if you ever attended a freshers’ fair (rip Freshers’ 2020), trudging around huge marquees of stalls advertising everything from languages to liberalism, flute choirs to Footlights. 

But what this soundbite championing inclusivity ignores is that your identity can make the “something here” that we’re sold as bright-eyed freshers less accessible, uncomfortable or a place where you do not feel welcome. A key sphere of where this can be felt is in sports, where the highly gendered and heteronormative nature of many teams, alongside incidents of homophobia and transphobia, can be a barrier to LGBT+ inclusion.

I spoke to members of the LGBT+ community in Cambridge from a range of different clubs about their experiences in sport to find out more about the situation today, and the ways in which clubs can work to become more LGBT+ friendly:

‘It’s harder to get involved with sports when you’re visibly queer or trans’

Amongst the students I spoke to, there was a consensus that sports remains a very heteronormative environment. Phoebe*, who rows for her college says “it’s the straightest environment I’ve ever been in”, which is a sentiment shared by Jacob* who agrees “rowing is quite a heteronormative sport”, which he says “has quite a macho image.” 

Ben told me that the Cambridge SU LGBT+ Campaign ran a survey last year, with a question about students’ relationship to sports, which found that “lots of people said they hadn’t got involved with sports because they felt like it wasn’t a space for them, or they had conflicting relationships with sports”, as a result of their sexuality or gender identity. They tell me that “it’s harder to get involved with sports when you’re visibly queer or trans.” 

‘You’re led to assume it’s not a space where you’ll be comfortable’

Milo has been playing basketball since he was thirteen Photo credits: @CUWBBC on Instagram

Many of those I spoke to felt that taking part in sports forces them to compromise a part of their identity. Charlie* tells me: “I have to switch my brain off every time I interact with the Boat Club otherwise I get really upset. It’s ridiculously gendered and heteronormative in a problematic way.” 

Jacob* agrees, telling me that he “generally avoids the topic” within his sports club, saying it took him around a year and a half to be comfortable enough to come out to his crew. Despite there being a high amount of LGBT+ representation in his crew, he still says that he feels the need to “avoid the topic in changing rooms” as “there’s some people who are still really awkward about it”, and “locker room banter” is still around. 

Likewise, Phoebe* says she would “think twice about talking about my sexuality” because “it feels very straight all the time.” She says that “sport in society is built up as a place which isn’t inclusive of LGBT+ people and hence you’re led to assume it’s not a space where you’ll be comfortable.”  

Milo says that while they “generally feel very welcome”, they “had a lot of anxiety talking to my club about my gender, I only bought it up when I was changing my name and undergoing medical transition”. He has struggled with people getting his name wrong “despite having at least half a year to get used to it.” He tells me that he had “a fear of imposter syndrome that in order to be a good team captain I had to filter out parts of my personality – the queer and trans part”, which means that they feel as if they “hold back and don’t let myself just exist in this space.”

‘Swaps are very heterosexual’

Part of this heteronormativity appears to centre around socials, with swaps emerging as a key theme. Jacob* tells me “they can be heteronormative, there’s an expectation behind them which makes me feel uncomfortable.” He tells me this is exacerbated by the drinking element to swaps: “People can get drunk and say inappropriate things, some of which can be homophobic.” 

Charlie* agrees with these sentiments, saying that at events such as Boat Club Dinners or swaps, there’s an expectation for men and women to sit separately and that “the enforcement and gender policing is quite strong which can have really damaging impacts on trans and non-binary individuals.”

 ‘The whole culture of PE is fucked’

These experiences of discomfort within sports are not limited to the university, many of those I spoke to pointed to incidents of casual homophobia in school, and in particular PE lessons, which many believed served to put LGBT+ people off sports.

Phoebe* tells me “the whole culture of PE is fucked”, which is reflected in my discussions. Nearly everyone I spoke to had an anecdote of experiences of homophobia in school: “people go around calling people names”, “I dropped a tampon and people made comments about how I was looking at them”, “My friends and I felt the need to get changing in cubicles so we didn’t make other people uncomfortable.” 

Discussing the links behind homophobia within sports, Jacob* tells me that he thinks “sport is seen as quite a macho thing to do” which leads to a “culture which almost demonises people who are non-conforming.” He says these experiences “make it uncomfortable and put people off sports in general.”

‘The LGBT+ bracket is a bit broad’

Phoebe* and Eliza*, both of whom identify as cis women, said they didn’t feel that their sexuality had been a huge barrier to their involvement in sport. Phoebe* tells me that “growing up I wore boy clothes, had short hair and was always quite strong so I always felt quite comfortable being involved in sports, I think my gender expression was a bigger factor for me than my sexuality” but points out that “the LGBT+ bracket is a bit broad” and hides a diversity of experiences within this.

Indeed, for trans teenagers, in particular, sports can be harder to navigate. Milo tells me that “when you’re trans or queer growing up as a teenager you get extremely put off from doing sports from encounters in school which are straight-up traumatising.” They also point out that “being trans or queer can make you very aware of your body in a way which can be quite uncomfortable and sports can really exacerbate that”, which can prevent trans people from getting involved with sports. 

‘Being trans put me off signing up for rowing’

Painting the river rainbow Photo credits: Ben

A significant part of this issue is due to the gendered nature of many sports. Ben tells me that “being trans put me off signing up for rowing”, relating that when they signed up they had to fill in a sheet which had a column that just said “male or female”. When they tried to asterisk this to explain they didn’t fit into the binary, “the club said no, are you a guy or a girl.”

They later sent an email apologising and asking which said they’d rather row on, but Ben says that it was clear that “they weren’t anticipating non-binary people signing up”, and that regardless it felt like a bit of a non-choice since “I would have been at a massive disadvantage compared to the guys in my club.” They tell me “I was more secure in my identity at this point, but if I wasn’t I’d have been more shaky about joining.”  

Charlie* has had similar experiences. They tell me that when they asked if they could row with the men’s side they were “in the politest terms told to fuck off and stay in the women’s side because that’s where I belong.” They describe this as an “upsetting experience” and say that whilst “it was hardly a surprise, I had hoped for better.” 

Milo’s experiences of being trans within sport come from a different perspective. He first started playing basketball when he was thirteen, after they were “dragged along” by a friend, and they came out after getting heavily involved within the sport. They’re not playing at the moment, with their gender identity being a large part of the reason behind this. He tells me “I’m not comfortable as it’s largely a gendered space. Even though everyone is aware of my gender and uses the correct name and pronouns, it’s something which isn’t tangible, there’s just a sense. I can’t really explain it.”

‘Guidelines make no reference to non-binary people’

Part of the problem of trans exclusion within sports relates to national sport guidelines. Milo tells me that the basketball guidelines are very vague: “they make no reference to non-binary people. For example, if I was taking a low dose of testosterone I’d have no idea if I was able to play.”

Likewise, Ben tells me that the British rowing foundation guidelines allow “trans men to row in either boat, so that’s not a barrier to me competing personally but there are stricter rules for trans women, who are always placed under higher levels of scrutiny within sport.”

I’m really passionate about sports being something everyone can enjoy’

On the whole, those I spoke to enjoyed participating in sports. Milo tells me “I’m really passionate about sports being something everyone can enjoy. It’s good for you physically, and good to have time for the processing and thinking part of your brain to check out.”

Ben told me that whilst rowing was a “mixed bag” regarding their gender identity, they “found it quite affirming in the end.” They told me that “when you’re trans you can have negative feelings around your body and what it looks like. I found rowing and focussing on what my body is physically capable of, rather than what it looks like, is actually really positive and gave me a more positive relationship with my body than before.” They tell me that when other steps towards transitioning can feel far away, “having a small thing about your body you can control is really cool.” 

‘Be cautious and mindful about how that can impact you’

Yet, when asked for what advice they’d give someone considering taking up a sport, they all advised to take a cautious approach, highlighting the obstacles faced by many LGBT+ people within sports. Eliza* tells me “you want to be like yeah you can do it but everyone’s had bad experiences so it depends.” Phoebe* agrees, saying that whilst in theory “if you want to do something, your sexuality shouldn’t be a thing which holds you back”, it is important to “be cautious and mindful about how that can impact you.”

They advised speaking to others to gain an idea of what a club is like; Ben’s college has an LGBT+ family scheme, meaning they could speak to their parent to check if it was a welcoming environment. Similarly, Charlie* recommended speaking to the LGBT+ campaign to see if they know any specific safe spaces. 

Milo also pointed out that clubs often have welfare officers and recommended emailing them to ask any questions you might have, which is a point emphasised by Ben who advises “don’t be embarrassed about asking for things you need, a lot of the time it’s frustrating you have to, but it can be an oversight, people just haven’t thought of it previously.” 

There’s also a consensus of the need to prioritise your comfort. Milo recommends both “finding people within the club you can trust” as well as having “a community outside your club that you can rant to.” Ben agrees, stressing that  “there are lots of sports clubs out there in Cambridge, if you join a club which doesn’t make you feel comfortable, go somewhere else that does feel affirming.”

‘Don’t take the attitude that there are no trans people in this space so we don’t need to worry about this’

For sports clubs looking to take action to be more LGBT+ friendly, Jacob* says inclusivity “starts from having people who are representative [of different identities] on the committee who push for inclusivity in the club.” He says lack of LGBT+ representation is symptomatic of wider issues; he identifies as BAME and points to the lack of BAME representation within his sport as well, which can further exacerbate feelings of exclusion.

At the same time, Milo points out the importance that clubs “don’t take the attitude that there are no trans people in this space so we don’t need to worry about this.” Rather, they prompt clubs to “think about why there are no trans people in this space” and that “even if there are no trans people these steps make it more comfortable for other queer or non-gender-conforming-people”

Jacob* tells me that whilst his club isn’t perfect, he stresses that “the culture is on the whole really positive” and is taking steps to make it “a much better space for everyone to feel comfortable in”, for example holding a Good Lad workshop last year, and pushing to be able to fly the pride flag. He was a Lower Boat’s Captain last year, and said they “tried to dispel the idea that rowing is a very heteronormative sport.” Likewise, Ben tells me that their Boat Club flew the trans flag for the Trans Day of Remembrance and the entirety of pride month last year. 

Yet, there seem to be big differences between clubs and whilst flags can be a gesture that a club is welcoming to LGBT+ people, Charlie* points out that clubs need to go beyond superficial measures, saying “if you’re willing to put the flag up you should be willing to make a commitment to remove structural barriers faced by queer people.”

‘Sports clubs need to be actively inviting’

Although national guidelines act as a barrier to trans inclusion on a competitive level, Milo airs their frustration of clubs’ passive attitudes towards these, telling me “there’s an attitude that until the governing body does something we can’t do anything which isn’t true.”  Ben agrees, encouraging clubs to “put pressure on national bodies to change regulations”, and that even though there’s “not much we can do to change it, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

In the meantime, Milo points out that there are still many steps individual clubs can take to become more trans-inclusive, such as allowing trans people to train in their preferred team, even if they can’t compete in BUCS leagues and supporting players if they are contesting rulings. 

He also encourages clubs to make sure there’s someone on the committee who knows the regulations for trans and non-binary players, saying “this is such a small thing, but nobody in my club has done this until I was welfare officer last year.”  These steps are important because they say that “Governing bodies are more likely to change their policy if there’s a big push for it from clubs/players.” Eliza* agrees, summarising  that “sports clubs need to be actively inviting, making it clear that you can row if you’re gay or play football if you’re trans.”

‘There will always be people who won’t fall into the gender binary’

Many of those I spoke to expressed support for a move away from the gendered aspect of sports. Phoebe* told me that rowing places people into a binary and “no-one has any desire or impetus to change that, there’s no sense that it’s open to people who don’t conform to this.

“Just because the rules say something doesn’t mean we should just accept that and say ‘sorry everyone who doesn’t fit into the explicit binary of male and female, you don’t get to be a rower.” Ben agrees, as someone who rowed on the novice women’s crew. They point out that novice rowing could easily have mixed crews, saying that “when we compared times with men’s races we’d have beaten the men’s side. There’s definitely not as much difference.”

Charlie* stresses the importance of making sports a safe space for non-binary people, such as having either gender neutral or “men and non-binary” or “women and non-binary” changing rooms. Ben agrees, telling me “I felt awkward in the women’s changing room but I’d have felt unsafe in men’s changing rooms.” 

This is an aspect where clubs can differ: for example, whilst Pembroke Boat Club have gender-neutral changing facilities, Charlie* tells me that they have an openly non-binary friend at a different Boat Club who “has to change in the disabled loo which is so unbelievably backwards it should be an embarrassment to the club”, whilst the University Sports Centre does not have gender-neutral changing facilities either.

When approached for comment, the Sports Centre told the Tab Cambridge “there are four single-occupancy changing rooms within the Sports Centre three of which have shower facilities. Following recent discussions, we are planning to improve signage and awareness of these as gender-neutral facilities.”

Gendered language also comes across as a point of frustration, Milo tells me “there’s a sense of gendered camaraderie” within sports, which can be uncomfortable for people who don’t identify with this. Phoebe* echoes this sentiment, telling me “don’t even get me started with the ‘come on girls’” saying not only “I’m not a girl, [so] that’s just linguistically irritating” but points out “it’s such a loaded term” and suggests more gender-neutral terms, such as “crew” or “team”. 

Finally, there is a consensus that sports should be focussed on enjoyment, with Charlie* commenting that “sports should be about fun at the end of the day.” For this to be the case, individuals, clubs, and national bodies need to take steps to ensure sports is a place where everyone can feel comfortable, welcomed and included, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Milo finishes by reassuring clubs that “the world of sports is not going to fall apart if you let trans people compete.” 

Whilst this set of interviews can by no means speak for the diversity of experiences of all LGBT+ people within sports or represent the situation within all clubs, I hope that this article can begin to open up a wider conversation on what LGBT+ inclusion can, and should, look like within sports.

*Names with an asterisk have been changed to preserve anonymity 

Feature Image credits: Ben