Teamwork, Leadership, Fairness: Why Transgender Athletes Should Have the Same Opportunities as Their Peers

By Shane Stahl • December 21, 2020 • 10:09 am

As 2021 state legislative sessions draw nearer, we’re anticipating a number of anti-LGBTQ bills could be introduced. If this past year was any indication, one of the major flashpoints will be bills that prevent transgender student athletes from participating in school sports.   

In 2020, lawmakers in 18 states introduced 23 bills targeting transgender student athletes to prevent them from participating in the sports they love. Though all but one of these bills were defeated, many achieved significant momentum and were derailed only because many state legislatures adjourned early due to COVID-19.   

In Idaho, a bill made it to the governor’s office and was signed into law—HB 500. This makes Idaho the first state to pass a statewide law banning transgender students from participating on sports teams corresponding to their gender. In August 2020, a federal judge granted a motion for preliminary injunction against this law, temporarily blocking it from being implemented until a ruling is issued in the lawsuit challenging it. 

“The goal we should all strive for is for every athlete to be able to participate in sports and succeed.”

At the tail end of this year, we saw similar bills introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that seek to enforce the same kind of discrimination as HB 500. The fact that so many states and members of Congress have simultaneously introduced these bills is not a coincidence. This is the latest coordinated effort by national anti-LGBTQ activists to spread myths and misinformation about what it means to be transgender and chip away at support for LGBTQ equality writ large. 

Laws like HB 500 do not protect girls’ and women’s access to sport. Instead, they create greater inequality and fail to address actual barriers to access like a lack of resources, lack of training, and lack of investment in women coaches. 

And they are a ‘solution’ in search of a problem: 25 states have athletic inclusion policies that allow transgender youth athletes to play alongside their peers—providing for a level playing field and protecting transgender youth from discrimination. These policies make it possible to create pathways to participation for aspiring athletes. Furthermore, major athletic associations such as the NCAA, the International Olympic Committee, and USA Gymnastics also have instituted policies that allow transgender athletes to participate professionally.  

trans athlete running

Transgender students, like other kids, deserve the same chances to learn teamwork, sportsmanship, leadership and self-discipline, and to build a sense of belonging with their peers. When we tell transgender girls that they can’t play girls’ sports—or transgender boys that they can’t play boys’ sports—they miss out on this important childhood experience and all the lessons it teaches.  

Transgender kids want the opportunity to play sports for the same reason other kids do: to be a part of a team where they feel like they belong. We shouldn’t discriminate against kids and ban them from playing because they’re transgender. High school is hard enough for all students, and can be particularly difficult for transgender students, who often face bullying and harassment. Politicians shouldn’t make this worse by banning students from being part of a team and playing the sports they love.   

When transgender athletes are excluded from participation on teams that align with their gender identity, the result is often that they are excluded from sports altogether. Being excluded from sports can be devastating to already vulnerable transgender youth, given that sports can be an invaluable part of students’ physical, social, and emotional well-being.  

The fact of the matter is this: No student should be denied the ability to participate in sports simply because of who they are. Sports teaches core values of teamwork, healthy competition, and problem solving in addition to having numerous social benefits. Denying these opportunities to transgender students would be incredibly detrimental to their physical and mental well-being, and would have a direct impact on things such as academic performance, attendance, and graduation rates.  

Perhaps former elite gymnast and two-time Olympic medalist Kathy Johnson Clarke says it best: “The goal we should all strive for is for every athlete to be able to participate in sports and succeed. I am confident that we will get to a point where this is no longer an issue. But the way we get there is not by discriminating against children in elementary, middle, or high school simply because of how they identify.”

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