Gymnastics has come a long way from its beginnings as a male-only sport - today, both men and women are allowed to compete but in gender-conforming categories. Men compete in six events while women only compete in four, and they only have two in common: the vault and the floor exercise.
As the sport continues to evolve, one coach from Emeryville, California has started teaching a first-of-its-kind gender-expansive gymnastics class in the Bay Area to teach kids all gymnastic events regardless of their gender identity.
Coach Morgan True identifies as non-binary and trans. According to Coach True, the goal at Head Over Heels Athletic Arts "is to create a safe space in the world of gymnastics for kids who identify as gender non-conforming."
Here’s how True is reminding kids that gender is a spectrum, not a binary.
How did the idea to create a gender-expansive class come about?
I’ve always had girls ask me, "Why can’t we do the rings? Why can’t we do the parallel bars?" And the truth is the gym is totally okay with me taking them over there and trying stuff but it wouldn’t advance them in their levels. So, I wouldn’t do it as often. My answer to them was, “That’s a really good question and you should keep asking that.”
I wasn’t really satisfied with that answer. Then I met a parent who was non-binary and had a kid who turned six and is also gender-expansive and that parent didn’t want to impose gender on that kid and decided to take them out of gymnastics.
That was heartbreaking for me to hear because I am a non-binary person and I know how much gymnastics meant for me in terms of my confidence, the love for my body and just how I identified in the world. I realized that I was actually in a position of power to answer those questions these kids had been asking me so I proposed it to the rec program manager who was really positive and said go ahead and write a proposal - I realized I was actually an asset because I had the language. It was really well received and everybody decided it was the way to go.
One of the most compelling arguments is obviously that we’re already a really diverse gym here in Emeryville and we’re really proud of that, and gender was the only thing that we hadn’t addressed yet. Gymnastics as it is right now, girls gymnastics has four events but it’s a really huge program and boy gymnastics has six events and it’s a lot smaller of a program. It makes sense to redistribute the space in the gym.
How would you explain gender-expansive to someone who doesn't know what that is?
I would encourage them to do more research on the diversity of gender, biological gender and gender identity. I would say that I’m not taking away anything from anyone. The binaries that we’ve set have conditioned us to think that that’s the only way things can be, I don’t think people realize that by making these binaries we deprive people in either group and people who don’t fit in the group of things and we end up making power imbalances. They’re not working.
How have kids that enrolled liked the program?
We have transgender kids, kids that are exploring different gender pronouns - just hearing that the program existed for them has helped the kids know that they're accepted for who they are. There are about 10 students - 4 classes total. It’s starting to grow and there’s been a ton of positive feedback, it’s been overwhelming.
What are some of the things you talk about with students in the class?
When kids come into the class I ask them what their pronouns are without assuming and I make sure that they know they can change their mind. Another thing that I’m talking with students about is consent, especially with what’s going on in the news these days, it’s really important for minorities and in general, to learn that their bodies belong to them and to learn that it’s okay to speak up when you’re uncomfortable to authority figures. I think that some of the biggest problems with power dynamics and in gender comes from believing in this binary that’s just not a reality.
I do get a lot of kids asking me what my gender is and they’re excited about it because they like hearing an answer that’s something new.
How has teaching this new class impacted you?
It’s just made me feel a lot more passionate about what I do and more in tune with who I am and that just feels right. Gymnastics was life-saving for me, I was someone who struggled with ADHD, I was undiagnosed, I didn’t take medication, but gymnastics taught me to stay focused and taught me that I was smart because my body was smart and it gave me a place to express myself really fully and later that translated into dance. It wasn’t until recently that I stopped moving so much that I realized that I’d been using movement to self-medicate my gender dysphoria.
Do you think more classes like this should be in gymnastics?
I hope other gyms will pick up on this and people reach out to me and ask me questions. I just hope people have more conversations about gender diversity.
So personally, I had recently come out as non-binary to myself and my community and I was afraid to come out at the gym not because I didn’t feel like I belonged here I was just afraid of people’s reactions. I practiced coming out to the rec program manager, I just wanted to ask for proper pronouns and I couldn’t do it and I felt like a burden. But then I realized that by not coming forward and claiming my identity and making space for myself I was also limiting other kids who need that space.
I think gender diverse kids often times have an experience that their bodies are not what they’re supposed to be and they have a hard time loving their bodies and I think physical activity is a great way to combat that and teach kids what their bodies are for because it’s not about what they look like its what they can do.
How do you hope this class impacts students?
I hope this program gives kids more freedom to express their gender and a better understanding of how dynamic and complicated gender can be and it gives them a better sense of who they are in the context of the rest of the world.
I also hope that kids who are struggling with gender are feeling like they’re not fitting into any type of gender and might be struggling with their bodies that it might be life-saving to have a place where they can be physically active and learn how to love their bodies.