The impact of safe swimming sessions on wellbeing among transgender people

by Dr Jayne Caudwell

14 Dec 2020

The British Academy-funded research project, Safe Swim, began to take shape in 2016 following a university-community football v homophobia event. At the one-day event in 2016 and again in 2017, local LGBT+ spoke about the issues facing transgender people when it came to taking part in physical activity. It emerged that safety and feeling safe were constraints to participation in physical activity and sport.

Transphobia is commonplace in many spheres of UK society and transgender people often avoid public spaces for fear of abuse, discrimination and prejudice. This means lower levels of physical activity participation that threaten individual health and wellbeing. Non-engagement in physical activity in public increases feelings of marginalisation and isolation. Feeling isolated is known to have a negative impact on an individual’s wellbeing.

In 2017, researchers from Bournemouth University teamed up with a Bournemouth-based transgender group to explore how swimming at a local indoor pool promoted individual and group wellbeing. The project involved the private-hire of the public pool for one hour once a month on a Saturday evening. The sessions ran from mid-to-late 2018 and throughout 2019. At the start of 2020 (pre-lockdown), with the help of the duty manager at the leisure centre facility, the previously funded provision for transgender participants was extended via pay-as-you-go once-a-month sessions.

Both the funded and the pay-as-you-go sessions meant exclusive use of the public swimming pool and changing room facilities. This type of usage enabled a number of positive outcomes for the participants, captured through semi-structured interviews, focus groups and participants' drawings.

Previously the research participants experienced trepidation when swimming at a public pool:

I remember how terrified I was, I remember how afraid I was of being judged.

– Aly

I never felt safe going alone.

– Matt

I wouldn’t feel safe enough to swim normally.

– Sam

Many reported not swimming for a long time, but the private-hire swim sessions provided an opportunity for them to start swimming again. Positive feedback was received during post-swim drawing sessions, with swimmers saying “I loved it, haven’t swam since I was 14 (am 20 now) :) Best ever” and “It was amazing to swim and be around others like me. Made me happy :)”. For some of the research participants, the swimming helped with developing love of the self that is so often denied.

“I used to love swimming when I was young, I used to go loads and I think because I haven’t been swimming for so long, like my body has changed, having a safe space for swimming has been the start of something amazing for me; it’s got me back in love with fitness and myself.” – Jed

“Trans swim is the first time in 15 years that I’ve been swimming. I feel safe here. It is beyond words how it feels to let all guard down and just swim and relax. It reminds me that me and my body are normal. Worthy of respect, worthy of self-love. Worthy of living.” – Mika

Picture drawn by a participant. Courtesy of Jayne Caudwell.

Academics from a range of disciplines, including sport and leisure studies and human geography, have argued that water, in its many forms, connects with the health of individuals. Research of outdoor waterscapes reveals the therapeutic, restorative and medical value of what is called blue space. Moreover, researchers acknowledge the emotional, physical and imaginative properties of being in blue space, especially immersion in water. Less is known about indoor watery safe space, such as public swimming pools, and how being in water affects levels of wellbeing for transgender people.

Picture drawn by a participant. Courtesy of Jayne Caudwell.

For members of the group, being together in the water was very important. The group enjoyed the swim sessions because they involved playful activity as well as swimming. Having fun and playing in a safe environment with other people enabled physical activity as well as pleasure.

“One of the reasons I go is because it gives me a chance to interact with other people … And, it’s fun! Right!” – Abi

“It is fun just to get in the pool. You’ve got the inflatables; you can be a big kid without having any worries. We’ve had sessions where we’ve had games of volleyball. You just forget about everything else that’s going on.” – Mason

“I forget. I don’t have to worry about anything. I can just enjoy myself, which is something I never really get to do while exercising. I can just have fun with my friends and have good exercise.” – Ed

The pay-as-you-go swim sessions were halted due to COVID-19 but if they are able to restart once pools can safely reopen, the research project will continue to find out more about how we can support physical activity and wellbeing for transgender people.

The findings from our research project demonstrate that participation in swimming and aquatic activity has positive wellbeing outcomes for the research participants. Their wellbeing is improved through feelings of being safe, being together, having fun, feeling happy and feelings of freedom and liberation. The transgender and non-binary research participants do not normally experience these feelings in the contexts of physical activity. The project shows how greater access to swimming and aquatic activity could offer a significant opportunity to increase activity levels and improve wellbeing for the trans community.

Dr Jayne Caudwell (@CaudwellJ) is Associate Professor in Social Sciences, Gender and Sexualities at Bournemouth University. She is currently leading on two research projects designed to improve the physical activity opportunities for the LGBT+ community in Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. These projects are funded by a BA / Leverhulme Small Research Grant she received in 2018 and funding from Energise Me and Sport England.

Further reading

Jumping In: transgender and non-binary swimming LGBT+

Transgender and Non-binary Swimming in the UK: Indoor Public Pool Spaces and Un/Safety


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