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Thanks to Michigan freshman swimmer Gillian Ryan for contributing this article:
“Alright ladies, last round, let’s go!”
This is just one example of words of encouragement that people don’t even think twice about and are voiced on pool decks everywhere. It is positive feedback intended to motivate athletes to push through the last leg of a hard set. But a problem may arise: what if not everyone in the water is comfortable with the references “lady” or “woman”? Whether the team is mixed, all female, or all male, there is a possibility that one or more swimmers do not adhere to the classic, two gender system. What then?
Recently, there was an article published discussing gender stereotypes in swimming. There were many good points brought up in this piece, but there was also an improper use of terms that I feel is necessary to address.
I would like to preface this by sincerely stating that this is not meant as a criticism of either the article or the author, but as clarification of common misconceptions, and an appeal to create a safe and inclusive environment for all.
In the aforementioned article, sex and gender are terms used interchangeably, but the two are not synonymous. Sex is a biological classification assigned to individuals at birth, based upon reproductive organs, genitals, and other factors determined by chromosomes and hormones. When people talk about sex correct terms include male, female, and intersex. Differently than sex, gender is a person’s internal sense of self, and it exists on a spectrum rather than in clearly distinct categories. Gender encompasses how an individual expresses themself, what pronouns they prefer and use, and their social and personal identity. Just because someone is on an all male team does not mean that they identify as a man. Gender is something that we get to define for ourselves and express in our own way. A female wearing a tie or a male with painted nails may or may not identify as a “woman” or “man”. We don’t know this just by looking at them or only having some information about them. In order to learn about a person’s gender, you need to learn about the person. We need to have courage to educate ourselves and have conversations that can seem difficult at first. Not everyone agrees on what it means to be “masculine” or “feminine”, as these things vary greatly by culture and through time. We live in a world of unique individuals though, so to each their own.
This only begins to scratch the surface of the term gender. It should suffice to say that there are distinct sex stereotypes, yes, but in acknowledging that, I feel it is prudent to also highlight the reality of non-binary genders. Athletics are a challenging arena to address this in, in part because of the desire to have level playing fields for all competitors. However, this is not a matter of abolishing the distinction between men’s races and women’s races, but of acknowledging the fact that not all males identify as men, and not all females identify as women. This awareness in no way threatens the integrity of the sport.
The distinction between someone’s sex and their gender is something we should all consider when interacting with others, because despite the fact that the majority of the population adheres to the binary gender system, in order to be as welcoming a sport as possible, an awareness of varying identities is required. Each and every person deserves a safe environment in which to train, compete, and improve. This is a rigorous sport that does more than teach people how to swim, it is a constant opportunity for growth as a person.
Taking the time to understand that not everyone is the same, and yet everyone deserves the same respect and opportunities is crucial. And yet, it is a courtesy far too frequently absent. There are no easy answers, and this isn’t a utopian world. But I do believe it is a world that can be improved. Perhaps “ladies” or “gentlemen” works well for large groups, but if there is a swimmer who identifies outside of the gender binary, using their preferred pronouns in one-on-one conversations is a reasonable compromise. Truly, the biggest step is possessing a willingness to learn, and having the ability to admit when one makes mistakes or doesn’t fully understand. We are all human, and all fallible, but mutual respect is the basis of stable relationships for all. We are here to race. Let us have the healthiest possible atmosphere, so that anyone may experience the joys and challenges that lead to the life-changing experiences swimming has to offer. What starts in a pool can have implications far beyond the water, so as a community, let us have the greatest impact we can.
“Alright everyone, last round, let’s go!”
Gillian Ryan is a current freshman at the University of Michigan and a former U.S. National Champion.