Playing fair

LGBTQIA+ issues in youth sports

By Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson 

Kate began writing this article after yet another news cycle highlighted efforts in several states to advance anti-LGBT and anti-transgender legislation—170 bills so far this year. While there are efforts in some states to strengthen anti-discrimination laws, they’re outpaced by bills written to target and inhibit transgender youth in sports and transgender youth access to affirming, lifesaving health care.  

In only a few weeks, three more states codified laws that harm queer and trans youth by criminalizing the seeking of affirming health care, limiting participation in sports based on “sex,” or legislating LGBTQIA+ identities as taboo through “no promo homo” laws like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida’s recently passed legislation.  

The opportunity to play sports aligns to better outcomes for youth. But even though most U.S. students have access to sports and play them nearly year-round on community or school teams, athletic contexts continue to be less-than-welcoming and highly contested spaces, especially around participation by trans athletes.  

Two elements are in play:  

  • Maintaining open, accepting, and affirming spaces for all youth to play sports.  
  • Allowing all youth to play as who they say they are.  

To achieve these, we need to understand that organized athletics do not always welcome LGBTQIA+ athletes, and—even if they do—there has been a social cost to participants. Although we witnessed the meteoric rise in “out” Olympians in 2020—185!—the tides aren’t turning similarly in other arenas.  

Let’s notice a discrepancy. Conservative estimates suggest 7.1% of adults are LGBTQIA+, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics says there are 16,700 professional athletic jobs in the U.S. Accordingly, there should be 1,100 “out” professionals in athletics, but reality doesn’t bear that out. Instead, Outsports (September 2021) reports “Each of America’s Big 5 Sports Currently has an Out Gay Man in the Pros. That’s Never Happened.” Just five? 

For youth, the visibility of “out” athletes plays a huge role in how our culture perceives our LGBTQIA+ kids, and how we—in turn—either allow or limit access to quality sports programming that has a long list of irrefutable positive impacts on all youth.  

Concurrent with the writing of this article, there were at least 34 bills moving through legislatures nationally that seek to prohibit or limit transgender youth participation in sports. Often the bills were titled something innocuous or even misleading, like the “Fairness in Women’s Sports” Act. These aim to define participation aligned with birth “sex,” not gender identity. New Jersey saw the introduction of one of these bills, S-3540 (and Assembly companion bill A-5545) which is currently in committee. It’s a tactic to create conflict in spaces where, even with Title IX rules in place, fewer resources and greater exclusion are the result. 

Participating in sports can lead to better physical and mental health, higher self-esteem, and the development of leadership and teamwork skills. Those positive outcomes are amplified for vulnerable youth who typically have lower rates of participation in sports, which is why sports are built into educational curricula and why the medical establishment continues to encourage physical activity, no matter your age.  

The positive impacts of athletics for young people are wide-ranging.  

  • High school and college student-athletes are at lower risk for anxiety, depression, suicide attempts and substance abuse.  
  • Sports participation is associated with increases in self-esteem and self-confidence, improvement in academic performance, and increased feelings of school connectedness and school-based social connection. 
  • These benefits have been found to extend to social settings and community connectedness as well.  
  • These are for all student-athlete, including and especially LGBTQAI+ student-athletes. 

The Center for American Progress’s 2021 report LGBT Inclusion in Sports stated, “Paramount in sports and in life are the emotional capacities we develop or deepen, feelings of camaraderie, sportsmanship, and the ability to work hard and persevere. Not least, participating in sports can lead to lifelong friendships with teammates and coaches.” It continues: “Sports participation can also help increase opportunity for vulnerable school-age youth. For those who have experienced adverse childhood events—including poverty, disruption in family structure or family deaths, or learning or behavioral problems—sports participation can be a source of resilience and empowerment, protecting against short- and long-term negative impacts to mental health and well-being.”  

Sport plays an influential role in the lives of young Americans. …68% of high school seniors play at least one sport. Comparatively, just 24 percent of LGBTQ youth, and only 21% of high school seniors, currently play on a sports team for their school, with 13 percent of reporting that they avoided playing sports all together because they “do not feel [they] will be accepted on the team because [they are] LGBTQ.”  

From the Human Rights Campaign report “Play to Win” 

This report echoes other data that point toward lifelong benefits of playing sports: participating in high school or collegiate athletics is also associated with higher wages and better jobs, including the benefits of promotions and related advantages that aren’t direct compensation.  Given what we know, why would we increase barriers for the very population that could be best served by participating in athletics? And why would we do so with knowledge that so many of our most vulnerable youth are already at very high risk for family and/or peer rejection and ostracism, physical and psychological victimization, and other social stigmas? Worse yet, these risks only go up when the LGBTQIA+ students are students of color.  

Let’s connect this with school culture. Teachers and educational support professionals (ESPs) are frequently the coaches, scorekeepers, timers, ticket takers, and the very people who suggest team sports to their students. They are the ones who know their kids’ names (and pronouns!) and know the benefits of being part of a team. It’s each of those relationships that can save a kid, even if just a little each day when they show up to practice or to play.  

Regardless of your relation to a sport—whether you’re a coach, an athlete, or a spectator—consider the number of kids that could benefit from your outreach to them. The individual actions of teachers, ESPs, and coaches—whether suggesting a sport that might be a fun fit or inviting a student for serious competition—create the bridge from school to sports, making them both more welcoming and affirming for our LGBTQIA+ kids. In doing so, we create more open and affirming spaces for all youth.  

Watch this now! Gendercool Champions “Play it Out”.

Rebekah Bruesehoff, a 15-year-old ninth grader in New Jersey, is a student athlete, activist, and so much more. Her identity may have been the reason she raised her voice, but she hopes to inspire other young people to use theirs and for the adults on the scene to make the world safer, affirming, and inclusive for trans kids.  

 “I’ve been playing field hockey for my school since fifth grade, and it’s been such a positive experience. I love to be a part of the team. I love that we win, lose, and grow together. I work harder because I know my teammates are counting on me. Plus, we have fun on and off the field. I moved to a new town in eighth grade in the middle of the pandemic, and that was really hard. Field hockey gave me an instant community, a place where I belonged, and that helped me feel more comfortable through the rest of my school day.” 

Follow Rebekah on Instagram: @therealrebekah 

What does the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) say? Transgender student athletes are not required to provide proof—such as a physician’s note or revised birth certificate—to play on sports teams. In fact, transgender athletes are eligible to compete in accordance with either their birth sex or their gender identity.  

“I’ve had students who are gay and trans on my team and knowing who they are—their identities and school, home, and social lives—helps me build strong relationships so I can coach them from a place of understanding. I also look to the integrity of captains and more seasoned students who set an example of how we operate together, making the team a place where everyone feels comfortable and welcome. Giving students the opportunity to be a great human is Job #1 as a coach. Job #2 is to help them be better, more competitive athletes. Our team does both. That means that we accept and support each other. No exceptions.” 

Zach Wilson,  
Boys Swim Coach,  
Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School