Creating safe spaces: How a Therapeutic Recreation student is championing trans-inclusive policies

By Ming Yeung, Marketing and Communications

As a trans non-binary personal trainer, Anna Parrish knows better than anyone how hard it can be for trans folks to take part in sports and recreation. The feeling of alienation they felt in the gender-assigned facilities nearly stopped them from participating. That’s why Anna is asking policymakers to create trans-inclusive policies and staff training within recreation facilities via their research. 

Since they earned their Bachelor of Kinesiology at the University of Alberta 10 years ago, Anna has been training a wide array of people while fighting to create safe and inclusive recreation spaces for gender-diverse populations.

Finding a holistic approach to health

One of Anna’s first opportunities to support their community was by creating TransFit in 2019 – B.C.’s first provincially supported trans-centric fitness program. Unfortunately, shortly after the TransFit program started, all classes had to move online due to COVID-19. 

The pandemic upended Anna’s life. All the gyms temporarily closed, leaving Anna to lose the majority of their work for six months. They began to consider what else they could do for a living, but they didn’t want to completely switch gears or abandon their realm of expertise. So once Anna discovered Douglas’s Therapeutic Recreation program, they applied right away, ultimately entering as a Third Year Access student.  

Anna is glad they made that choice. “What I love about Therapeutic Recreation is that it blends the physical aspects of health with other forms of health. It’s more based on counselling and supporting people emotionally. And that’s what was missing for me from personal training. It’s that extra piece of overall mental health, emotional health, social health, all these other things that don’t fall into the realm of physical health,” Anna says. 

When choosing a research project for one of their classes, Anna saw an opportunity to explore a topic close to them – the factors that increase recreation engagement within the transgender community in the Lower Mainland. 

“A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to be effective because of all the variation in trans people’s experiences, so it is important for policymakers to be educated on the different experiences within the community.”

They wanted to explore this topic because much of the existing research on transgender recreation engagement focuses on trans men, trans women and medical transition. Meanwhile, Anna feels that non-binary people are being left out.  

“The studies that I’ve read are often reinforcing stereotypes around trans people and who they are. They don’t really include a lot of people like me who are other genders outside the gender binary,” Anna says.  

“I wanted to look at what makes recreation better and safer, and what actually works. Rather than focusing on all the barriers that prevent trans people from engaging with recreation, I’d ask what creates more safety and inclusion, and what actually helps people feel they can access things safely.” 

Getting older and feeling less safe

Anna collected data through an online survey of 13 anonymous transgender individuals, ages 26-53, who engage in recreation.  

They found that trans people’s feelings of safety within recreation were shaped by all kinds of factors. One major factor was the environment – participants felt safer when there were universal washrooms or changerooms available. But the study reveals that internal factors such as body satisfaction and fear of transphobia also have a significant impact. And that fear could hinder trans people from using them. 

“On the one hand, they feel scared that they’re going to be discriminated against. On the other hand, they may feel unhappy with their bodies and unsafe moving them in front of other people.” 

One significant finding in Anna’s study was that as trans participants got older, they felt less safe in gender-segregated spaces. Anna explains that trans people’s experiences in childhood and adulthood dictate how safe they feel about participating in recreation activities.  

“People have pivotal and formative experiences around recreation in school when they’re playing games with their classmates,” Anna says. “Very often, these groups are segregated based on gender. There are different changerooms in school based on gender, so trans kids often feel uncomfortable from a pretty young age.” 

“Maybe they don’t know they’re trans yet, but they know they don’t fit in.” 

Anna’s study also looks into the impact of social and medical transition on trans people’s participation in recreation. The findings revealed mixed phenomena. Some people felt they could engage better post-transition and felt more affirmed in their bodies. But an equal number felt it decreased their engagement, and almost as many reported that their engagement levels didn’t change.  

“I think that there’s a common misconception that transitioning fixes all problems. It doesn’t,” Anna says. “The experiences of transgender people can’t be generalized, because many factors impact internal narratives, experiences with transition and experiences in recreation.” 

Educating policymakers and frontline staff

Trans-inclusive policy has been rolled out in different recreation organizations in the last few years in the Lower Mainland, but Anna points out that it’s important to recognize that the use of trans-inclusive policy is uneven within the Lower Mainland and even more so in the rest of B.C. and Canada.  
In Anna’s opinion, these policies often fail to provide clear, specific direction on what to do when discriminatory situations arise for trans patrons. And that stems from a lack of consistent and appropriate staff training in the organizations. 

“If you don’t know how to address the problems when they arise because the policy lacks clear guidance on what to do if and when people do certain things, chances are that the behaviour will not be addressed. The trans person in the room is the one who will be hurt,” Anna says. That’s exactly what Anna wanted to change through their research and advocacy. 

“What I’m trying to do is make trans people feel seen and understood. I’m hoping to educate people about the complex experiences that trans people have, especially within recreation, and try to create motivation to revamp or create trans-inclusive policy.”  

Anna believes policymakers and frontline service providers need to better understand the importance of removing gendered language and gender-segregated spaces. Organizations like QMUNITY and TransFocus provide training on this information, but it’s an area that is under-researched and needs more attention.   

“A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to be effective because of all the variation in trans people’s experiences. It’s important for policymakers to be educated on the different experiences within the community,” Anna says. 

Looking ahead, Anna plans to work as a recreation therapist with queer and trans individuals. Helping them find the confidence they need to engage in recreation and leisure activities that are meaningful to them. 

Anna’s study won first place this year at Student Research Days, an annual event for students to present their research to the larger Douglas community. 

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