Q&A: Champion of Positive Spaces in Sport - Part 1
Jennifer Birch-Jones is a household name when it comes to LGBTQI2S sport inclusion. She held a key role during the creation of the first positive space in sport for a Canadian team at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and was on the Organizing Committee for the inaugural Pride House at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and Paralympics. As the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS) Program Lead for LGBTQI2S Inclusion in Sport, Jennifer currently works with sport leaders to create welcoming and inclusive environments.
In addition to her expertise in LGBTQI2S sport inclusion, Jennifer is a Senior Consultant, Facilitator and Trainer with Intersol Group, specializing in facilitated and integrated approaches to planning, performance measurement, evaluation and learning.
In Part 1 of her Q&A with viaSport, Jennifer shares her experiences of LGBTQI2S inclusion and how it has evolved over the years.
viaSport: From creating positive spaces to addressing LGBTQphobia in sport, your advocacy in this area of work does not go unnoticed. What motivates you to do what you do?
Jennifer: I realized I was a lesbian in my late 20’s – coming out publicly when I was 30. I had known some women who were lesbians in my circle of friends when I was younger, but it wasn’t something talked about much – nor were there openly out, lesbian women role models to know that this was a possibility.
Fast forward to 2002, after having worked professionally and as a volunteer in sport for a number of years. I was in a position of privilege that allowed me access to colleagues and friends in the sport community, and the ability to educate and advocate for those who identified as lesbian or gay. When CAAWS approached me about leading their homophobia in sport initiative in early 2002, I found a perfect fit. After discussing the opportunity with my partner, who also worked in sport, I said yes. And that work, of course, has now expanded to include both sexual orientation and gender identity sport inclusion.
What positive signs have you seen that show how sport is becoming more welcoming for LGBTQI2S individuals?
At first, change was very slow. Very few people in sport wanted to talk about this. Although we had some amazing and high profile out Olympian athletes and advocates like B.C.’s own Marion Lay and Mark Tewksbury, there were very few younger athletes and coaches that were out.
A huge step forward was Brendan Burke coming out publicly in an interview along with his Dad, Brian Burke, on TSN/ESPN in 2009. Lots of conversations were started after Brendan and Brian did that interview. Following Brendan’s tragic death only a few years later was the launch of You Can Play in 2012, with Brendan’s brother, Patrick, as a co-founder and Brian on the Board of Governors.
For myself, being involved in and having the first ever Pride House with the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler was a major breakthrough in bringing attention to the issue within Canada, followed by the 2011 OutGames and Human Rights Conference in Vancouver – which again, focused strongly on sport and educated PSOs in British Columbia, and ultimately led to the signing of a pledge to combat LGBTQphobia in sport by PSOs and the provincial government.
Canadian Olympian Anastasia Buscis courageously brought attention to the issue by coming out in the fall of 2013, just shortly before the 2014 Sochi Olympics. These Winter Olympics, paired with Canada’s lack of support for it's LGB athletes who were sent to compete in a country where they could have been arrested, was a setback. But out of that setback came learnings that led to the COC’s amazing #OneTeam initiative.
There's also been progress made on trans inclusion in this country, again by courageous trans athletes including Michelle Dumaresque (mountain biking), Kristin Worley (cycling), Jesse Thompson (ice hockey), Harrison Browne (ice hockey), Jessica Platt (ice hockey), Stephanie Shostak (volleyball officiating) and Rachel McKinnon (cycling). But progress has been much slower around trans inclusion in sport, particularly for women, despite the educational and advocacy efforts of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) and CAAWS.
Canadian research has been of huge value: from the international Out on the Fields study – the Canadian component of which was led by Canadian researchers, Dr’s Sandi Kirby and Guylaine Demers, and included over 1,000 Canadian respondents – to Guylaine’s ongoing work in homophobia and transphobia, to Dr. William Bridel’s current research with Skate Canada. Having Canadian data allows us to truly see where progress has been made (which it has been), but also where the hard work remains.
What do you think needs to change in order for sport to be more inclusive of the LGBTQI2S community?
Federal, provincial and territorial governments have to take a leadership role and back up their commitment to LGBTQI2S inclusion by building it into current safe sport accountability requirements. Being free from the fear of or actual harassment and discrimination in sport, based on your perceived or actual sexual orientation and/or gender identity, is very much about safe sport. But in the recent safe sport consultations, LGBTQI2S athlete safety wasn’t raised as part of the pan-Canadian conversations – that is a disconnect we are seeing. Sport organizations, despite good intentions, have a lot of competing priorities and only so much capacity. Unless governments make LGBTQI2S inclusion a priority and tie it to funding, nothing much gets done.
Government leadership through making organizations accountable for sport that is safe for LGBTQI2S members is key, but then governments need to help with the resourcing for the educational capacity-building resources needed by sport organizations to be able to put in place the policies and practices needed to be LGBTQI2S inclusive.
The P.R.I.D.E. in Sport Forum hosted in September 2017 by viaSport with You Can Play is a great example of this, as is the new LGBTQI2S resource for coaches that viaSport is currently developing as part of the PSO Pilot on LGBTQI2S inclusion.