• SHARE

Despite LGBTQ athletes having made a bigger splash at the Olympics than ever before, queer sports people say they continue to lose opportunities because of a rigid male-female divide in many activities.

The pressure to fall in line with a deeply gendered culture alienates some LGBTQ athletes, who tend to drop out, according to Fumino Sugiyama, a transgender activist who was a member of Japan’s national women’s fencing team before transitioning to become a man.

“I tried swimming, but I couldn’t stand to wear a girl’s swimsuit, so I quit,” said Sugiyama of his experience of sports in childhood. “I like volleyball, but there was no way I could wear ‘knickers,’ and I like tennis but I didn’t want to wear a skirt.”

That’s not unusual, according to Sugiyama, who said many in the LGBTQ community trace their most painful memories of school back to sports changing rooms. He eventually discovered fencing — which allows men and women to wear similar outfits — and reached elite levels, only to abandon the sport before transitioning.

A total of 182 LGBTQ athletes took part in Tokyo 2020, a new record compared to 56 in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, according to the Outsports website. However, the Tokyo Olympics were hosted by a country that has failed to pass a promised law promoting understanding of LGBTQ issues, and where opposition to same-sex marriage remains firmly entrenched in the corridors of power. The Outsports list doesn’t include any members of the Japanese team.

Sugiyama said fear of his true identity being discovered often preyed on his mind as an athlete, undermining his confidence. Coaches ribbed him about his short hair and asked him whether he had a boyfriend. He was mired in guilt for not being able to tell his teammates about who he was when sharing details about their personal lives, an important part of team-building.

“I couldn’t communicate with my teammates,” he said of his decision to quit. “And if I wanted to be a man, I couldn’t combine that with my sport. The hormone treatment would have amounted to doping, and I didn’t know if I’d be accepted.

Gay British diver Tom Daley gained a social media following in Japan as much for his knitting as for his gold medal. | REUTERS
Gay British diver Tom Daley gained a social media following in Japan as much for his knitting as for his gold medal. | REUTERS

Japanese soccer player Yuma Saito, who said she grew up as a “boyish girl,” left a women’s team at 26 as she felt societal pressure to transition because she didn’t fully fit into either gender. She had her breasts removed, changed her name and started testosterone therapy which deepened her voice. The treatment made her feel unwell, so she abandoned it after nine months and returned to play for a different women’s team, Viamaterras Miyazaki.

“Compared with countries with more advanced understanding, there are many things that are decided on the basis of whether you’re a man or a woman,” Saito said of her experience in Japan, adding that her hormone treatment and career break might never have happened had she been better informed about her options.

“I started asking myself if I wanted to be a man at the expense of soccer,” she said.

Diversity has been touted as one of the major concepts of this year’s Olympics. Gay British diver Tom Daley gained a social media following in Japan as much for his knitting as for his gold medal, and Quinn, a transgender non-binary athlete who goes by a single name, played for Canada’s women’s soccer team. The most controversial participant, however, was Laurel Hubbard, a 43-year-old New Zealand weightlifter who became the first openly transgender woman to take part.

“Hubbard is helping to bring visibility to trans participation in sport, and I believe this will have positive impacts for trans individuals, as representation is so important for helping to advance inclusion,” said Cheryl Cooky, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at Purdue University.

Others say Laurel’s inclusion is bad news for cisgender women in sport. The U.K.-based campaigning group Fair Play for Women says the International Olympic Committee’s decision to allow trans women to compete as females discriminates against women who have grown up without the elevated levels of testosterone that enable men to outperform at many sports. The concept of biological sex should be treated separately from gender, according to the group’s director, Nicola Williams.

“We must find solutions for trans people in sport, but our argument is that those solutions mustn’t exclude women,” Williams said. “All you’re doing then is allowing one under-represented group to push out another under-represented group.”

For soccer player Saito, such debates over fairness are understandable. Some female soccer players feel uncomfortable facing off against an opponent who has undergone testosterone treatment, even temporarily, she said. She called for young athletes to be better educated and to pay more attention to their own needs.

“I knew about LGBT, but I didn’t know about Q,” she said, adding that she’d tried to fit herself into a category with only partial understanding. Young people should “think about what they really want and not what other people are telling them.

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand became the first openly transgender woman to participate in the Olympics. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand became the first openly transgender woman to participate in the Olympics. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)