With thanks to Megan Key, this article was originally published for the National Diversity Awards.
I know about the benefits of exercise. I know because I used to weigh 19 stones, was a binge drinker and a chain smoker. I also suffered chronic anxiety for three years, spent seven years in therapy and have been suicidal several times. That was over 10 years ago and I had the self destruct button firmly pressed since I’d been diagnosed as transgender at the age of 22. The only reason I didn’t kill myself before I successfully transitioned was because I saw an episode of Dr Phil and it convinced me to get fit. He’d said “we all have a choice of putting that cream cake in our mouth or not, it IS that simple”. And you can transfer that analogy to pretty much any behaviour. Of course, it didn’t happen overnight and I had a few dips but I absolutely understand the power of exercise to improved mental and physical health. And this is the background for #TransGirlsCan.
Its common knowledge that exercise can help beat depression and reduce anxiety, just check out the NHS website, you’ll find all the details there. It is so good infact, that doctors can prescribe gym sessions as part of a treatment package, alongside or instead of talking therapies and anti depressants, to manage mental health issues. If you speak to a transgender person, the likelihood is they will have suffered with some kind of mental health issue. 66% if you read one study, and ¾ of those were prescribed anti-depressants. Over half of respondents reported stress and a third suffered anxiety and/or depression. People use a variety of poor coping mechanisms when dealing with mental health issues including smoking, excessive drinking, illegal drug use and poor food choices, all of which lead to physical health problems. I know because I’ve experienced it, and being a Probation Officer for 10 years, have seen it time and time again in the community. And even without any health problems, the NHS recommends we all do 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. So, you can see that for transgender people maintaining good physical and mental health has to be priority, made even starker when one has to be relatively emotionally stable to access hormone treatment and has to be below a certain BMI to have any gender confirmation surgeries.
So, where are all the trans athletes?
The International Olympic Committee has strict rules on transgender people competing in their acquired gender and several other sporting bodies have followed this lead, including prequisites such as two years hormone treatment and legal recognition of gender. This presents a challenge for trans people, depending where they are in their transition and what activity it is they want to do. There are some successes in the world of sport – Fallon Fox (MMA fighter), Kye Allums (NCAA Basketball), Chloie Jonnson (Cross-Fit) and Chris Mosier (Team USA Triathlete) are all examples of competitive openly trans players – but trans people in the main may be unsure of what the world of activity and sport will hold for them.
What about accessing activity spaces?
Transgender people often face issues in changing rooms, creating anxiety, leading to avoidance of those spaces. It isn’t surprising when, in a 2012 study, over 75% of transgender respondents reported discrimination and/or harassment from others in all aspects of daily life.
So, there are two barriers leading to exclusion for trans people from some activities and I believe that we need to be visible to promote inclusion. Of course, there are many trans people who don’t want to publicly declare their transness but as a believer in positive visibility, I feel that without visible trans role models society will never ‘normalise’ our identities. The area surrounding competitive sports is complex and not something I profess to know a great deal about, but I am passionate about breaking down barriers between people through getting to know each other and I believe, that at a local level, the time is right to promote trans inclusive spaces. There is talk of a ‘transgender tipping point’ in society so it makes sense to join that bandwagon and this is why I started #TransGirlsCan with my friend Sophie Green.
We are the same age and after we met over social media we quickly noticed the similarities in our transitions and the importance exercise and positive mental health had played keeping us alive and allowing us to thrive. Like me, Sophie was a binge drinker and smoker before she took up running and she agrees with me that it’s been a life saver for her. Last year, Sport England launched the This Girl Can campaign to motivate teenage girls and women to take up activity because research shows there is a slowdown in activity rates once puberty starts, one of the reasons being body confidence. I saw their advert before a movie in my local cinema and it hooked me in so much, I was playing it on YouTube for days after. There was a real human spirit to it, a diverse mix of women; shapes, ages and ethnicities, that were ‘werking it’, getting sweaty and it felt utterly empowering. I’d watched the campaign grow on social media and suggested to Sophie we tweet them about visibility for trans women. They listened, and both Sophie and I now appear on their website, sharing our personal stories. We consider this to be progress in mainstreaming trans identities amongst local communities and feedback from followers of This Girl Can has been overwhelmingly positive.
It seemed like a natural progression for us therefore to harness the concept and send out a message for trans women that empowered them too, particularly those who aren’t confident. We guessed there were other trans women exercising and we wanted to spread that feeling of sisterhood and encourage others to put aside their fears, ignore the doubters and take control of THE most important thing they had, their health. We came up with a logo, hashtag and opened up social media accounts. Sophie’s partner Thom, an IT expert, provided us with an image uploader and that was it, we were live!
Since then, some 8 months ago, we’ve attracted feedback from USA, Australia and Europe. We have transwomen on our site who snowboard, water-ski, skydive, go caving or even less strenuous activity like dog walking or hiking. It all counts in the effort to improve our health! Our good friend Captain Hannah Winterbourne of the British Army is our Ambassador and Sport Cymru LGBT representative, helping spread awareness and gain publicity. She recently arranged for us to do Zumba with the lovely Lorraine Kelly from ITV breakfast TV so between the three of us we make a good team. Today, I had a tweet from actress Rebecca Root, star of BBC2’s Boy Meets Girl, in one of our t shirts. Going forward, our goal is to keep providing a visible presence for trans women to lift each other, to support each other and to spread the message that regardless of your shape, age and size, there is a activity out there for you. Also, we hope that by spreading awareness, cisgender people will make more effort to include trans people in their sporting activity. I feel lucky that I can cycle, run and swim with any number of people. But it shouldn’t feel like luck, it should be a given and we need people to get on board, use our social media platforms and support trans people. So, spread the word, share this blog and let us know if you are trans inclusive where you get active. #TransGirlsCan
Though we focus on trans women, our friend Vixx Thompson runs Trans-Fit on Facebook, providing support and an online community across the trans spectrum. Delia Johnston runs Trans In Sport, @trans-in-sport, an organisation which has advised the government on promoting transgender activity in sports and offers advice to us which we are grateful for.