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Vancouver field hockey players forced to wear skirts for (at least) another year

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If you'd have told me when I was 12 and writing my first speeches about equality for my local Rotary Club that my first real experience of discrimination would be at the hands of a field hockey league, I'd have thought you were joking. Then again, if you'd have told me when I was 12 that at 28 I would be forced to play a sport I love wearing a spandex miniskirt I would not wear to the bar, I probably would have had a similar reaction.

As some of you will already know, I have taken on the mandatory skirt for women field hockey players as somewhat of a pet project. For those of you who don't already know, here it is in a nutshell.

I've played field hockey since I was 13. It's a great sport. But there is one problem. Field hockey is the last remaining sport (I know of) that requires its female athletes to play in a skirt. Why is this a problem? Because, as the United Nations and Australian Sports Commission recognize, feminine uniforms sexualize female athletes. This trivializes women's sports, lowers self-esteem, perpetuates stereotypes, discourages participation and even promotes the sexual harassment of women athletes. I could go on, and in fact I have, here.

In Vancouver, women field hockey players have asked the Vancouver Women's Field Hockey League to be permitted to play in shorts no fewer than three times in the past few years. Each time their request has been denied.

The last request was made by my team on November 20, 2014.

On that day, I, along with several of my teammates, attended a meeting of the Vancouver Women's Field Hockey League for one purpose: to change the League constitution to give players the choice to wear shorts as part of their uniform.

We did not have in mind anything radical. We knew that many players like the skirt and so we had no intention of taking that away from them. We merely wanted to give individual players who, like me, might not feel comfortable playing in a skirt, a choice. And so we asked that "or shorts" be added to the definition of uniform in the League constitution.

"Each team shall have its playing uniform, consisting of shirt, skirt or shorts, and socks ready for use by the first league game."

When it came time for me to introduce the motion, this is what I said:

"My name is Kaity. I am a member of Jokers IV. I'm here today to ask you to support my team's efforts to make field hockey more inclusive by allowing players to choose between shorts and a skirt as part of their uniform.

This may seem like a trivial issue, but the truth is the mandatory skirt alienates women and girls who, for a number of reasons, do not feel comfortable in the skirt.

I've talked to a lot of people about this issue and some of those people have been mothers and fathers of girls. And I can tell you that I have been told many times that some of these girls would choose not to play field hockey for no other reason that their discomfort with the skirt.

The reasons vary. They include self-consciousness about body image, cultural beliefs about modesty and plain discomfort with skirts.

I don't know about you, but that makes me really sad.

I know if you are here today it is because you love field hockey. And I know you are keenly aware of its wonderful benefits including social connections, community engagement, improved health and stress relief.

I can't believe anyone would want to purposefully exclude women and girls from these benefits. Especially when the accommodation is so simple, and would in no way detract from the enjoyment of players who like the skirt and would choose to continue wearing it.

And so I ask you, please, support us in making this wonderful sport more welcoming to all women and girls."

More than anything, I hoped that this invitation to usher field hockey into a new era of acceptance and inclusivity would be accepted. I hoped to conclude this campaign of mine knowing that, at least in Vancouver, no woman or girl would be forced to quit field hockey because of how the uniform made her feel. 

But the field hockey community disappointed me once again.

The hour debate that ensued was not about inclusion. It was about semantics and appearances.

Some members claimed to be confused by the wording of the motion. Did the amendment mean that whole teams had to wear shorts? How could the choice be the individual’s when the word "individual" did not appear in the amendment?

Other members thought the amendment must involve replacing the word "uniform" with "designated clothing" because uniform connotes one outfit and not a choice between two. (Just like you can’t call private school uniforms "uniforms" because girls have a choice between skirts and pants, oh wait…)

But by far, the prevailing topic of discussion was how the motion would impact the appearance of the players.

One member expressed the view that as Canada's largest field hockey league, it was important that our players looked good. Many agreed that an important part of looking good was looking all the same. Another member said her club took a particular interest in the appearance of their players. If one of their players wanted to play in a ball gown, they would say no.

Another was not convinced that any players were discouraged to join field hockey because of the uniform requirement. Her players had always considered the skirt a badge of honour. She disagreed that the skirt sexualizes athletes and noted that shorts can be sexual too if they are short enough.

One member expressed concern that referees would not be able to distinguish between the different teams if the players' bottoms were not exactly the same. (Oh course the different jerseys and socks would be no help in that regard.)

One club acknowledged that at least one of its teams would choose to wear shorts but expressed concern that this would impact a sponsorship deal it had with a particular uniform supplier.

Sadly, in that full hour discussion, I can recall only one statement in support of the principle of inclusivity. One. But even that statement was quickly followed with a "but" and ultimately did not support the motion.

This stands in sharp contrast to the reactions I've witnessed from the general public. Which generally have been reactions of shock and outrage that in 2014 this is still an issue.

Ultimately, someone suggested that the motion be tabled for another day. That motion passed by a vote of 55 to 26.

Defeated, my team made one last request: that until this motion is decided, the penalty for wearing shorts be reduced to a game card notion rather than being kicked out of the game. After all, that had been the penalty for the last three years and continues to be the penalty for other uniform infractions. No one was able to provide a satisfactory explanation why wearing shorts is penalized more severely than any other infraction. Nonetheless, our request was denied by a vote of 41 to 35. And so it stands, no woman wearing shorts will be permitted to play field hockey in Vancouver.

I am generally an optimistic person. I would love to believe that the members present on November 20, 2014 really do care about inclusion and really did just need some more time to discuss the issue with their teams. Two years ago I would have. But I've been here before. After witnessing three failed attempts to introduce the option of shorts to field hockey, I am starting to believe that there is real resistance to equality and inclusion in this community. I hope to be proven wrong in February, when this motion is raised for a fourth time.

Oh, how I hope. But I am not naive. And I am not holding my breath.

Picture: "CTP_V_UWA_GF_(99)" by Chris Bartle is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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