There was an appropriately large hullabaloo this week when CrossFitHQ decided they were not going to let Chloie Jonsson compete in the CrossFit Games Open as the woman she is and she responded to their rationale with a $2.5mil lawsuit. Instead of weighing in on the argument about the legality of this decision, I'm just going to assume that this multinational, multi-million dollar business wants to be on the right side of history and human dignity, but just doesn't know how to go about transitioning from the identity they were saddled with at birth to the identity they feel is the expression of who they truly are. So in the spirit of being open source, here is a paper I wrote in 2013 on how to create a culture of inclusion for people of all gender expressions (or rejections) and how beneficial that culture can be for transgender people, cisgender people, and the bottom line of any gym or business that puts in the minimal effort required to not be jerks. I called this intervention, "Priority on Performance" which for anyone who works in a strength and conditioning facility should be hilariously redundant. Yet here we are...
Priority on Performance
An Intervention for Creating an Inclusive Environment for Transgender Members of a Strength and Conditioning Facility
There are approximately 700,000 transgender individuals in the United States encompassing many gender identities such as “genderqueer,” “transsexual,” “intersexed,” “gender non-conforming,” or simply “queer” (Gates, 2011). While this number is only 0.3% of the total US population, it still a population that is larger than the combined number of Americans who identify as Sioux, Cherokee, and Navajo (U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, 2001), 28 times larger than the number of Americans who identify as Scientologists (Bernstein, 2008), and an identity that represents 1 in every 428 Americans. Because of the difficulty in gathering demographic data on this population, there is also no evidence to support that the distribution of transgender individuals is homogenous across the country (Gates, 2012) and many “out” transgender respondents to polling seem to cluster into more densely populated, urban states (Gates, 2013). This demographic data suggests that while the transgender population is relatively small, coaches serving the general public in urban areas should expect to potentially be working with transgender clients and should become educated on their unique social, psychological, and fitness demands.
In the sport psychology literature, there has been academic work on the experience of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) athletes (Krane, 2001; Krane, Waldron, Kauer, & Semerjian, 2010; Kauer & Kauer, 2010), but few studies dedicated solely to the experience of transgender athletes. Krane, Waldron, Kauer, and Semerjian (2010) noted “to date there has been no research in the sport psychology literature that overtly has included transgender athletes” (pg. 170). Since those words were written in 2010, there has been more academic focus from sports psychology on the experience of transgender individuals in sport, mostly concerning inclusion (Lucas-Carr and Krane, 2011; Kauer & Krane, 2010; Buzuvis, 2012; Krane, Barak, & Mann, 2012) with some practical guidelines for creating more inclusive environments in sex-segregated sport (Lucas-Carr and Krane, 2011; Buzuvis, 2012). There has also been some qualitative research on the experience of LGBT sporting spaces (Roper, 2006; Krane & Waldron, 2000; Elling, De Knoop, & Knoopers, 2003), but none specific to transgender issues in sport and exercise.
The general consensus for working with transgender athletes from Lucas-Carr and Krane (2011) and Buzuviz (2012) is that best practices in sport is to promote an environment of “inclusive excellence.” This intervention was derived from Kauer and Krane (2010) and uses a queer feminist framework (Krane, 2001) to reexamine heteronormative and gender hierarchical language that is the status quo in sporting culture. The application presented here is based on the “inclusive excellence” intervention, but I have taken steps to close some gaps between the intervention and the existing literature.
One interesting gap in the literature regarding transgender individuals in sport is qualitative studies investigating what types of issues transgender individuals face when engaging in co-ed or mixed-gendered sporting spaces. The entirety of the literature is dedicated to athletes in sex-segregated sporting environments. Another gap is there little evidence of this intervention in being used in the field and the impact that it has had on transgender athletes and exercisers. There are also no studies of the impact of this intervention on cisgendered athletes. Finally, there has been no work using this intervention on recreational exercisers, neither trans nor cisgendered.
In an effort to close these gaps, I conducted interviews with two self-identified “genderqueer” individuals, one female-to-male transsexual athlete and coach, and two coaches who have experience working with the transgender population. While not complete, nor even exhaustive, the information gathered from these interviews impacted this intervention beyond the scope of the existing literature. These interviews inspired the case presentation, and added some color and anecdotes for the intervention. Some pertinent demographic data on the interviewees:
Athlete #1: A female-sexed, “genderqueer” individual in her early 30’s with experience in both single-sexed and mixed-gender sporting teams as well as in co-ed recreational gym spaces.
Athlete #2: A female-sexed, “genderqueer” individual her early 30’s with experience in co-ed recreational gym spaces.
Coach #1: a female-to-male transsexual with 10 years of coaching experience in mixed-gender settings.
Coach #2: a cisgendered male with hundreds of hours of experience working with beginners, including transgender clients.
Coach #3: a cisgendered female with 10 years of experience working with a diverse clientele including transgender clients.
Andy owns a strength and conditioning facility in a major US city. The six thousand square foot facility is growing very quickly and has over 250 members. He and his staff of 12 coaches and interns work with athletes and regular exercisers one-on-one, in small groups of up to 8 people, and in large classes of up to 20 people. Classes are divided by skill level (beginner, Level 1, Level 2) and type of training (general fitness, strength, and cardio). Clients sign up for classes online and can join any class after they complete a basics course of 6 classes or are cleared by coach to train at a higher skill level class. Classes are mixed-gender and there are no restrictions on who may join classes other than skill level.
The coaches of Andy’s facility are an even split of men and women, each with 2-10 years of individual coaching experience. Some are former world-class athletes, many still compete in varying sports at an amateur level. In addition to the coaches and interns, Andy consults with a female physical therapist, a female message therapist, and a female nutritionist who make their services available to his members. He has also brought in you as a sport psychology expert to consult with the members and coaches.
Andy has never done a formal survey of his members, but records indicate that his membership is about 40% women and 60% men. Almost all are white and middle-class to affluent. 70% of the members are 20-30 years old, 20% 30-50 years old, and 10% are over 50 years old. While there are no one has actually polled the membership, Andy and the coaches believe there are 15-25 members who openly identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Andy’s facility is in a neighborhood that is far more diverse than his membership demographics indicate, including a large LGBT community. He is concerned that something about the facility culture, or its perception in the community, is turning away members. Recently, he has noticed more transgender and “androgynous” individuals in the basics classes who do not go on to sign up for Level 1 classes and appear to let their memberships lapse. He is asking you to work with the coaches to address the facility culture and see what can be done to keep these members beyond the initial classes.
The intervention plan for this case presentation is broken down to the guiding framework for this intervention called Priority on Performance, practical applications for creating an inclusive environment for transgender individuals, and practical tips for coaching staff and consultants who are working directly with transgender individuals, and the impact that Priority on Performance could have for cisgendered individuals.
The Priority on Performance Framework
The framework for Priority on Performance is proactively confronting assumptions about gender expression, intentionally creating a superordinate social identity shared by all coaches and members of the gym, and actively including the experience of every member and coach’s gender expression into a narrative that promotes success within that social identity.
Sport and fitness are concepts that are loaded with gender and sexual expression for most people because they involve the human body, a chief source of how humans perform gender (Butler, 1990). Every athlete and coach that I talked to about this case mentioned certain forms of fitness being “masculine” (heavy lifting, sprinting, push and pull ups, etc.) and others being “feminine” (flexibility, yoga, cardiovascular training, etc.). These gender-laden judgements of human movement are cited by both the coaches and athletes that I spoke to as the status quo, not being conducive to an environment of inclusion, and not practical for talking about performance. Essentially, having girls do girly exercise and men do manly exercise was universally considered a bad idea and neither inclusive nor helpful. And while many coaches, members, and gym owners might not share these hierarchical gender assumptions it is important to note that if the status quo can be assumed, it will be assumed until actions are taken which prove otherwise. Priority on Performance is about getting in front of the status quo and taking those appropriate, inclusive actions.
From the conversations I have had with coaches, I can say the purpose of a strength and conditioning facility, is to facilitate, train, and improve human movement. Every coach and consultant wants to do their part to help people meet their movement and performance goals. However, every member of the facility might have different goals, some of which are related to their gender expression. Instead of making assumptions about those goals based on perceived gender expression, Priority on Performance advocates creating a unique and inclusive social identity for facility coaches and members that unites these goals and can include any individual’s chosen gender expression. That way every person who walks through the door will know that while their individual goals are respected, being a member or a coach at the facility means learning, working, and training for the qualities that epitomize the gym’s unique social identity: performance as expressed through human movement.
Finally, in order to maintain this breaking down of gender assumptions and promote an inclusive social identity, Priority on Performance advocates a vigorous and graceful incorporation of members’ and coaches’ experience with gender expression into the success narrative of the facility. The purpose of these narratives is to show the full spectrum of gender and how these unique expressions can add to everyone’s understanding of performance and human movement and that how the very acts of inclusion and questioning the status quo improve the experience of all the members and bring them closer to meeting their performance goals.
Practical Steps for Creating an Inclusive Environment
The first step in creating an inclusive environment for transgender athletes is by letting them know that the facility is a safe space for their chosen gender expression. Remember, if the status quo can be assumed it will be assumed and the status quo is most definitely an enforced gender binary. So as Kauer and Krane (2010) note, “signs of acceptance are needed” (pg. 416). Getting in front of that assumed binary can be as simple as using the right symbol in the right place. As one of the individuals I spoke to noted, “you cannot discount the value of a rainbow flag sticker.” Using inclusive language on marketing material (not using “guys and gals” or “dudes and ladies”), offering a variety of sizes and options for merchandise (i.e. having small sizes in more than just pink low-cut tank tops with your gym logo), and gracefully including the testimonials of transgender athletes on your website will inform potential members that your facility is free of judgement. Even simple steps like including “other” as an option for sex/gender on member signup forms go a long way to demonstrate that the facility is a safe space.
Once new members are through the door, the process of teaching them your facility’s social identity begins with how you address your members. In lieu of “ladies and gentlemen,” or “guys and gals,” the superordinate term Priority on Performance advocates is athletes. Athletes care about movement. Athletes care about performance. Anyone can be an athlete and the experience of every athlete is important to the performance improvement of every other athlete. “Athlete” as a term might be gender neutral, but it does not discount the importance of gender expression to an individual’s performance experience. One athlete can wish to compete in sex-segregated sport, another can simply wish to improve their health, yet another can desire to get really yoked traps. Addressing each of these individuals as “athletes” does not belittle their goals or gender expression, but it does unite them to a set of common values which are gender-inclusive like movement quality and performance.
In order to reinforce the athlete social identity and to proactively confront gender-binary assumptions, steps should be taken to further place the priority of the members on performance. Many facilities have contests and leaderboards to test and rate performance among members. Many of these contests are also sex-segregated with men and women competing separately. However, it is important to note that the reason most of these contests are sex-segregated is to promote “fair competition.” Cisgendered men are perceived as stronger, faster, and more athletic by the status quo because of the performance differentials at an elite level. All of the athletes in a strength and conditioning facility are note likely at that level so the difference between performances is likely to be less stark. Taking the extra step to divide these competitions into performance-based categories instead of sex-based categories will more likely include transgender athletes and could be a place to proactively confront assumptions about the “fairness” of transgender athletes in competition.
An example of making competition performance-based is co-ed martial arts tournaments. By grouping participants into belt-levels (which are largely based on experience and skill acquisition), individuals across the gender spectrum can compete in what they feel is level ground, regardless of gender. In a strength and conditioning facility, belt-levels would probably not be practical, but skill and experience standards could be. Grouping athletes into “clubs” based on their performance in certain exercises, tests, or workouts (i.e. a “Blue” club for athletes who can deadlift twice their bodyweight, a “gold” club for one and a half times bodyweight, etc.) is transparently more fair and promotes performance over gender sterotypes. It also has the benefit of motivating all athletes to train and improve their “level.” Coaches and members can then also see the how athletes of all gender expressions are succeeding which reinforces the narrative of inclusion and performance. One of the genderqueer athletes I spoke to who is a veteran of co-ed team sports was excited to point out that this system, “would give me an opportunity to show off that wasn’t dependent on a dude passing me the ball.”
Practical Tips for Coaches and Consultants
Placing a priority on performance should be familiar to strength and conditioning coaches, nutrition consultants, massage therapists, physical therapists and sport psychology consultants, but many of us fall prey to potentially harmful, gender-laden language in a quest to communicate that priority to our athletes. Coaches and consultants should be mindful of those pitfalls and my conversations with coaches revealed that many are. Some common notes from these coaches were removing gender-specific references to equipment, exercises, and workouts. For example, one coach noted that referring to “men’s barbells and women’s barbells” was confusing and irritating to transgender athletes who were approaching the equipment for the first time, so he began using more specific, performance-related references (“45lb bars” and “30lb bars with a smaller diameter grip”). Another coach (clearly a fan of Dr. Doolittle) stopped referring to an exercise as “the Man Maker” and started using the performance-related name “push-me, pull-yous” to describe alternating push up and single-arm dumbbell rows. Some facilities are also in the habit of naming particularly hard workouts after women (“Fran,” “Isabelle,” etc.). One of the coaches pointed out that this was a potentially awkward moment when gender stereotypes and gender hierarchies often came up. “People want to know if Fran was a bigger bitch than Isabelle because they think it’s a harder workout.” Choosing other names for workouts could prove beneficial to reinforcing a narrative of inclusive success.
When interacting directly with transgender athletes, Lucas-Carr and Krane (2011) make a point to bring up the Golden Rule, but I recommend a Platinum Rule instead: Treat others the way that they want to be treated, not the way you assume they would want to be treated because it’s the way you would want to be. Use the athlete social identity when addressing groups of people. Ask for and use their preferred name and gender pronouns. Have the courage to be proactive and ask how an individual would like you to address them. Do not assume one is proper for you to use because you hear a colleague or another member using it. Their relationship with that person or the context of the conversation might be different, or the other person could be misusing a pronoun and the athlete could be unwilling to confront them on it. Step up and do not risk alienating an athlete because you were nervous.
Coaches and consultants can also reinforce an inclusive narrative of success by taking what Kauer and Krane (2010) call “teachable moments” (pg. 417). If an athlete is using harmful, or gender-hierarchical language (i.e. “tranny,” “pussy,” “girly-man,” “not a real man/woman” etc.), do not hesitate to call them out and challenge their assumptions with the performance narratives of transgendered athletes. If an athlete is trying to reach a goal that a transgender individual has had success with, refer them to that individual and try to open a dialogue. Introducing a dude trying to get huge arms to a FTM transsexual who’s managed to grow some sick guns might do more break down the status quo in your facility than anything else.
Potential Impact on Cisgendered Individuals
The Priority on Performance framework, confronting assumptions, creating a social identity, and including all experiences into the narrative of success, might be helpful for improving the experience of transgender athletes but there are reasons to believe that it will positively impact cisgendered individuals as well. Assumptions of the status quo have the potential to limit or harm people of across the gender spectrum, so confronting them and creating a new social identity could have a positive impact on all facility members and coaches.
The coaches I talked to all noted that when they shifted to performance-related language, it became easier for them to relate information to everyone. The coach who stopped referring to “men’s and ladies’ barbells” because of the transgender athletes in his beginner classes noticed that smaller men starting grabbing 30lb barbells and stronger women started grabbing 45lb barbells. These were likely appropriate weights for these individuals and they were now performing better simply because of more inclusive, performance-related language. Another coach had the realization that “‘Man-maker’ doesn’t even mean anything” and calling the exercise something else increased female participation. Using skill-level-based standards instead of sex-segregated competition could also motivate any athlete to improve their performance and “level-up.” The biggest impact that the coaches and athletes I talked to about Priority on Performance pointed out to me though, was the value in the athlete social identity. In our society, the term “athlete” has a lot of positive connotations (albeit with some negatives as well). Everyone I talked to about this system liked the idea of being addressed as an athlete because of the honorifics as well as the focus on a particular set of universal values like movement quality and the mastery of the human body.
Potential adopters of Priority on Performance should also be aware that even though this intervention is designed with transgender individuals in mind and can have a impact on cisgendered individuals, it could also have a positive impact on their bottom line. By adopting this language, facilities have an opportunity to promote the success of all their members and create a community of performance-minded individuals who can in-turn promote the facility and its staff in the larger community. Facility owners should think “more customers” when they hear “inclusive.” Facility owners should also note that almost every recommendation in Priority on Performance is free. With the exception of additional merchandise options, the only thing required to implement Priority on Performance is a staff meeting and diligent follow up.
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