While there are many things to celebrate this Pride Month — like the Presidential Proclamation to recognize the contributions and resilience of the LGBTQ+ community — there’s no denying the renewed sense of urgency around ensuring that all people, regardless of their gender identity or expression, are welcomed, accepted and fully able to participate in park and recreation facilities and programming, including recreational sports.
As outlined in NRPA’s guidance for supporting transgender inclusion in youth sports, embodying inclusion demands no one is excluded or required to face additional rules or scrutiny to fully participate in park and recreation spaces, programs and services. Following a record-breaking year of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, park and recreation professionals have a unique opportunity to positively influence norms, practices and policies to create a youth sports culture that is inclusive and welcoming to all.
To honor the numerous requests from the field we’ve received about strategies to embody inclusion, NRPA sat down with two park and recreation professionals who are paving the way toward recreation for all. Becky Herz (she/her) is the Sacramento County Regional Parks Commissioner and the Cordova Recreation & Park District Superintendent in Sacramento, California. Peyton O’Conner (they/she) is the Parks and Recreation Director at Buncombe County in Asheville, North Carolina.
Recreational Sports Are Recreational Sports
A key aspect of building more inclusive sports environments is remembering that recreational sports aren’t about winning or becoming a professional athlete. Recreational sports provide youth with the opportunity to learn skills like teamwork while making friends and building their own sense of community. Trans kids are just kids. Yet over 70 percent of LGBTQ+ kids avoid extracurricular activities due to safety concerns, meaning they miss out on the benefits of sports when they aren’t welcomed into programming. As Peyton gracefully reminds us, “trans kids look at sports as an opportunity to build community, just like any other kid.”
Strategies for Building Inclusive Environments
When asked what adjustments park and recreation agencies can make to foster inclusion for trans kids, both Becky and Peyton reiterated how small actions make a big difference. “Simple changes like putting pronouns in an email signature signal that your program is paying attention to gender identity,” said Becky. In addition, registration forms for sports camps and programs should go beyond the binary options of male and female to include non-binary as a third option, always providing registrants the opportunity to self-identify. Diversifying the photos of kids included on your agency’s website and in program marketing materials is another easy way to show kids that when they participate in park and recreation programming, they can be themselves.
In addition to creating positive verbal and emotional environments, agencies can take action to ensure the physical environment also supports inclusion. It’s our responsibility as park and recreation professionals to provide program participants with safe access to bathrooms and locker rooms — as is allowing individuals to use the restroom and locker room in which they feel safest. Posting signs like this one in bathrooms and locker rooms is one way to display your agency’s position on inclusion. Anti-bullying policies and behavior requirements in youth sports programming are another way to indicate that discriminatory behavior will not be tolerated.
For those interested in learning more about how to build inclusion policies, NRPA recently released a podcast focused on transgender inclusion in youth sports. Featuring Chris Mosier (he/him), the first ever transgender athlete to compete in the Olympic Trials, the podcast shares ways park and recreation professionals can promote inclusion with a deep dive into drafting formal policies. While your agency works on its inclusion policy, it’s critical to ensure that trans youth are still welcomed into existing sports offerings — even before the inclusion policy comes to fruition.
Communicating Your Position on Inclusion
A critical component of fostering inclusion is communicating your agency’s position on inclusion to others in the community, including program participants, coaches and parents. Peyton recommends approaching conversations about LGBTQ+ inclusion the same as any other anti-discrimination policy: as a set of facts that are not up for discussion or debate. “Here’s our code of conduct, and this is what drives us. We’re not debating that with people; we’re stating it as one of our values,” shared Peyton.
Training members of your agency, from pool lifeguards to recreation directors, is another strategy to elevate inclusion, and will prepare staff to respond when inclusion norms are violated. Inclusion policies are important, but equally important is carrying them out in practice. Especially important is making sure your coach training curriculum includes principles of inclusion and instructs coaches on affirming behaviors and the benefits of playing sports for youth (hint: it’s not about competition).
As you look for ways to commemorate Pride Month at your agency this year, one strategy to demonstrate allyship to the LGBTQ+ community is to enact new policies and practices that uphold inclusion for all. Remember, the burden of speaking up about inclusion and creating more inclusive recreational programs shouldn’t be placed on these youth, rather, it is an imperative at the core of our collective mission to serve and support community.
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play conducted the interviews with park and recreation staff that informed this piece.
Teresa Morrissey (she/her) is an NRPA Program Manager.
Allison Colman (she/her) is NRPA’s Director of Health.