Year of Young People 2018: Mat Wilkie

26th February 2018

Year of Young People 2018: Mat Wilkie

We celebrate the achievements and stories of young change-makers from within the LGBTI community.

Mat has a wealth of wisdom, experience and knowledge of what sports can be to many people and their quality of life. He has been an invaluable LEAP volunteer for several years now, playing an instrumental role in delivering projects and activities for other LGBTI young people.

Team sports give me a place to push myself physically, and make friends and have fun. Regular structured training allows me to track my progress and keeps me motivated. Sport simply makes me feel good*. *most of the time.

He can attest to the rich benefits of participation in these sports as well as of getting out into the outdoors:

I've always been involved in sport. As a kid, I used to swim and run a few times a week, and then at 11 I got involved in climbing and mountaineering and fell in love with everything outdoorsy. I just love being in the mountains and pushing myself to exhaustion, looking to the next summit or down into cloud filled valleys.

I've made the best friends through hill adventures. I also play football and have just started rugby which is so much fun!

Having endured personal and structural challenges within sport, Mat can speak to the scale of sports as a positive force in shaping a person’s mental and physical health, as well as the importance of embedding a person-centred model of LGBTI+ inclusivity within the DNA of those sports:

I've faced two big challenges in sport: at 21 I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis which doesn't go well with sport, especially high impact sports like climbing and running; and as a trans person my access to sport has been severely compromised. Arthritis has been a pretty big challenge as it makes me less able to be physically active. I went through a long grieving process when I realised the limitations it would have on my sporting dreams, especially when it comes to running and climbing.

As a trans person I have had a complex relationship with the gendered spaces, expectations and clothing which go hand in hand with sport. In addition, there are many obstructions built into sports that stop trans people from taking part. These can be top-down transphobic regulations or simply transphobia at local club levels.

As well as taking these challenges in hand, Mat can attest to the importance of sport which is organised from the ground-up in such a way as to include and respect the needs and rights of trans, non-binary, intersex and gender non-conforming people, especially young people within those communities.

Not finding a space that I could fit in as a gender non-conforming young person led to me dropping sports entirely for a few years whilst trying to work through finding out what gender means to me, and to my life ongoing. I would still climb occasionally in that time, but overall removing myself from sporting spaces was the only option I could see.

Sport doesn't have to be tough - it can just be fun. There's also the matter of basic civil rights - it feels outrageous to me that within sport a person’s gender is so fundamental, especially with no medical basis. However, sport isn't for everyone and that's ok. It should be mentioned that prescribing sport as a cure-all to people with mental health issues is totally unhelpful and ableist. It's about what works for the person.

Where sport is only accessible through two narrowly defined and understood gendered options, which are not trans-inclusive or intersex-inclusive, the consequences are often the alienation and exclusion of people of all ages who are already more marginalised within society and often more vulnerable. These are among the very people who stand to gain the most from the positive effects of sport — when that sport is inclusive and intersectional. It is also worth stressing here that assuming that engagement in sport is the solution for everyone is ableist; our approach to sport must be intersectional as well as sport itself. Mat can speak to the effects of these barriers himself:

I was called out and questioned in changing rooms or in races, but even having an assumed gender in these places was something I couldn't handle. As I rely on sports a lot to keep healthy this had a severely detrimental impact on my mental health and sense of self-worth, at a time where I was suidically depressed and really needed help in that area.

Mat has gone on to taking action to tackle the barriers which trans people continue to face in organised competitive sports. His efforts have been essential in delivering events with LEAP which were aimed at opening up sports to LGBTI young people, trans and gender non-conforming young people and those facing mental health issues in particular, as well as contributing to our policy work on bringing good practice in this field into governance and guidance.

I was motivated to take action to make sport more inclusive for a number of reasons. It's such a positive thing in my life, and exclusion was so detrimental to me, that I wanted to contribute to the move to improve inclusivity within sport. In general, trans people are isolated, can have low self-esteem and body image, have low mental health, and have trouble finding public groups or places that we feel comfortable in. By making sport a place that trans people, among others, feel comfortable so many of these problems can be challenged.

He articulates from his own lived experience the enormous benefits of participating in sporting activities - particularly for people who may be dealing with mental health issues, loneliness and issues with bodily autonomy:

As a trans person, it sometimes feels like society has more right to my body than I do. I’m constantly probed and questioned, be it from people in the streets or medical professionals. Through sport, you can take some control back over your body. You can build specific muscle and find ways to use your body that you'd never thought of, seeing it as something other than a misshapen flesh cage. You can make friends through teams who rely on you to make training every week, combating some level of loneliness or exclusion.

Getting up and out is also an issue common in people with anxiety and depression, so knowing you can get up and put your trainers on and get out is such a powerful tool to use when you feel hopeless.

Mat has brought his wisdom, experience, intelligence and visibility as an out and proud young role model to LEAP projects with young LGBTI+ community members among their organisers and participants, with first-hand and acute knowledge of where many issues lie in sport for young community members.

You find so many young people ostracised by sport through PE lessons where they've been forced into wearing gendered clothes or bullied by classmates for being different. This makes people think they can't do sport and they hate it when actually pretty much anyone can do it and can enjoy it!

He also speaks powerfully on how effective sporting activity can be to engage in as a means of pushing yourself and your own barriers, enduring and overcoming adversity in the pursuit of personal development and the fulfilment that comes with that engagement:

I love sport because it makes me push myself. I'm very proud of a mountain marathon I ran in 2011 called the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM). It's a weekend race where you run a marathon over hills on both Saturday and Sunday carrying supplies and camping things you need for Saturday night and in 2011 it was in the highlands near Perth. You do some orienteering as well, and it was pretty much the most physically demanding weekend of my life. I could barely walk for a week afterward and it was no good for my joints as all - but I crossed the finish line.

We can’t thank Mat enough for everything he has done for LEAP, as well as for young people within our network and the broader community - especially those who are at greater risk of experiencing marginalisation and exclusion. His leadership, support, advocacy and willingness to share his story have all been fundamental to some of our greatest successes as an organisation.

I'm just proud of all the times I get up and out and make it to training. It's always a battle but I feel so much better afterwards. I'm feeling quite strong and fit again now after many years of not feeling so and I am absolutely loving it. It’s not coincidental that it's also a time where I'm feeling a lot more comfortable in my body and with my gender.. I know that if I could have kept feeling like this during the start of my social and medical transition I would have avoided so much of the pain I went though!

In his own words:

Sport is brilliant!

You can find out more about the OMM here.

Written on 26th February 2018.