Olympian, Champion, Advocate: Kathy Johnson Clarke, OLY on Protecting Transgender Athletes From Discrimination

In gymnastics, there’s a process that may seem easy on paper but is challenging as it applies to training difficult skills and competing: Set up, follow through, finish.  

This process served Kathy Johnson Clarke, OLY well during her nine-year elite gymnastics career: she became one of the first American women to win an individual medal at a world championship when she took the bronze in floor exercise in 1978 in Strasbourg. In 1984, she won a silver medal with her team and an individual bronze medal on the balance beam when she represented the United States at the 23rd Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles. In 1994, she was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame for her accomplishments.

Kathy Johnson Clarke 1979 Floor Exercise World Championship

Kathy Johnson Clarke, 1979 World Championships. Photo Courtesy International Gymnast Magazine

These days, Kathy works for ESPN and the SEC Network as a commentator for college gymnastics; indeed, she’s taken the aforementioned process and applied it not only to her career but also to her support of fairness for all. Kathy was an elite athlete herself, raised a son who is an elite pole vaulter, and is surrounded by collegiate athletes, so she understands the incredible experience that is competitive sports and just how much personal value it can have for someone. Not only can athletics raise self-esteem and teach life lessons, it also teaches the values of teamwork, healthy competition, and communication. 

However, transgender athletes also have another hurdle in their journey – simply fighting for the freedom to play. In March, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed into law HB 500, the first law in any state in the U.S. to ban transgender girls from participating in school sports. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and a federal judge temporarily blocked its enforcement in August as the case proceeds. The fight continues even beyond Idaho: Across the country this year, a wave of bills flooded state legislatures seeking to effectively ban transgender athletes from competing in sports, thereby denying them all the benefits that sports have to offer. Kathy is saddened and frustrated by this anti-transgender wave in sports and hates seeing athletics manipulated as a way to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

Kathy Johnson Clarke 1984 Olympics Beam

Kathy Johnson Clarke, 1984 Olympics. Photo Courtesy International Gymnast Magazine.

“Human rights are the MOST important thing: period. There are no words strong enough to describe how I feel for the children who have to deal with this ignorance,” she said. “There are people who have this notion that all of a sudden someone wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to identify this way so I can win a gold medal.’ It’s ridiculous.” 

“I am confident that we will get to a point where this is no longer an issue,” she continued, looking toward the day that no one faces discrimination because of who they are. “But the way we get there is not by discriminating against children in elementary, middle, or high school simply because of how they identify.”

Kathy has been an outspoken advocate for fairness in sports for many years, with a focus on athlete well-being and health. As an Olympian, she’s been particularly powerful in speaking out about and against the abuse that USA Gymnastics left unchecked happen for decades. This current struggle—the fight for the rights of trans athletes—has only further strengthened her demand for a culture of understanding and athlete health first—a principle that transcends the sport of gymnastics and that can be applied to numerous other situations, namely equitable treatment of and respect for trans-identifying athletes. 

Kathy Johnson Clarke Headshot

Photo Courtesy Kathy Johnson Clarke

“The goal we should all strive for is for every athlete to be able to participate in sports and succeed. I’m sure this will be a difficult fight because there are going to be a lot of knee-jerk reactions and opinion-based objections, but I am confident there are experts who can address any and all issues with science-based expertise rather than blanket discrimination of an already marginalized and at-risk group of young people. If we can emphasize why this is so important we can get there. I know it.”

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