On Thursday night, the Equity Studies Students’ Union hosted the first in a series of events called Linked Oppressions. The inaugural event, entitled Challenging Institutional “Safe” Spaces was co-hosted by Hart House’s Change Room Project, a tri-campus initiative devoted to giving voice to LGBTQ athletes’ experiences in the locker room, represented through the students’ text-based lived experiences. 

At the event, many questions were posed regarding how institutions like U of T respond to concerns over safe spaces, especially within the athletic community. “…physical fitness and physical educational are a huge part of mental health everybody needs to move their bodies in order to feel well in the world,” explained Day Milman the project coordinator for the Change Room Project and panellist at the discussion. 

Milman explains that the project was created from the idea of what change room walls would say if they could speak, and how LGBTQ voices are often unheard during conversations in athletic spaces such as change rooms. “[LGBTQ] voices are often muted or unheard completely and one of the thoughts I kept having [was] about graffiti and how there is always this subtext going on in private space like bathrooms and change rooms” explained Milman. 

Joining Milman on the panel was OutSport Toronto chair Shawn Sheridan and U of T alumni Christine Hsu, both of whom are distinguished and visible members of the LGBTQ community advocating for safer spaces within the realm of sport and athletics.

Sheridan, has worked in his capacity as the chair of OutSport Toronto to educate the Varsity Blues about the influence they have as role models not only to create safer places for LGBTQ student-athletes but also that they have responsibilities as role-models in the student-community. 

“One of the ideas we tried to get across [to the Varsity Blues] is you know what, you guys are incredible role models whether you believe it or not… people are going to look up to you” explained Sheridan, “…trying to get across to them [to] be careful how you act be careful what you say, think about… in terms of inclusivity especially is incredibly important because you will set the tone, whether you want to or not you will.”

Education was one of the keystone topics of the night, which all three panelists agreed was a primary objective for initiatives like the Change Room Project and for kick-starting change within gendered and exclusive policies of many sport-governing bodies. Trying to eradicate discriminatory policies within sport, which is inherently gendered, however, is no easy feat. “We’re very hung up in sport, right across the board about not just changing [policies] but about the gender binary, which in my humble opinion is a stupid distinction,” explained Sheridan regarding the categorization of all professional sport into two categories: men’s competition and women’s competition, a distinction that both Sheridan and Hsu don’t think is necessary. “Christine and I had this conversation about instead of splitting things between men’s and women’s leagues it should basically be split by stature,” he explained, while acknowledging that such a controversial idea will take time to implement. “…if we just got [it out of our heads] that we have to divide this between men and women but instead divide it between stature and etcetera and stop having this gender binary… but that’s probably not going to happen for a long time.”

While acknowledging that major strides have been made in the past few years by major sport governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — who are expected to update their transgender policy before the summer Olympics in Rio to remove gender reassignment surgery as a requirement to compete — it is still true that many organizations lack the education to go along with their policies which can be problematic. “Policy needs to change yes, but there needs to be people who are regulating those policies and who are implementing those policies,” said Hsu.

Sheridan added that without education, new gender and LGBTQ friendly mandates are a moot point. “Policy without programs is useless so you start with policy, great… now you say how do you make the policy a reality because that actually has to happen.” 

One of the most important take-aways for students, and a message that was repeated throughout the two-hour panel, was that of respect. Respect and celebration for athletes, for students, and for those who identify as LGBTQ who have traditionally not had their voices heard, nor their needs met in specific situations like athletics or the change room — something Sheridan hopes we can change through starting a conversation. “I think these stories we can tell and these messages we can get out start to help make those spaces better… because people will start to realize you know this isn’t just some comment that doesn’t have anything to do with anyone else.”