(Content warning: anxiety, harassment, assault, sexual assault, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia).
Earlier this week I wrote about what sports fandom means to me during transition. It was an introductory post on a new site and I hadn’t intended on writing a series on mediating being a sports fan and transition. But I went to a ball game on Tuesday night and had to go through all the typical trials of that experience. On Wednesday, I wrote about how difficult it is to make it from your house to your seat when attending a game if you’re not cisgender. I’ll return to writing more about the Sens soon, but before I do, I want to pick up where I left off in Wednesday’s post and talk about what it’s like to watch a game live when you’re not cis.
Most sports maintain, enforce, and rely on the traditional gender binary.
Certain sports like hockey, which generates and enshrines toxic masculinity as its core value, are particularly invested in keeping this status quo. To attend a sporting event when you do not fit the traditional definitions of femininity and masculinity is to take a risk that threatens your safety. If something does happen to you during the course of the game, very few people your back.
Sports crowds have documented issues with racism, homophobia, and sexism. Often stadiums and arenas are only partially accessible if you live with a disability. Trans people exist at the intersection of these issues and their gender identity.
Chances are you’ve thought a lot about the location of your seat if you’re trans and the view of the playing field wasn’t top of the list. Maybe you’re most comfortable if you only have to sit beside the person you’ve come with, so you’ve chosen an aisle seat. Maybe it’s easiest for you to get through the game if you don’t have to look at other fans so you chose a seat against a railing or a column. Maybe you chose to sit in the last row of your section or against a wall so all the action, including other fans, remains in front of you. Perhaps you want to be close to an exit in case things go south. If you’re MTF, FTM, agender, or non-binary and you use a mobility aid you have even less options for controlling your surroundings. Some sporting events, such as the Pan Am Games and university competitions, have unassigned bleacher seating. Many people, including trans people and people dealing with mental illness, show up early to secure seating which makes navigating public space and a crowd more manageable. Before you ask someone to move over so you can get the seat you want, consider that many people chose where they sit deliberately. Being a good ally means being aware that not every disability is visible and privileges you enjoy are not always shared by others. The same goes for swapping seats at a sparsely attended baseball game and while using transit to and from the game. Be aware.
Trans people face so much discrimination just by sitting in their seat. There are numerous announcements during the course of the game, often starting with the anthem. Sometimes these announcements ask fans to stand or give their attention to something happening in the crowd or at ice level. Facilities that are actively inclusive begin these announcements with “fans” instead of “ladies and gentlemen”. “Ladies and gentlemen” is a common expression and is seen as polite. It might not seem like a big deal to you if you’re cis, but if you’re not, it can feel like an erasure of your identity and serves to underscore the fact that you are not welcome.
Just sitting in your seat might lead to problems with other fans and stadium employees. Fans passing by to get to their seats or to the stairs say “sir,” “ma’am,” “miss,” or any of the multiple gendered descriptors we use every day without much thought. A worker climbing the steps selling water, pop, and cotton candy genders you incorrectly. You exist outside of cisnormativity but get called a lady when buying 50/50 tickets. I worked as a cashier for a number of years and employees who interact with customers are often taught to ask “may I help you ma’am?” and “is there anything I can do for you, sir?” Many people see this as a sign of courteous service, but simply asking “may I help you?” without gendered terminology is a lot more inclusive.
Even simple game day rituals can contribute to misgendering. You identify as trans feminine but sometimes pass as male so you think twice about buying that beer and not because it’s going to set you back $10. When you are gendered a certain way by others and then partake in activities typically associated with that gender (like passing as male and buying a beer at a hockey game), the likelihood the person serving you the beer is going to call you “man,” “dude,” “bro,” or “buddy” increases dramatically. That gendering doesn’t end there. If you’re ordering a beer you’re most likely going to hold it, and, unlike in beer commercials, you’re actually going to drink it. Some people read that beer as a signifier of maleness. This can be useful if passing as a certain gender is important to you, but it might also contribute to continued misgendering by the fan who wants to slip by you to head to the concourse or the person beside you who wants to high five after a goal.
Misgendering happens. It’s a regular part of life for people who aren’t cis. If you misgendered someone, apologize and move on. Don’t make it about you because it’s not about you. For some trans people, misgendering is a normal part of life that isn’t upsetting unless in extreme situations. For others, it’s deeply distressing. There is infinite variety in gender identity, and the trans experience is one that differs from person to person. If someone misgenders you and they see it upsets you, sometimes that person keeps doing it with the purpose of upsetting you. That’s happened to me at games. Consistently misgendering someone isn’t an accident or mistake. Consistently misgendering someone is offensive, abusive, and compromises the safety of the person being misgendered.
Sometimes sitting in your seat is a threatening experience if you’re trans. A rink is a gendered space: traditional masculinity is on display in the form of the players on the ice and the toughness of the game; traditional femininity takes place on the margins. Ice clearing crews are formed primarily of, or exclusively of, women filtered through the heteronormativity of the male gaze. It’s a situation that makes a lot of cisgender people feel uncomfortable and fosters an environment hostile to all but those who meet this narrow definition of masculinity. Consequently, it’s common to use gendered language and insults to abuse the opposition or in some cases, the home team. These insults, spoken casually around you in the stands or abusively hurled, yelled for all to hear, are sometimes racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic. This behaviour can be encouraged by alcohol but it’s the product of a society that actively hates women and those who don’t conform and a game which encourages players, and by extension fans, to “man up”.
Someone beside you insults you. A person four rows down and eight seats over is yelling homophobic insults at the opposition. Cis people don’t always have the option of saying something to a fan who is being offensive. If you’re alone or in a small group impacts whether you say something. If you’ve brought you’re kids to the game, you might not feel comfortable confronting the group of dude bros sitting in front of you making offensive remarks. Whether you’re a man or a woman or a person of colour impacts you’re ability to say something. If you have anxiety or another mental illness does too. The same holds true of sexual orientation. Trans people have to make these considerations as well. But we have additional barriers when confronting discrimination in game.
Sometimes our voices out us.
If you’re non-binary, sometimes the sound of your voice leads to you being misgendered. If you’re trans, speaking can out you. Listeners might make assumptions about which gender you were assigned at birth. Say you’re a 27-year-old trans man who’s started T. Your voice is likely changing, getting deeper, and yeah, might even be cracking. Some trans people go through puberty for a second time as an adult and it raises several issues that can prevent someone from speaking out. That’s not to say that those who do not fit traditional gender binaries don’t speak out against discrimination, many do and they should be listened to. It’s just that there are barriers for many of us when it comes to speaking to say nothing of the barriers cisgendered people deliberately put up when it comes to listening to trans people.
There are lots of valid reasons why people don’t say anything about the abusive and discriminatory language that’s common at sporting events. But consistently, cis people fail to pick up the transphobic overtones of this environment. This oversight jeopardizes the safety of all trans people.
It gives bigots an invitation to insult, harass, and assault us.
In plain sight.
There’s a sort of paradoxical nature to my fandom experience. I’ve been accepted by many in the Sens online community. I’ve met some truly wonderful people and gained some cherished friends. But my in-game experience is quite different. There isn’t a noticeable show of support, there’s just silence. There are valid reasons not everyone can speak out, as I’ve mentioned above. But I wonder if some part of that silence is a different sort of acceptance. That hearing, seeing, and experiencing hatred is viewed as a problematic, but natural, part of the game. That those doing the hating, by virtue of always having been there, have become somehow fixed, like a ubiquitous, bigoted foam finger.
When I’ve talked about the harassment I’ve experience, people respond with things like “where do you live?” “who are these people?” “didn’t anyone say anything?” and “how did this happen?” as if this sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time in front of them. I’ve been to games where people around me openly debated my gender. Whether done in a mocking tone or with genuine interest, this sort of behaviour is incredibly offensive and frankly, none of your business. Men and women have used transphobic insults against me for nothing more than trying to watch a beautiful Erik Karlsson rush. A man told me I had “nice titties” as he flicked my nipples with his fingers and called me “bro”. Think it makes things better by challenging these assumptions or objecting to this transphobia? It doesn’t. It makes it worse. When your body isn’t read as meeting cis standards, you are often considered suspect. For objecting to insults I’ve been called a sexual predator.
Cisgendered men and women have contributed to this discrimination. However, most of the abuse I’ve received has come from cis men. There are cis men who have been among my biggest allies when attending games, who consider my needs and offer support in a variety of ways. However, there are also cis men who are invested in actively maintaining the toxic masculinity that empowers them. Toxic masculinity gives them the faulty impression the public space of the arena is their birthright and must remain aggressively male, aggressively white, aggressively straight, and aggressively cis.
When cis men with this view speak nostalgically about what it used to be like to go to a game I get uncomfortable. Some fans just want to cheer loudly and ensure their team has the best home ice advantage. Cool, that’s not what makes me uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable because often this type of nostalgia is coded. When English soccer fans yearn for the days of terrace culture and when North American fans want to replicate the rowdy, raucous atmosphere of European stadiums, what many of them aren’t saying is those space are desirable because of who was kept out. Hostile to women and people of colour, these spaces were celebrations of a certain type of maleness and as a result, also homophobic and transphobic.
Sports teams and arena management groups do little to curb the discriminatory behaviour still present in our stadiums. Little changes can make these spaces safer for everyone. Something as simple as posting signage with team/arena discrimination policy, clearly outlining that all types of discrimination, including transphobia, are prohibited helps non-binary people know there’s a chance their concerns will be heard. It’s common for teams or the companies running sports facilities to save money by cutting down on the number of ushers working at any given game. Not every section has stadium personnel, not every area is monitored. If an usher is present, not only can they intervene on their own when they see or hear objectionable conduct, but they also provide an easily identifiable source for help. Further, many trans people have a distrust for security and law enforcement personnel. Ushers can act as intermediaries between fan and security. But they can only do this if they receive training on issues of disability, race, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Assuming your employees have the resources available to address the insectionality of fan conflict, is not a sound policy. Greater diversity among ushers and security personnel can aid in establishing this type of institutional knowledge as well as improve the approachability of your game day staff for women, people of colour, and LGBTQ folks.
Assuming every fan can access stadium personnel when needed is also problematic. There are numerous valid reasons why someone is unable to physically go and seek out this kind of help. For trans people sometimes getting help means being on the receiving end of more discrimination. Making official complaints to stadium personnel or police can be problematic for trans people if you have to give your name. Lots of people are transphobic and many don’t hide it because it’s still socially acceptable to hate people who are not cis. Some of those transphobic people work in rinks: at the concessions stands, as part of the cleaning crew, as ushers, ticket scanners, and security, to say nothing of the management of the organization itself. When people hate you, they don’t see you worthy of help and they don’t care about the abuse you’re suffering. In recent years, some teams have set up a system allowing fans to use texts to report abusive behaviour and lodge complaints. Making this sort of accessible system available enhances the safety of not just trans people but all fans.
Transphobia doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To eliminate it we must actively work to eliminate racism, homophobia, and sexism from these venues as well instead of accepting discrimination, bigotry, and hatred as the cost of going to the game.
Whatever happens on the ice or field, leaving usually has additional hurdles if you’re not cisgendered. While it is customary to leave a Blue Jays game in the seventh inning or a Sens game with five minutes left in the third period, the crush of fans trying to exit their row and down staircases, on their way to the concourse after the final whistle blows, is hard if you’re dealing with mental illness. The close proximity means some bumping between fans, which is anxiety-producing for some people. But some see this as an opportunity to grope, press and otherwise take advantage of the crowd to harass and assault other people. Those who exist outside of the intersection of cis, straight manhood are often the victims.
For trans people this time can be really stressful and hard. It’s not just that the ride to the rink and the experience of the game has been mentally draining, it’s that the mental preparation that is required before you even leave for the game compounds things. You’re just tired and drained. You’re less likely to be able to come up with quick, alternate plans if things start to go south. You might be rushing to catch a bus and trying to not worry about what happens if you miss it.
Some of my worst interactions with other fans have been on the way out of the rink. It’s hard to ignore the impact alcohol has on this part of the game day experience. Many fans are at least a few drinks in, some have been overserved for most of the night. What might have just been insults in the first period can easily turn to physical abuse when it’s time to leave.
Once in Detroit I was harassed by two shitbags. They were on my radar from the moment they took their seats. If you’re fortunate you don’t have to scan the crowd around you looking for people who might cause you problems. If you’re trans, you don’t have that luxury. These particular shitbags made several sexually explicit comments about women and started drinking during warm up. During the first intermission they noticed me as I was walking back to my seat. I was familiar with the way they stared at me because I’ve seen that look a thousand times. It’s the look of cis people realizing there’s something different about me. During the next two periods they looked across the aisle at me at regular intervals. But it wasn’t until the end of the game that things got really dangerous. They followed me down the stairs of the section. On the concourse one walked behind me bumping into me, the other to my right, pushing me and knocking me off stride. There had been a promotion that night; cardboard signs reading “Go Wings Go” were given out. The shitbag beside me held his right in front of my face so I couldn’t see where I was going. The shitbag behind me was bouncing his sign off the back of my neck, cutting me with the edge of the cardboard. The whole time they were saying transphobic things to me and threatening me. I wasn’t alone and we were surrounded by other people. It was in plain sight.
It’s not like things like this don’t happen at my home rink. This sort of stuff can happen anywhere. The last time I went to a Sens game in Ottawa it was a pretty good experience as far as these things go for me. The Sens won in overtime and fans went home happy. I rushed to catch my shuttle bus and was able to get there before anyone else and grab a set at the front. Four drunk shitbags got on the bus and suddenly I had a problem. I had made a mental note of them when they got on the bus at the start of the night, but now they were drunk and we were alone. I was sitting looking out the window and one of them punched me in the back of the head. They laughed and fist bumped and called me “pussy” and transphobic slurs. Then they took their seats like nothing happened. The bus finished loading and we started for downtown. We cheered for the same team.
I am not ashamed to say I cried for most of the trip back downtown. The only shame in that situation should be felt by the people who see difference and can only acknowledge it with violence.
That was the last time I went to a Sens game. I don’t know when I’ll be back.