Outsports feature, Out in the World, dives into our deep archive of Coming Out stories and updates the stories of out athletes, coaches and other sports personnel who continue to prove, everyday, that Courage Is Contagious.
Stephanie Shostak is a woman in motion. She’s a specialist in privacy and compliance issues. She’s developed her own firm specializing in diversity and inclusion. She’s an outspoken voice in her native Alberta as an activist for transgender rights and as shadow cabinet member for one of Alberta’s political parties.
What ties her work together is a passion for the sport of volleyball. For her, that involves sitting in the high stand and monitoring the net as a referee who has officiated at some of the highest levels of the sport in North America.
It’s something she can’t wait to get back to, coronavirus permitting. “I haven’t been on a stand refereeing since the middle of February,” she said. “I miss the gym and I really hope it comes back sooner rather than later.”
Since first gaining her certification as an official in 1987, she rose through the provincial ranks to have the opportunity to become a national-certified official with Volleyball Canada in 2013.
At the same time, she was fighting herself. She was struggling with her gender identity. A grapple she chronicled in the Coming Out Story she wrote for Outsports in 2016.
“The contemplation of hanging up my whistle in the summer of 2013 had a direct correlation to a major change in my personal life: coming out as a transgender woman.”
Through building a career, a family and her passion for volleyball, her inner struggle loomed. She noted it was in 2010 that she decided it was time to stop hiding and start her transition. Even then she noted the struggle going forward was saving her life, but it was also affecting her ability to make the calls as an official.
“It was difficult because all I could think about was moving forward in my journey,” Shostak said. “Things were changing and I was going through my metamorphosis at the time and it was very uncomfortable. It was difficult not being your true self but knowing you would be at one point. “
In August 2013, while grinding through the process to become a Volleyball Canada National Referee, she was at a crossroads in terms of volleyball and the rest of her life.
“Growing up in conservative Alberta at that point in time there wasn’t a lot of support for someone who was transgender,” she remembered. “I decided that maybe the best thing for me to do was to walk away from the sport than take all the backlash.”
Instead she decided she loved the game too much. She choose to move forward and come out.
“Surprisingly enough, I decided to move forward and there wasn’t any backlash,” she said happily. “I was embraced by the volleyball community, by Volleyball Alberta, Volleyball Canada and USA Volleyball. I haven’t had any negative thing that happened since I came out.”
Positive has largely been the trend for Stephanie Shostak since then. In 2014, she earned National Referee certification, officiating all levels of the game in Canada and the club and college club levels in the U.S..
Out of the chair and away from the court, she has built the next phase of her life as a professional, a business woman, activist and a political figure. She is especially pleased to have had a hand in a great deal of progress for trans people in perhaps Canada’s most conservative province. “A lot of people say ‘Oh Alberta, Texas North’, and yeah it is oil and cattle,” she noted. “But there’s there’s been a lot of change in the mindset and lot of progressive legislation which I’ve been in involved with.”
The same year she moved into a heightened position as a ref, she was named to the board of the Trans Equality Society of Alberta (TESA). The next year she worked closely with like-minded people and legislators to get protection for gender identity and gender expression added to the Alberta Human Rights Act.
In addition to her work with Senior Information & Privacy Manager with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta, she started her own consulting firm in 2017 dedicated to helping firms and agencies build diversity and inclusion guidelines.
In Fall 2019, her experience in healthcare fell in line with her advocacy. The ruling provincial government attempted to pass a bill that would allow doctors the right to deny care to patients on moral conscience grounds, a measure similar to policies put forth by the Trump administration here in the U.S. targeting transgender Americans.
“That flies straight in the face of providing proper healthcare and you start to discriminate against people,” she said. “I decided to work with TESA and get on this fast. We put out a press release and got a lot a lot of media attention. We did interviews about it and the special legislature committee debating this bill call us in to testify.”
In the session with the committee, Shostak and others made a convincing case. The bill died in committee in an 8-2 rout. “I believe our advocacy on our end, bringing it forward to a lot of people and making that testimony, made a huge difference to kill the bill.”
Her efforts have put her on the political radar. In 2018, the Alberta Party, a growing centrist third party approached her to be a part of the effort. She agreed, and was named the Party’s shadow health minister. When asked about if she’d stand in Alberta’s next provincial elections, scheduled for 2023, she said coyly, “It’s too early to say.”
Even with her formidable efforts, Shostak sees her identity as a part of a greater whole. “Being transgender is something that I am, but I don’t go flaunting it all the time. I just live my life as best as I can,” she says.
Her story as a referee has made an impact on other trans people within her sport. She saw how far that impact reached a month after her coming out story appeared in Outsports. “I was reffing in one of our national championships and I had just gotten off the stand and taken care of everything post-match,” she said. “As I was heading to the referee room, I heard my name being called and I saw two parents waving their arms in the air trying to get my attention.”
“They said that they read my article in outsports and they’d like me to meet their daughter,” she recalled with a gleam forming in her eye. “The daughter comes over, asked their mom why they were talking to the referee that just did their match. The mom said ‘that’s Stephanie, the one that was in the article you read’. Her eyes lit up and she started crying and she gave me a big hug, and then she walked away to be with her teammates.”
The gleam in Shostak eye broadened. “The parents explained to me that they were from another province and their daughter had transitioned a couple of years earlier. In order for her to transition to play the sport, they had to move to another community so they wouldn’t have any backlash, ” she stated. “My article helped to inspire her and that family to show that things were possible and that they just wanted to say thank you.”
Outsports welcomes suggestions for our Out In the World series. Who would you like to hear from again? Also, please reach out if you yourself would like to update us on what you’ve been doing since coming out in Outsports.
Check out our archive of coming out stories.
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected])
If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.