It’s no secret that playing sports has many positive effects on a young person—obviously physical, but also mental and emotional. The skills young athletes build, such as teamwork, healthy competition and resilience, can be applied beyond athletics into the larger world, and make it possible for a person to work toward making themselves and the people around them better.
These opportunities should not be denied to any student athlete simply because of who they are or who they love; unfortunately, there has been a growing and disturbing trend of legislatures attempting to prevent transgender students from participating in youth sports.
While most of these efforts were abandoned or voted down, one such bill, HB 500, did pass in Idaho earlier this year. For now, implementation has been put on hold by a federal judge after several groups challenged the bill in court. But the larger issue of anti-LGBTQ lawmakers attacking transgender young people’s participation in sports isn’t going away.
“Sports facilitate peer and social connections that create community and interconnectedness; research shows that a sense of relatedness has substantial impacts later in life,” says Travis Scheadler, a doctoral student at The Ohio State University whose research is focused on sport-based positive youth development, and the influences of activism and resilience in that development.
Participating in sports has many psychological and emotional benefits, and of course, great physical benefits. This is key to understanding how attacks on sports participation can hurt transgender youth, says Travis. Recent trends in adolescent health make these attacks even more troubling.
“This generation has the possibility of being the first in recorded history not to outlive their parents, all because of health issues. Providing more opportunities for youth to participate in sports means they are more likely to develop healthier behaviors. It’s something we have the potential to reverse, but in order to do that we need to make sports MORE accessible to all youth.”
Additionally, the inspiration that youth and adolescents get from seeing positive portrayals of people like them succeed has a direct and immediate impact on things like GPA and attendance. For LGBTQ youth in particular, it can also lead to a drastic reduction in suicidal ideation and self-harming behaviors. Taking away sports from someone can lead to a loss of identity, where the athlete may feel like they don’t know themselves anymore or what they contribute to the world around them.
Travis further explains, “In some ways you can relate it to having an injured athlete who can’t train or compete until they are healed. There’s a loss of sense of self there, and [when it comes to discrimination] if you are part of another marginalized group, that effect multiplies.”
“Seeing people that look like us gives us hope. If you don’t see someone like you being given the opportunity to be a champion, most likely you won’t believe that it can be possible for you.”
Travis emphasizes that professional sports organizations and federations must work to have an equitable playing field for all athletes. If for no other reason, being inclusive and welcoming diversity provides a larger pool of talent to draw from and can mean better win-loss records, public awareness, program funding and more.
“It’s important to have diversity in order to make a team better, and allow for different talents to develop and cooperate. It lets us work with each other and collaborate. If we leverage each other’s strengths, we can excel.”
Transgender athletes have the same potential for greatness as their non-transgender peers, and should be allowed to participate in sports and grow not only as an athlete, but as a full person. Seeing transgender athletes like Chris Mosier (a member of Team USA Track & Field) succeed further encourages people to be who they are and accept the uniqueness they bring to the world.
“Seeing people that look like us gives us hope. If you don’t see someone like you being given the opportunity to be a champion, most likely you won’t believe that it can be possible for you. We have to keep speaking up, because without activism we’re not going to get positive change, challenging those in power to reflect on what they have and the decisions they make. Without hope what do we have?”