Making a Splash: Nurturing Inclusivity for Trans Lifeguards

By: Courtney Clay, MBA, CPRP (she/her), Recreation Supervisor| Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities

As a supervisor, sometimes it can be hard to know if your efforts are making an impact, or even if that impact aligns with the intended goals. At the end of the summer, I set off to find out if some of the efforts we had made in the City of Mesa had created a positive effect for our trans employees.  We have 9 facilities and 429 aquatics team members, two are trans and one identifies as non-binary. I sat down with each of them to ask about their experiences with the city and get feedback on how we are doing in making them feel welcome, included, and seen. These were the major takeaways from our conversations and represent the focal points I’ll be addressing, regarding DEI, in preparation for the upcoming summer.

Gender Roles in Team Competitions

We know lifeguards are uber-competitive. This often shows up in the form of team competitions. Whether it’s a race between groups within a pool or a contest between multiple pools, competition is used to help prevent summer burnout with lifeguard teams. My lifeguards expressed that gender roles should not influence the rules for competitions, as they are irrelevant to the camaraderie and spirit of the games. For example, we have an annual pool vs pool Splash N’ Dash, in the past, this race has required a male, female, male, female, order to run or swim. This year we did not require an order. However, my transgender lifeguards rightly noted that while this was a positive step, it falls short. Management needs to explicitly communicate that anyone will be supported when competing for their pool and can compete as the gender they identify with. We provide this for our recreation team participants, why are we not being openly supportive of this for our own lifeguards. However, my non-binary team member noted that they “don’t really know where [they] fit in when it comes to the challenges… It feels like a weird gray area that I don’t know how to navigate.” And I have to say, I agree with them. I am not sure how to navigate it either. I appreciated their honesty, and I will keep learning and growing to try and educate myself and my team to all support each other.


My team members agreed that the right swimsuit is the most important issue facing them! They all emphasized how the choice of swimsuit greatly influences their sense of identity. In 2021, when we stopped making assumptions about gender and allowed staff members to select the uniform and swimsuit that they felt most comfortable in, this was transformational for those staff. The water polo coach for one of the summer teams noted that it’s one thing to feel tired and sweaty after coaching, but being uncomfortable in your swimsuit because it doesn’t align with your gender identity only adds to your uneasiness at work. When she was able to wear the suit that fit her gender identity, she was able to be more comfortable and confident at work. She was a more secure lifeguard, a more effective water polo coach, and a stronger leader to her rec team athletes and her fellow lifeguards.

This feeling was raised by a trans male lifeguard as well. He expressed that there was an excessive emphasis on adhering to gender roles in the preparation of end-of-summer competitions, particularly in the context of team uniforms. He shared that he found it uncomfortable to have to repeatedly clarify his costume preference to others, as they often assumed he would be wearing the “girl” outfit. He emphasized that by adopting gender-neutral uniforms, such conversations could be avoided altogether. However, if your management teams are strong and united in their efforts to promote inclusivity, and ensure your aquatic facilities are a safe space for all who come to them, these conversations are less likely to occur.

Just Keep Trying

My guards recognize the efforts of their management and the administrative team.  In previous years, attempts to offer optional pronoun pins for hip packs were rejected by my supervisor. However, during these recent interviews, my lifeguards recommended providing these pins to show support and facilitate positive changes without pressuring anyone into doing something they are uncomfortable with. I deeply value their honesty and am committed to continuing my efforts to gain support from my superiors for the inclusion of pronoun identifiers for our staff. If you’re interested in understanding why pronouns are important, you can read an article from the National Institute of Health that delves into the importance of pronouns.

If your organization offers an Employee Assistance Program, and offers it to part-time or seasonal employees, this is a great resource to share with your team members. Being able to take advantage of mental health support services for little to no cost (at least for a few visits) can greatly increase that employees feeling of belonging to an organization and overall wellbeing.

Streamlined Splash

  • Ensure that team competitions are inclusive and do not rely on gender roles, allowing lifeguards to compete as the gender they identify with.
  • Consider the importance of swimsuits and uniforms in contributing to the sense of identity and comfort for trans team members and strive to provide gender-neutral options.
  • Show support and facilitate positive changes by offering different ways for staff to display their pronoun preferences (pins, nametags, etc.), this can promote inclusivity without pressuring anyone to disclose their gender identity.
  • Provide on-going trainings and support options for your management teams and your entire aquatics staff to encourage learning, development, understanding, and support.

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