Transgender Athletes and Synchronized Skating: A Conversation

Skate Canada has done and is continuing to do substantive work in relation to LGBTQI2S+ inclusion but we know there remains critical inclusion work to be done moving forward. Skate Canada’s Pride Profile Community Story series is an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the LGBTQI2S+ community all year long.

To support an inclusive environment, we are sharing personal stories from our skating community. Below is a conversation led by Tina Chen, Member of Skate Canada’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Working Group and Shannon Herrick, Meredith Rocchi, and Lauren Couture.

I had the opportunity this month to chat with Shannon Herrick, Meredith Rocchi, and Lauren Couture about their recently published article on the experiences of a transgender athlete in synchronized skating in Canada. As Shannon, Meredith, and Lauren remarked, for many transgender athletes transitioning may be complicated to navigate within a sport context. Support is important for every athlete to feel comfortable and perform their best. The support transgender athletes feel depends heavily upon on sport-based policies (such as Skate Canada’s Trans Inclusion policy), gender-based regulations in competition categories and team composition, and their inter-personal interactions.

Q: How did you come to do this research?
SH: I’m currently completing a PhD in Kinesiology at McGill University. My research focuses on LGBTQ+ experiences across a wide variety of physical activity, including sports. My work is inspired by my own personal activist work as well as my own personal experiences with sport (specifically, synchronized swimming). Given my connection to LGBTQ+ communities, Meredith approached me to lead this project.

MR: As a synchro coach and sport psychology and coaching researcher, I noticed a gap in the literature on resources, recommendations, and best practices for coaches when working with LGBTQ+ athletes. I met Shannon while doing a postdoc at McGill, and she was keen to lead this project.

LC: I was happy to find a collision between my experience in synchronized skating (former athlete and coach, and current choreographer and official), and my work as a sociologist of sport. I was thankful that Shannon and Meredith asked me to join the project for the analysis and writing portions.

Q: Why is it important to have research that centres the experience of transgender athletes?
SH: It’s important to understand the diversity within and across LGBTQ+ communities. Within sport, trans communities face substantial barriers to their participation. The limited number of studies that focus on trans athlete experiences generally highlight negative experiences, which unfortunately are most common. Although it’s imperative to understand how sport can be limiting to trans livelihood, it’s also important to understand how sports can be affirming and supportive. This study focused on the more positive experiences of a trans athlete within the unique context of synchronized skating. As a result, the theme of celebration of trans experiences could be added to our broader understanding of trans experiences within sport.

MR: The Canadian synchronized skating system, specifically, has supports in place to help athletes transition successfully. Still, it’s important to learn and make recommendations from the perspective of trans inclusion.

LC: This research also encourages reflection on gendered normativity in everyday practices in skating and sport.

Q: Let’s talk about synchronized skating, and the possibilities and barriers within this discipline for transgender athletes?
LC: Synchronized skating has very strict and rigorous expectations for ‘sameness’ and movement as one. The way that unison has traditionally been understood in synchro skating creates barriers to thinking about identity in more complex ways.

SH: Agreed! Synchronized skating and synchronized swimming over-emphasize sameness in ways that are constraining. In synchronized swimming, judges are trained to look for what ‘sticks out’. It’s important to note that unison does not equate to sameness. Having a more expansive understanding of connected movement and expression would benefit development in artistic sports such as synchronized skating and swimming.

LC: Even with these limitations, synchro skating is unique in figure skating. Unlike singles where competition category is based on sex-based male/female binary categories, or competitive pairs and dance that reinforce heteronormativity through the stipulation of one male and one female partner, synchronized skating teams do not have sex or gender requirements.

MR: Because there are no specified numbers of male or female skaters, and the names on a team roster can change during a season, a team member can transition without impacting their own or their team’s eligibility to compete. This is extremely unique in sports. Skate Canada also has a straightforward and supportive process for changing gender identity that helps reduce some of the barriers related to transitioning.

Q: Team formation and bonding is important in synchro skating. What did you learn about creating inclusive team environments from a transgender athlete in synchro?
MR: Synchronized skating as a discipline seamlessly accommodates female-to-male or male-to-female transgender athletes who align with the masculine/feminine gender binary. In the case of the athlete centered in this study, the athlete changed teams during their transition and easily passed in their chosen identity. As a result, on the new team, only the coach and teammates to whom the athlete disclosed their identity were aware the athlete is transgender. The experiences and sense of inclusion of a synchronized skater with non-binary gender would likely be very different as this sport does not traditionally support non-binary skaters.

LC: Gender neutral language and coach education is very important for creating an inclusive team environment. It’s a case of thinking about impact rather than intent. It makes a significant difference to say “everyone in” to the team rather than “ladies” or “gentlemen”. The athlete we worked with mentioned the coach’s commitment to shifting language, openness to education, and willingness to accommodate the athlete when needed (including fatigue related to hormone treatments). All synchro teams have their own traditions and ways of doing things that have developed over time. Regularly reviewing things like attendance policies, costume design process, locker room and team event expectations is important for inclusivity. Coaches and team managers should consider if the policies can accommodate transgender athletes in ways that empower athletes, rather than potentially create tensions within the team.

SH: In this research, and my other work , the significant role that locker rooms have in LGBTQ+ experiences across physical activity contexts cannot be understated. The athlete in this study spoke of the camaraderie in the locker room and how the athlete would not want to be in a separate dressing room and miss these team interactions. Synchronized skating teams typically share one dressing room, and it’s not unusual for team members to change in bathroom stalls for some privacy. Although synchronized skating team locker rooms may be effectively gender neutral, locker or team rooms should be re-evaluated with regards to the amount of privacy available. For example, if bathroom stalls are the only spaces for private changing, skaters have to worry about costumes or valuables falling into the toilet while changing in cramped spaces. There is a need for individual changing stalls so any skater for whatever reason can have privacy. Still, the existing team locker practices ensured the trans athlete in this study did not have to make difficult decisions that could potentially lead to missing out on team interactions. It’s important to note other trans athletes might feel more comfortable with different team locker room arrangements. Having open discussions with team members and individuals about locker room spaces available is essential for inclusivity.

Q: What are the next steps for transgender inclusion in sport?
MR: Education and dialogue – especially related to music selection, interpretation, and costuming.

LC: Consideration of how aesthetics, choreography, and costuming can be thought differently for greater inclusion.

SH: More studies to better understand uniqueness of different sport contexts and individual experiences, both positive and negative. Also, analysis of scoring systems in adjudicated sports like synchronized swimming and synchronized skating, to determine if heteronormative gender biases exist.

Skate Canada thanks to Shannon, Meredith, and Lauren for sharing their research and bringing awareness to the skating community. If you are a member of the LGBTQI2S+ skating community and are interested in sharing your personal story please send us an email at [email protected].

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See Shannon S.C. Herrick and Lindsay R. Duncan, “Locker-Room Experiences Among LGBTQ+ Adults,” Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2020, 42, 227-239.

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