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Sports and physical education: Meet OISE Professor Heather Sykes

May 13, 2021

Perry King

Professor Heather Sykes’ research into sports and physical education has a guiding principle: to include the excluded and marginalized.

That principle was sparked as someone playing youth rugby in England, the place of her birth. It stayed with her as they began their academic career – looking at issues of sexuality, gender and body-based discrimination. That focus  remained as they research how gender justice activists mobilize against sporting mega-events, including the Olympics and the World Cup of Soccer.

Through a post-structural, queer and feminist lens, Sykes levels heavy critique against heteronormative values and the institutions that support them. The intent, she explains, is to seek change that doesn’t just satisfy normative values but indicates radical change and invites reconciliation. 

Changes comes from the centre

Sykes emphasized this point when speaking to OISE News about inclusion policies in sports organizations near and far.

“I'm always trying to put ideas out there that help people in the [political] centre and the majority—whether they are white, cisgender or straight folks—to say this isn't only a problem that needs to be solved for trans, gay, lesbian and queer athletes,” she says. “The problem is actually is on the top, it's the privilege that cisgender athletes rarely think about.”

This means asking questions such as: “What does it mean that I've lived my whole life as a woman, and I'm seen as a woman, I'd never had to prove or be inspected, or be tested? It’s the same with straight athletes, same with whiteness.”

The early career of the professor, who is based in OISE’s Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning, was rooted in early queer theory, which says the centre and the norm are actually the problems and that's where change needs to happen. Actually changing how cis and straight folks, white people and settlers live their lives is something they themselves need to work on.

“Giving up from the centre is the political ask, rather than just keep on including: we get more diverse, but the league stays the same. The city just gets more tolerant, but that is not the solution I'm looking for,” they say.

Sykes' profound thinking is resonating with her academic colleagues. Assistant Professor Fikile Nxumalo, Sykes’ colleague in the department, is inspired by the ways in which her colleague’s research brings together anti-colonial, queer and feminist theories to inquire into sports and physical education.

“As a researcher who also works across disciplines and theoretical perspectives, I learn from the ways in which Heather’s work brings multiple, seemingly disparate (such as settler colonialism and sport) areas into conversation in generative and disruptive ways,” says Nxumalo, whose research focus works to reconceptualize and resituate place-based and environmental education.

“While I can think of peers in my field of early child education who bring important critical perspectives to physical education,” Nxumalo continues, “I see a need for more work that brings together feminist, queer and anti-colonial perspectives—Heather’s work provides important insights on the interruptive potential of such approaches.”

Sykes has informed Nxumalo that she teaches her work in her classes. Sykes also brought their students to one of Nxumalo’s first talks at OISE and recently attended another talk—which provided really important feedback and questions.

Nxumalo is thankful for all of it. “While our research interests are quite different, I see a shared interest in dismantling normativity and coloniality in education,” says Nxumalo.

Sporting homonationalism and anti-colonial resistance

The G20 summit and the Toronto Pride Parade’s struggle with the Queers Against Israeli Apartheid group came to be defining moments in 2010. In seeking an understanding of all of this, Sykes spoke with many progressive and queer teachers but was left wanting a grittier analysis.

So, they began interviewing and learning from gender justice activists. Those inquiries eventually led them to speak with Indigenous protestors surrounding the Vancouver Olympic Games.

“I was interested in learning of the critical analysis from protesters and activists in both Pride and the G20 in 2010,” they say, “and then I thought, well, there's all this energy and knowledge about how to organize and how are they going across to Vancouver to work with the Indigenous groups who were protesting the Olympics.

It wasn’t that all First Nations were against the Olympics, they say—the four host Nations were involved in new very important ways.

“But not all Indigenous people within those four host Nations or across Indigenous activists felt the same way. A lot of Indigenous activists wanted to use the Olympics to tell the story to Canada, that this isn't one just inclusive party that's happening in Whistler and Vancouver,” said Sykes. “What you need to know that is happening on land that was never ceded.”

There is a long history of organizing groups in these cities and Indigenous activists were leading the charge in Vancouver. “And so, I went looking for how lesbian and gay groups were getting involved in that. Nothing. Literally nothing,” they say. “All the lesbian and gay groups—whether they were sport groups, or just community groups—wanted to be part of the Olympics and were going to have the first Pride house, which they did.”

“And to have that first Pride house, they took a community centre in Vancouver, kicked out the Two Spirit youth program … and filled it with pro Olympic people who wanted to see athletes and have a party. I was appalled and shocked at how the LGBT groups in Canada went so fully pro Olympic.”

Jumping off from that experience, Sykes published a book, The Sexual and Gender Politics of Sport Mega-events: Roving Colonialism, in 2017. The book examines what they call sporting homonationalism and anti-colonial resistance. It offers a counter-narrative to the view that gay and lesbian inclusion in sport is simply a matter of universal human rights.

In the book, they call for LGBT social movements in sport to move away from complicity with neoliberalism, nationalism and colonial-racial logics, particularly Islamophobia, toward a decolonial politics of solidarity.

It’s one of many pieces of work that honours their prior research and contextualizes the state of gender, sports, and physical education today. “A very common under-the-radar assumption across lesbian and gay groups is we're going to be included, the ‘homo’ gets included, into the nation,” says Sykes, discussing the definition of homonationalism.

“And as long as the nation is Canada, which is a settler colonial nation, not much is really going to change for the Indigenous sovereignty of that land.”

The notion of homonationalism changes depending on the country. “So, what happened in Canada, between the settler lesbian and gay groups and First Nations, would not be repeated in Russia or Japan in the same way, because the nations and the colonial history of the nations are completely different,” they say.

Their scholarship has been discussed in spaces during the Pan Am Games in Toronto, and they work to build a curriculum that seeks to build better citizens – critical thinking over the current state of these spaces. That scholarship continues, and Sykes’ focus is unwavering.

“And once you start getting critical of how our social lives are organized, whether you experience the oppression directly or you commit to acting in solidarity and as an ally – and giving up some of your privileges – then the work never stops,” they say.

“You're either winning, or you're trying to solve the problem. It's all about who's getting oppressed.”

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