Non Binary Participation in University Sport: Finding your Place in a Binary World

Sports are a key part of the university life for a lot of students, from the competitions and training to the weekly socials.

However, some people find it very hard to find their place in the very binary world of sports.

As it is International Non Binary Day today, we here at the Football v Homophobia Youth Panel have taken a deeper look at the troubles that part of our community have found when they just wanted to be a part of a team.

In doing research for this, I found a lack of spotlight being shone on non binary participation, with the majority of mentions of this coming as a passing comment in a wider look at transgender participation in sport.

Looking at the transgender side of things does give us a glimpse into the troubles faced for members of the community trying to get into sport, as Charlton Invicta’s Naomi Reid expressed when we spoke earlier this year:

“There just isn’t a space, it is so binary. You have the men’s game and the women’s game, and I just didn’t fit neatly into either of those categories when I first came out.” Naomi Reid, April 2020. 

This is reflected in university sports as a whole according to research from Dr Catherine Phipps of Solent University Southampton.

Dr Phipps is a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader in Sports Coaching & Physical Education; She has done in depth research into LGBT+ Participation in University Sports. 

Discussion as part of this research (collected in 2015-16) described the reliance of BUCS (British University and College Sport) policy on gender binaries, with no clear guidance for participation on those who don’t identify as either a man or a woman.

We reached out to BUCS for a statement on any policy updates, we are yet to receive reply which is to be expected with the current situation, but keep an eye on @FvHyouth on Twitter for any updates if we do receive a response. 

This problem goes far beyond the policies in place, with many non binary students who I spoke to expressing a lack of interest in sports, favouring the arts.

Although they all admitted this may be them subconsciously leaning towards clubs they feel are more inclusive for them. 

We also received submissions from two young people who showed an active interest in participating in university sport, but were left not knowing which way to turn: 

“My uni dropped their women’s MMA team my first year, and as much as I know that I’m just as eligible to join the men’s team as I am the women’s , which is to say not at all on account of being neither, I had no team to join because I present heavily female.” @aecordea on Twitter, July 2020.

“I was keen to get involved in university sport, as exercise had always been a key coping mechanism for my mental health. When I looked into it, I struggled to know where I fit, as I don’t feel comfortable in any environments dominated by a single sex. Especially male dominated, which is where I would have been placed due to how I present.” Anonymous Submission via Survey Monkey, July 2020.

When speaking on the FvH Podcast during the Football v Transphobia week of action back in May, Stonewall FC’s Tash Oakes-Monger expressed similar confusion in attempts to find their place when looking for a football team.

The solution was found with the rise in Inclusive Football Clubs, such as Tash’s Stonewall FC, or the previously mentioned Charlton Invicta who Naomi Reid plays for.

These teams, among others, allow for players of all genders and sexualities throughout the LGBTQI+ community to play football in a safe place surrounded by like-minded people.

We included questions around the potential for inclusive sports on a university level when we reached out to BUCS, as said above we will update social media if we do receive a reply.

While a lot remains uncertain with non binary participation in university sport, it is clear to see how for many, being part of a team enhanced their university experience. So it is only fair that ALL students have equal opportunity to gain this experience. 

Written by Sam Clarke, FvH Youth Panel Communications Officer