The Disruptive Potential of Queer Community Sport

By Dr. Claire Carter

(Posted 7 July 2020)

This summer has a different feel. With the impact of the covid pandemic the recreational spaces in most cities feel a bit empty. Perhaps in this moment, it is worth taking some time to reflect on our relationships with these spaces, as they say a lot about our societal assumptions about bodies, abilities, and discriminatory social norms. Sports are one of the remaining cultural institutions clinging to binary notions of sex and gender, as well as to notions of race and ability that figure heavily in who comes out to play, has access, and feels welcome within sporting spaces.

Over the past few years I have been involved in research with queer sports teams in Toronto and Vancouver, with particular attention on leagues that are in the midst of becoming trans and genderqueer inclusive as well as examining the (lack of) racial diversity and accessibility. I have been interested in what conversations leagues were having, how they were implementing changes, and how individual players were experiencing these spaces in transition.

Toronto and Vancouver both have leagues with extensive history in both cities, as well as newer leagues that have a visible presence outside the designated gay villages (Church Street and Davie Street respectively). There is quite a range of sports, from volleyball, soccer, and hockey, to softball, basketball, and dodgeball. Queer community sports emerged out of a need to provide community building spaces, away from bars and limited downtown areas of cities (notably for lesbian women who could not afford to live downtown and many of whom had families and wanted more opportunities to meet other queers). Because many queers had experienced harassment, discrimination, and general discomfort in sports growing up and as adults, queer community sports leagues sought to do things differently (Sykes 2011). Informed by feminist principles, leagues prioritized collegiality, socializing, fun, and inclusivity over competition and winning (Caudwell 2007; Lenskyj 2003). For example, descriptors of various queer women’s leagues include, “all skill levels,” “inclusive and supportive environment,” “enhance learning, make connections, and build community,” and “encourages fun, positivity, safety, fitness, inclusion, and fair play” (Notso Amazon Softball League Toronto and Double Rainbow Dodgeball Vancouver).

Queer community sports offer insight into other possibilities, other ways of being in relation to each other and strategies to re-consider and change the rules of the game.

There is well-established research on the bodily norms informing sporting spaces and the consequences for people who do not want to or cannot meet those normative expectations. Johnson’s (1995) study of gym spaces revealed the gendered dynamics and expected motivator for exercise (to get smaller or to get bigger) to the extent that the weight room was painted blue and cardio room painted pink, and most women do not feel welcome or able to enter the weight room. Sykes’ (2011) research on physical education and Fusco’s (2006) work on locker rooms, among many others, found that spaces of exercise have been unsafe for many trans and queer people because of the rigidity of gender norms and policing and regulation that occur in sports spaces. My own research was motivated by a comment made by someone involved in my doctoral work; referring to a queer positive boxing gym, this queer fat woman was told "you move so well, you move like you’re 100 pounds." While likely intended as a compliment, it revealed the fat phobia informing exercise and queer spaces. My more recent conversations with people about their experiences with their bodies within queer sports leagues (as they began changing membership criteria and policies to be trans inclusive) revealed that these spaces are providing opportunities to feel more at home in one’s body and in community with other bodies. As one participant stated, “I just feel like I’m one of many different looking, different acting people.” Talking specifically about the inclusion of non-binary and trans players, another participant shared that queer community sports was shifting or disrupting expectations of how bodies should appear:

“So it's an expectation now of each individual to not assume somebody else's gender identity. But, with that, also comes, like, more comfortability with bodies. Because now bodies can be any shape and size.”

As noted above, gendered norms in sports affect what sports different people play and/or are encouraged to try, rooted in social ideas about sex and gender, bodily abilities, and desired gendered characteristics. Women, men, and non-binary people have not been encouraged, though this is changing, to play certain types of sports (e.g. figure skating for men and rugby or football for women) because they are seen to challenge or be in contradiction to normative gender identities; women as nurturing, delicate, and beautiful not strong, aggressive, and strategic. Critically, Lenskyj argues that the ideal athlete is defined by “tests of physical strength and endurance, rather than tests of kinesthetic ability, flexibility, coordination, or other physical attributes” (1990, 237). This has seriously limited sporting options for all people and if we consider the value of physical activity – team building, empowerment/confidence, community, de-stressing/well-being, personal skill and achievement, fun, and learning to overcome challenges – this is significant. Transphobia, homophobia, and sexism have functioned as gate keepers and barriers to community recreational spaces. Within queer community sports, there are moments and potential for more genuine inclusion as well as fostering dialogue about gender and sports that disrupt binary assumptions and exclusions, specifically around transphobia and hormones/bodily ability, and femme-inine players. These spaces provide educational opportunities, not only for players but people who come out to watch as well as society more broadly. For example, one player told a story about her partner’s cousin who came to watch: “That’s the thing with rainbow hoops [basketball] - you see that whole broad spectrum of people. So my [partner’s] cousin came to watch us…and she’ll be like, ‘how come that one girl had facial hair’ or whatever…she doesn’t know. She’s not saying it in a bad way but then you have an opportunity to explain."

Playing in community leagues for many is about more than playing a sport, it is, as one participant stated, a duty, a responsibility to maintain an important community space. Ensuring that leagues foster community building, many leagues have begun or deepened work of examining practices in play and considering other strategies to strive to be more inclusive. One league organizer said that they changed their website and membership language to be trans and non-binary inclusive because as the “community expands we just want to let people know we’re welcoming”. Many leagues have also initiated pronoun rounds before games and reflected on language in play, such as "way to go ladies!" and "man-on". Other have put policies in place to be more accessible, such as Double Rainbow Dodgeball utilizing different ways of scorekeeping and cheering to be inclusive of a deaf team, and NotSo Amazon Softball offering the option of having someone ‘run’ for you when you go to bat. NotSo Amazon has also been reflecting on the whiteness of their league and have put in place some strategies to encourage more queers of colour to join, such as reserving spots for queers of colour and trans woman. These initiatives open up community spaces and disrupt norms around ability and sports and reflect what is possible within these community spaces.

There remain many challenges and work to be done and limits on their ability to influence societal and sporting norms more generally. But the moments of disruption of social and sporting norms they foster, which involves continued interrogation of the sex/gender binary, whiteness, and ablebodiedness, as well as prioritization of community building, fun, and inclusivity over competition, are meaningful. A fuller discussion of these spaces and their disruptive potential will soon be available in my forthcoming book, Who’s Coming Out To Play: Disruption and Disorientation in Queer Community Sports, McGill-Queen’s Press, 2021.

Claire Carter is Associate Professor in the Department of Gender, Religion, and Critical Studies at the University of Regina. Her current research examines the relationship between movement/exercise and the embodiment of gender within the changing dynamics of queer and trans communities in Canada.