Softball coach calls out league policy on transgender players, sparks national response

1 / 2
Softball coach calls out league policy on transgender players, sparks national response

An Edmonton softball coach who raised red flags about his amateur league's approach to transgender players has prompted policy reviews at the sport's highest levels in Canada.

One of the reviews means Softball Canada plans to drop a requirement for transgender players to prove they are actively going through "gender re-assignment" in order to play on the team with which they identify.

"I think this is great news, definitely a step in the right direction, especially at the national level," said Pete Howell, who has coached amateur softball in the city for almost a decade.

"I think this will raise a lot of awareness right across Canada. And it's all the local [sports] communities, not just softball, but hopefully to other sports entities right across the country."

Earlier this month, Howell was getting ready to coach a U-16 girls team in the McLeod neighbourhood. The coach didn't see a problem when his step-daughter asked if her friends, who are transgender, could join the team.

Still, he sent a note to the organizations that oversee his league to be sure.

Howell was shocked to learn the city's minor softball association wanted medical documentation about a transgender player's "gender reassignment" status to determine on which team the youth could play.

"My initial reaction was, 'Holy crap.' It was pretty intrusive, especially when we're talking about kids who are under the age 18," Howell said. "They were asking for medical information that I don't think was anyone's business.

"It wasn't inclusive. It was very intrusive. And I think it was overkill, especially when we're talking community ball."

The policy stated:

- "Any transgender athlete who is not undergoing hormone therapy for gender reassignment purposes will be deemed their birth gender."

- Athletes who have hit puberty "must submit documentation from a medical practitioner that gender reassignment is ongoing."  

The policy had been adopted by the Edmonton Youth Softball Association, which had taken it from Softball Alberta and Softball Canada.

Softball Canada rewriting policy

The federal organization is now rewriting its rules, thanks to the concerns raised by Howell.

"When we developed our policy it was, as we understood, the generally accepted policy and it was compliant with whatever federal legislation there was at the time," said Hugh Mitchener, chief executive officer of Softball Canada.

In 2016, the federal government added gender expression and identity as protected grounds to the Human Rights Act.

"As soon as we became aware of [the change], our lawyer said we're no longer compliant with that policy. So we pulled the policy and we're working on a new one, which is just about ready for our board of directors to approve."

Athletes who play on the national team — and compete internationally — will have to abide by international guidelines, which can demand that a player's testosterone levels, for example, fall within a certain range.

In Edmonton, the local youth softball association said it, too, will be rewriting its rules in consultation with lawyers and the local LGBTQ community.

"As a community association of volunteers, the issue we usually have is when something comes up, we're not proactive, we have to react," said Tom Clooney, president of Edmonton Youth Softball Association.

Clooney said the softball association had looked to the provincial and national softball organizations to develop their policy, and assumed it would be in compliance with the law.

"Unfortunately, we were not as well educated on this as we should have been."

'Comes down to bias'

Transgender athletes are often treated with unsubstantiated fear and distrust, said Marni Panas, a transgender woman and diversity consultant in Edmonton.

Panas is a competitive runner who has participated in the World's Masters Games as a man, and later as a woman.

"People are thinking these teens and children are going to say, 'Yeah, I'm born a male, but I'm going to compete in the female (category) today so we can get an edge and we can win.'

"And I can assure you no one comes out and faces all of the stigma that comes along with being trans for privilege and to win something. And quite frankly, a lot of it comes down to bias against transgender people, period. And that can't be ignored."

The sports field is often a place where transgender young people feel uncomfortable, which is why more efforts are needed to ensure those youth participate widely in sports, said Kris Wells, director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies at the University of Alberta.  

"Our focus should be on the benefits of participation, the importance of co-operation, collaboration, and the benefits of physical activity to one's lifelong health."

The focus shouldn't be on the physical differences, which can lead to hysteria, he said.

"Say, there's the kid who grew six inches faster than everyone else, and put on an extra 20 pounds, and is dominant on the field — we wouldn't say that person is a danger. We'd say, 'That person is an incredible athlete,' " said Wells.

"These assumptions we have based on genetics, without recognizing the tremendous genetic variation within the categories of being biologically male or biologically female … and that's what determines some of the most elite athletes."

Coach back on field

Howell resigned from his position as the McLeod coach in March. Now he said he's open to coaching in the league again. He said that having an impact on national policy does "feel good." 

"That a local guy here in Edmonton might have influenced some of the change a little quicker, it does feel good," he said. 

He hopes the story raises awareness.

"It's more education and awareness that with the laws that are out there now, policies might be outdated and, yeah, they have to be more inclusive, non-intrusive and truly encourage that all kids can play."