Both individual and team sports are often part of every kid’s experience. Early youth programs through park and recreation teams and the need for parents to get their kids out of the house offer opportunities for kids to try soccer, basketball, gymnastics, or t-ball before they have lost their first tooth. For some kids it’s a lifelong love of athletics, travel teams, and teammates who become family. For others it’s proof that sports…aren’t going to work. For kids who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, sports may be both at the same time.
Queer kids have varied experiences when it comes to youth sports and often it has nothing to do with their enjoyment of the activity and everything to do with the environment surrounding them. There were more out Olympians than ever before this summer (180) and NFL player Carl Nassib was celebrated when he came out this year but according to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth participation in sports is much lower than that of cisgender and straight peers. A love of sports isn’t the only driving force that can keep a kid on a team.
The Trevor Project collected data from an online survey between October and December 2020 and nearly 35,000 LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 and 24 responded to questions about the experience with athletics. 68% of the respondents said they never participated in sports, while 32% said they had. Of the 32% who said they played a sport, only 4% felt like they could talk to their coach if they had a problem or were feeling stressed or sad.
Coaches are supposed to be mentors and can be parental figures for many kids; they should never be another person who rejects LGBTQIA+ youth. Whether queer kids heard negative comments about LGBTQIA+ people (18%) or positive comments (16%), all coaches need to be outwardly affirming of athletes by asking for accurate names, pronouns, and using gender neutral language. Coaches also need to set the tone by setting a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and discrimination when they invest in youth sports.
Coaches can be the difference between a LGBTQIA+ athlete feeling safe and included and feeling rejected and discouraged from doing something they enjoy. Thankfully, 12-year-old Rhiannon of Vermont is a student-athlete who has had a positive experience since coming out as transgender. Rhiannon throws the javelin and sprints for her school’s track and field team. She tells Scary Mommy, “It’s felt a bit scary at points, like when I do exceedingly well compared to my female teammates and I become scared that my school will take me out of the team for ‘fairness’ but they haven’t done anything of the sort.” Rhiannon is the school’s first out transgender student to participate in sports; her parents worked closely with the school’s athletic director to be sure she had the support she needed.
Rhiannon’s mom, Kelly, said, “I am not going to lie — my back was a total knot at the first meet but then, joyfully, nothing bad happened — just as it should be for all kids. She has had welcoming teammates and plenty of cheering.”
Lawmakers and legislation in several states are making it hard for transgender athletes, particularly girls, to participate in youth sports. But even in states where transgender youth can play on the team that matches their gender identity, bathrooms and fear of bigotry make it too difficult to participate. Kids want to show up and play, not wonder where they will be able to get changed before and after practice. Discrimination is not limited to gender identity. A student’s sexual orientation is often targeted too.
“Girls in my class don’t want me to change in the locker room with them because they think I’ll stare at them/hit on them because I’m lesbian,” one youth reported to The Trevor Project. Another said, “The locker room was always a nightmare, the athletic kids at my school hated me, the coaches at my school hated me, and as much as I didn’t care for a lot of mainstream sports in general, I avoided athletic activities out of terror, not disinterest.”
Sky, a nonbinary 5th grader in Vermont, felt the pressure to choose which team to play on for their town’s recreation soccer team. “I want a coed team because it makes me feel more comfortable because they can’t just call us girls or boys. I don’t like being called a girl but there aren’t enough people who understand.” Simply shifting language and checking in with athletes can make athletes like Sky feel more welcome.
Baxter is a 16-year-old, multi-sport athlete who hopes to play baseball in college. He’s also a cisgender, straight male. Scary Mommy asked him if the teams he plays on would welcome a LGBTQIA+ teammate. “I cannot speak for all teams nor can I for all cis males. I know my close friends would support any kid on a sports team, no matter their race, gender, sexuality, etc. In school it’s harder for me to get a gauge on how LGBTQ+ kids are treated. I know my close friends and I have respect for everyone. But I also would suspect there are those who wouldn’t show the same respect.”
Baxter’s younger sister Paige, who is also a multi-sport athlete, adds, “From what I’ve seen, most athletes are very accepting of queer kids in the school even if they don’t play sports. All of the teams I’ve been on have been supportive and had a great community.”
While this is a standard that should be set, it’s also an exception for too many LGBTQIA+ students. The significantly lower rate of participation compared to straight, cisgender peers indicates that more needs to be done across the country to make youth sports more inclusive and safer for queer students. Carrie Davis, Chief Community Officer at The Trevor Project, says, “No young person should be barred from the benefits of sports — friendship, fun, and stress relief — due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Athletics can and should be affirming and confidence boosters for all students—especially LGBTQIA+ students. However, the fear of being misgendered, of being outed, or being discriminated against while out can take away both. The impact of fears realized can keep LGBTQIA+ athletes sidelined from youth sports.
The queer Olympians we saw compete this summer had to start somewhere. Let’s make sure all future Olympians are starting their athletic careers on LGBTQIA+ inclusive teams.