Sport for All? Addressing Barriers to Gender Inclusion

The benefits of participating in sport are well established. Sport has been shown to have positive effects on physical development, social skills, and psychological wellbeing (including improved emotional regulation, decreased suicidality, fewer depressive symptoms, higher self-esteem, and an improved sense of belonging). Unfortunately, the sporting domain, and its associated benefits, are not easily accessible to all.  

One community that faces barriers when it comes to participating in sport, is the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly those who identify as transgender or non-binary, or are gender non-conforming. Compared to their gender-conforming peers, this population is already more likely to experience mental health issues, such as depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Recent figures suggest that 77% of transgender young people have deliberately harmed themselves at some point and 41% of transgender young people have attempted to take their own life (ESTYN, 2020). This is at least in part caused by experiences of discrimination and marginalisation often experienced by the LGBTQIA+ community. Considering the benefits associated with sports participation, transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people could benefit greatly from the opportunity to engage with supportive and protective sports environments. It is therefore of great importance to understand what the barriers to sport are, and how we can overcome them. 

First things first, let me make it clear here that I am talking about participation in recreational sport. Putting to one side the controversies surrounding competitive/elite sport, the benefits of recreational sport should be available for all. Unfortunately, this is not the case. 38% of transgender people avoid gyms or participating in sports groups (Stonewall research 2017). The barriers standing in the way of transgender people taking part in sport, include: 

  • Social context - many transgender or non-binary people lack encouragement to participate in sport from peers or adults. Instead, they experience transphobia, hostility, and discrimination. 

  • The gendered nature of sport - for transgender or gender-nonconforming people gender segregation can create negative feelings about sport and themselves.

  • Practical barriers - gendered changing facilities can make it difficult for people to participate in groups because changing areas feel unsafe. A study with trans people in London found that almost one half of those surveyed did not want to use sport centres because of worry that they would not be able to use the changing room that aligned with their gender identity (Whittle et al., 2007).


So, what can we do to help? Here are different ways that teachers and sports coaches can make sessions that are inclusive:

  • Avoid gender-segregated activities where possible as some people may not feel comfortable choosing to play with the boys or the girls. For example, what would a non-binary person choose?  Try to have mixed groups or teams and use colours or team names to divide the group. You can also allow people to organise themselves into groups. They will often base this on those less/more experienced on a specific activity. This also helps reduce gender stereotypes in sport.

  • If you must have gender-segregated groups, then allow people to change groups depending on where they feel most comfortable. Talk to the team about welcoming all people and creating a safe and inclusive environment. If this seems impossible you could allow differentiated roles and responsibilities.

  • Use inclusive language! Anytime you are addressing people, use inclusive and gender-neutral language such as “Welcome, everyone” instead of saying “Welcome, boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen.” Give ALL people positive encouragement using gender neutral language. For people who have had negative experiences in sport and PE in the past, getting positive encouragement can create a positive experience.

  • Provide gender-neutral clothing options for PE and sport participation. All individuals should be given the option to wear the gym uniforms they feel most comfortable and safe in, and this should not be dependent on gender. 

  • Respect how individual people want to participate. This may be that a person who has had negative experiences in certain sports wants to play a different sport, or play in a way that is more comfortable, for example touch rugby instead of contact rugby. Speak with students individually about what they want to do.

  • Talk about positive representations of transgender, non-binary and LGBTQ+ people in sport wherever possible,. This helps raise visibility and shows your support for inclusion and awareness.  

  • Respect everyone by using the name and pronouns they choose to go by at all times. The most inclusive practice is to ask everyone which names and pronouns they use, not just those people you suspect might be transgender or nonbinary. If you single out a particular person in front of the rest of a group, you could potentially be putting them at risk for harassment from other people.


To find out more, check out these brilliant resources: 

The inc project -

Athlete Ally -

Leap Sport (Scotland) -

Stonewall -

Dr Sian Edwards has Masters degrees in Clinical Psychology and Sport Psychology and spent eight years working in both inpatient and community mental health services. She also has a PhD in exploring the addiction experiences of high-performing athletes. Alongside her psychology career, Sian has a keen interest in sport and has represented Wales and Great Britain in athletics. As someone who has long found joy in sport, she is passionate about using physical activity and psychology to help participants improve their wellbeing and reach their full potential.