Not that long ago, the issue of “bathroom bills” that sought to define who is allowed to use male or female restrooms and locker rooms, was hotly debated nationwide. As variances on the gender spectrum are becoming more visible in our communities and as society becomes more aware and accepting, this is an issue that park and recreation professionals are having to face. As recreation professionals, we are always looking for ways to make our parks and programs accessible and welcoming to all members of our diverse communities. So, how can we promote inclusion for participants on the gender spectrum? We can start by creating a welcoming environment for the gender nonconforming demographic through understanding, connecting, educating and policy making.
As a recreation manager, who is also the mother of a 9-year-old, gender-unique child, I’ve used my personal experience to develop practices and policies that promote inclusion.
It Starts with Understanding
Gender is defined in Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the behavioral, cultural or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.” To better understand gender as a spectrum, one can break down gender into four areas: anatomical sex, attraction, gender identity and gender expression. This is cleverly illustrated by Sam Killermann’s “Genderbread Person.” Notice that anatomical sex is symbolized with the private parts, sexuality with the heart, identity with the brain, and gender expression with the outside appearance. (Note: “Private parts” is the term I use here, not because I am shy about using the word “genitals,” but as a reminder that a person’s anatomy is private, and it is very inappropriate to ask a person on the gender spectrum about the nature of their private parts).
Viewing gender as a spectrum of four separate components creates more inclusion and understanding. A person’s anatomical gender refers to the expression of his or her chromosomes. While XX and XY are by far the two most common combinations, about 1 percent of the population has atypical gender anatomy (studies report 0.5 percent–1.7 percent). A person’s sexuality refers to who a person is attracted to, both sexually and romantically. This includes heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, asexual and polyamorous among others. Gender identity refers to the gender with which a person internally identifies. People typically prefer the gender pronouns that correspond to their gender identity, and some people identify as nonbinary and prefer to use “they” as a singular pronoun. Gender expression refers to the way a person outwardly appears to society, including through their clothes, hair, posture, mannerisms, voice and gender-associated behaviors.
Individuals who are gender nonconforming have one or more inconsistencies in these four areas of gender. This includes transgender, genderfluid, nonbinary, androgynous, gender-unique and genderqueer, to name a few, but don’t let the list of vocabulary words overwhelm you. Much of the terminology is open to personal interpretation, so your best course of action is to listen closely to how people describe themselves and then choose the same or similar respectful terminology.
To embrace a basic understanding of the many types of gender nonconformity, there are just a few facts that need to be accepted:
Variances on the gender spectrum are real.
People who express their gender differently aren’t doing so to be different — they are doing so to be themselves.
People who are gender nonconforming are part of our community and should be included in our programs.
Everyone deserves simple kindness and respect.
People on the gender spectrum are a vulnerable demographic when it comes to community inclusion. They are often used to some degree of social rejection. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), 78 percent of students and 90 percent of adults report experiencing harassment. The NTDS reports 41 percent of the transgender/gender nonconforming population has attempted suicide. This risk decreases for those who find acceptance in their home, school and community.
It’s About Connecting
Understandably, individuals on the gender spectrum are likely to be hesitant about trying a new recreation program. It is the responsibility of recreation professionals to welcome and connect with people on the gender spectrum. We can incorporate some of the skills we have developed in other areas of inclusion to demonstrate that we are looking to connect with people all over the gender spectrum. For example, we can include a variety of gender expressions in our activity guides and advertising materials and on our web pages. Also, we can actively get information about our programs and job openings out to the gender nonconforming community through direct marketing.
One of the easiest ways to demonstrate an atmosphere of inclusion is to make your registration process welcoming. This can be done by adding a third “other” option on registration forms where participants are asked to check male or female. As earlier mentioned, restrooms are another area where an atmosphere of inclusion can be demonstrated. While creating single-stall, gender-neutral restrooms in our parks and facilities takes a bit of work, it can have a major impact. Gender-neutral restrooms are the epitome of social justice, as they provided gender nonconforming individuals with the privilege most of us take for granted: using a restroom without fear of harassment.
It’s About Training
True community building needs to come from the entire recreation department, because lasting connections are developed through daily human interactions. Once you put the outreach in place, staff can be taught to promote inclusion and deepen community ties.
Unfortunate incidents, like the soccer game mentioned in the accompanying “It’s About Identity” sidebar on page 63, can be avoided by adding some simple education points to staff and coach trainings. Taking 1–2 minutes in preseason training can help prepare coaches and refs to handle sensitive situations. Create a segment of trainings that includes these five components:
Gender nonconforming people exist, and they are welcome to participate in our programs.
Players, parents and coaches are to be trusted when declaring the gender of their players and participants.
At a recreation level, there is no need for DNA testing or debate — all people play on the team that matches their identity.
Any questions or objections need to be brought through the [insert title of recreation professionals here]office, and not debated during games.
All program participants and community members deserve our respect.
Similar educational notes can be included in trainings for afterschool and camp staff. Staff who work with children should always be on the lookout for bullying but should also be aware of the increase in statistical likelihood for those who are gender nonconforming. Encourage an open dialogue between staff and families to help navigate potential issues and challenges.
Acceptance of gender inclusion can also be incorporated into your recreation programs, including preschools and youth classes. Remind staff that toys, including dress-up clothes, are not gender specific and all children should feel comfortable experimenting with a variety. Even your customer service team will benefit from gender spectrum education. Comments like, “Really? That kid is a girl?” are more common, and more hurtful, than one might think. Remember, it is never OK to ask about or even allude to a person’s private parts when helping them select a program.
It’s About Policies
It is always best to check with federal, state and local laws when creating policies for your agency. When it comes to gender spectrum inclusion, most protective laws are being created at the state level. Researching your state’s anti-harassment policies, department of health regulations, and fair employment and human rights laws is a great start.
The federal government does have a few protections in place: federal employers and contractors are prohibited from discrimination based on gender identity (Executive Orders 13087 and 13672), and many courts have been ruling that gender nonconforming people are protected by federal sex discrimination laws.
Once you have a scope of the legal requirements, create policies that meet or exceed the protections needed to include everyone on the gender spectrum. Consider adding the following:
Anti-discrimination language to your hiring policy to protect gender identity and expression
Allowance for sports participants to play on the team with which they identify
Allowances for patrons to use the restroom and locker rooms where they feel safest
Anti-bullying policies and behavior requirements in your youth programs
Find company health insurers that are inclusive and cover transition care for transgender employees. Healthcare providers are prohibited from blanket transgender exclusions, but actual services can vary based on provider and state.
Inclusion is an ongoing mission. Recreation professionals play a key role in cultivating a positive environment for community development. You don’t need to be an expert, parent a soccer-playing tomboy, or even know all the latest nonbinary vocabulary words to promote acceptance. A basic understanding of the gender nonconforming population should provide a good foundation to create outreach, training and policies for your agency.
While you continue to improve our understanding, outreach, training and policies to be inclusive to gender nonconforming people, consider some of these great sources of information list below:
- A Guide to Gender – the Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook by Sam Killermann http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/about-the-blog/ and https://www.genderbread.org/
- Questions and Answers about Gender Identity by Michigan State University School of Journalism
- Sport & Gender Identities – Masculinities, Femininities, and Sexualities edited by Cara Carmichael Aitchison
Becky Herz is the Senior Recreation Services Manager for Sunrise Recreation & Park District.