As of June 2023, 22 American states have enacted laws to ban trans girls and trans women from participating in sports as their chosen gender. While there are currently no provincial or federal bans in Canada, trans athletes face a patchwork of rules varying by sport and level of play.
These are challenges that Benny Skinner has faced since transitioning during their time playing rugby at the university level in Canada.
Skinner is a transgender Indigenous athlete who was assigned female at birth (AFAB). They discovered rugby in high school and were recruited to play on the women’s rugby team at the University of Waterloo in 2014. During their time at the university, Skinner realized that their mental health was suffering.
“During that time, my mental health was poor. I was disconnected from my family because of trauma from the legacy of colonialism,” Skinner said.
“I was also experiencing gender dysphoria, but I didn’t exactly know what that was at the time,” they said. Skinner sought help and was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
They were prescribed testosterone for treatment and, while it helped improve their mental health, Skinner was worried about what it meant for their rugby career.
“At the time, there wasn’t a youth sports trans inclusion policy. I was worried I would lose my identity as an athlete and have to stop playing a sport that I love so much. I was hanging on by a thread, and rugby was part of how I was coping and keeping my mental health manageable,” they said.
Skinner said that rugby is one of the few sports in which people assigned female at birth can play with the same equipment and rules as men. They added that the physicality of the game helped them learn to love their body in a unique way and improve their mental health.
“Rugby is so important to my mental health,” Skinner said.
“But in that moment where there was no trans inclusion policy, it was the question of, ‘do I now have to choose between my community and something that has kept me safe or do I have to give up a treatment that is being prescribed to me by my doctors that would help with this other really big, socially taxing thing?’,” they said.
Skinner went to their coaching staff to discuss what options were available that would enable them to play and continue with their treatment. They said the coaching staff and athletic director worked on a plan to keep them playing.
“I held off going on the prescription just for the season, and then went on to it right after,” they said.
U SPORTS is the national governing body of university sports in Canada. Skinner’s postponement of their treatment came with the informal promise that U SPORTS would work on an inclusion policy.
The organization released its official transgender policy in 2018. The policy allows trans athletes to compete on the team that corresponds with either their sex assigned at birth or their gender identity.
Locally, the Waterloo County Secondary School Athletics Association (WCSSAA) uses its Accommodation of Persons Who Identify as Transgender AP1235 guidelines in decision-making.
The policy states that school staff must ensure that students can exercise their right to participate in gender-segregated sports and physical education in accordance with each student’s gender identity.
Jane Smith, who requested a pseudonym, is the parent of a trans boy who attends a Waterloo Region elementary school. She said the school staff have been welcoming and helpful since her son announced his transition in 2018.
While the school follows the AP1235 guidelines, they have also introduced an all-genders category for sports in addition to the existing boys and girls categories.
“I found that so helpful because he doesn’t really feel like he fits in either category all the time, even though he identifies as a boy,” Smith said.
Finding accommodating environments outside of school can be difficult. Smith’s son participates in competitive dance as a boy but has not announced that he is trans. Smith said this can be challenging to navigate, even though it is a female-dominated activity.
“Do we say something and ask for some accommodations? But by asking, we would be outing him. That is a big decision for us,” Smith said.
As Smith’s son navigates playing sports inside and outside school, Skinner is ready to break new ground as an Ontario Ospreys Rugby League player.
The team, which Skinner helped start, is open to all athletes who are women, non-binary OR and assigned female at birth. The Ospreys are representing Ontario at the Canadian Rugby League Championships in Edmonton over Canada Day weekend.
“We wanted to create a space where we weren’t second fiddle to a men’s program because that almost always happens in sports clubs. We also didn’t want to have to identify ourselves as a women’s program,” Skinner said.
“We don’t identify ourselves as a women’s program for the reason of decolonizing the athletic space and for being inclusive of all of these groups of people,” they said.
Skinner graduated from the Peace and Conflict studies from the University of Waterloo. Their research focuses on intersectionality, gender inequality, queer theory, decolonial leadership and intersections of politics, law and gender.
In an earlier and the print version of this article, the first paragraph stated: “…22 American states have enacted laws to ban trans girls and trans women from participating in sports as their chosen gender.” In recognition of the fact that gender is not chosen, that word has been removed from the sentence.
Alex Kinsella is a freelance content marketer and writer based in Waterloo Region, Ontario. He's behind the TL;WR newsletter–Waterloo Region's weekly events newsletter. He's worked with some of Canada's most well known tech companies in roles including customer success, development, product management, PR, social media and marketing. Alex has contributed to publications including BetaKit, Grand Magazine and more.