Fact Sheet: The Importance of Sports Participation for Transgender Youth
In the wake of recent progress in both policy and public opinion on issues such as marriage equality and expanded protections against discrimination, opponents of LGBTQ equality have mobilized to stoke transphobia and legislate anti-trans policies by focusing on the participation of transgender youth in school athletic programs.1 During a pandemic and economic crisis that should demand policymakers’ full attention and government response, many anti-LGBTQ legislators are instead using their time and resources to advocate for bills that would ban transgender students from playing sports.
Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., currently have trans-inclusive state athletic association guidance, and years of open participation by transgender students in those places have produced no evidence of purported harms to cisgender people. Meanwhile, sports provide opportunities to learn leadership, teamwork, self-esteem, discipline, and community—benefits that should be available to every young person, regardless of their gender identity. CAP’s research shows that denying transgender students these opportunities harms this already vulnerable population and does not demonstrably benefit cisgender youth.
Mental health and discrimination among transgender youth
Transgender youth already face high rates of family rejection, violence, discrimination, and suicidality. Transgender youth should have equal access to the benefits of sports participation. When denied these opportunities, they experience significant harms.
- Transgender youth regularly face violence and stigma. In 2015, 77 percent of transgender adults who were out or perceived as transgender while in grades K-12 reported negative experiences at school. These experiences included verbal or physical harassment, physical or sexual assault, or being prevented from dressing in accordance with their gender identity.2
- Suicidality is shockingly common among transgender youth. Almost 44 percent of transgender youth—versus 16 percent of cisgender youth—reported considering suicide in the previous year.3
Current U.S. policies on sports participation for transgender students
Sports participation is lower among transgender youth4 in part because of the patchwork of existing policies that limit access.
- The Biden administration recently interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Bostock v. Clayton County as prohibiting gender identity discrimination under Title IX. This interpretation will protect transgender students from discrimination, including in the context of school sports participation.5
- 15 states and Washington, D.C.6—together home to more than 6.8 million high school students7 and approximately 42 percent of transgender high school-age youth8—have policies allowing transgender students to participate in school sports without requirements of medical or legal transition.
- Other states either offer no guidance or have policies requiring transgender students to experience administrative scrutiny or undergo medical procedures in order to participate. Six states limit participation solely based on athletic institutions’ individual definitions of “biological sex” rather than scientific evidence or individual identity.
- The NCAA, the International Olympic Committee, and various professional and amateur leagues have allowed transgender athletes to participate in accordance with their gender identity since as early as 2004.9
- In 2020, 20 states introduced high school transgender sports bans,10 one of which passed in Idaho and has since been enjoined, with the court noting an “absence of any empirical evidence” justifying the law.11 In 2021 so far, dozens of states have introduced similar bills, even where lawmakers cannot cite a single case of a transgender girl participating in sports.12
“Suppressing myself just to be able to play sports felt like a piece of me was dying, like I was killing myself at the same time—and that’s why I ultimately came out and transitioned.”
– Emet, field hockey player, coach and transgender man13
Trans-inclusive policies do no harm to cisgender youth
Despite opponents’ frequent claims that transgender girls are a threat to women’s sports, CAP’s analysis shows that trans-inclusive policies have no negative effect on girls’ sports participation.
- In states with inclusive policies, high school girls’ participation in sports remained unchanged from 2011 to 2019. In states with exclusive policies, girls’ participation has decreased.14
- In California and Connecticut, which have inclusive policies, girls’ sports participation has increased, including by almost 14 percent in California from 2014 to 2020.15
Trans-exclusive policies substantially harm transgender youth
Transgender youth already experience unsafe and unwelcoming environments, and evidence shows that discriminatory school policies only harm them further.
- GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey found that 1 in 10 LGBTQ youth have been discouraged from playing school sports due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.16
- More than half of transgender students reported being prevented from using bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity.
- LGBTQ youth who had experienced discriminatory policies reported lower self-esteem and school belonging than those who had not, as well as higher rates of depression and school absenteeism.
- Lack of acceptance and affirmation increases mental health risks. A 2020 survey found that 28 percent of transgender youth whose pronouns are not affirmed attempted suicide in the past year. That number decreased to 12 percent for those whose pronouns are affirmed by all or most people in their lives.17
“Horses saved my life when I was going through my transition, and I’m sure that numerous other trans athletes can say the same for themselves. I truly cannot imagine what it would have been like if I wasn’t able to ride while I was going through all of that.”
– Jay, equestrian athlete and transgender man
Trans-inclusive policies can substantially benefit transgender youth
Participation in athletics in general can be beneficial to youth, and policies allowing transgender youth to access athletics can mitigate the harms they face.
- Inclusive school policies are associated with lower suicide risk and greater feelings of safety at school for LGBTQ students.18
- Transgender and nonbinary students at schools with inclusive policies were less likely to skip school or experience victimization or harassment.19
- Transgender and nonbinary athletes had higher grades than those who did not participate in sports, and LGBTQ athletes reported 20 percent lower rates of depressive symptoms.20
- Transgender students in states with fully inclusive athletic policies were 14 percentage points less likely to have considered suicide in the past year than students in states with no guidance.21
Shoshana K. Goldberg, MPH, Ph.D. (she/her), is an LGBTQ health and policy researcher, with faculty appointments at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and University of Illinois-Chicago Schools of Public Health, where she teaches a graduate-level course on LGBTQ public health. Theo Santos is the special assistant to the LGBTQ Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.
- Dan Avery, “State anti-transgender bills represent coordinated attack, advocates say,” NBC News, February 17, 2021, available at https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/state-anti-transgender-bills-represent-coordinated-attack-advocates-say-n1258124.
- Sandy E. James and others, “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey” (Washington: Center for Transgender Equality, 2016), available at https://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Full-Report-Dec17.pdf.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “YRBSS Data & Documentation,” available at https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/data.htm (last accessed January 2021).
- Human Rights Campaign, “Play to Win: Improving the Lives of LGBTQ Youth in Sports” (Washington: 2017), available at https://assets2.hrc.org/files/assets/resources/PlayToWin-FINAL.pdf; Bethany Alice Jones and others, “Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies,” Sports Medicine 47 (4) (2017): 701–716; Anna Kavoura and Marja Kokkonen, “What do we know about the sporting experiences of gender and sexual minority athletes and coaches?”, International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/1750984X.2020.1723123.
- Executive Office of the President, “Executive Order 13988: Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation,” Federal Register 86 (14) (2021): 7023–7025, available at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/01/25/2021-01761/preventing-and-combating-discrimination-on-the-basis-of-gender-identity-or-sexual-orientation.
- TransAthlete.com, “K -12 Policies,” available at https://www.transathlete.com/k-12 (last accessed March 2021).
- U.S. Census Bureau, “2019 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates: Table B100 School Enrollment by Level of School for the Population 3 Years and Over” (Suitland, MD: 2020), available at https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=high%20school%20enrollment%20by%20state&g=0100000US.04000.001&tid=ACSDT1Y2019.B14001&hidePreview=true.
- Jody L. Herman and others, “Age of Individuals Who Identify as Transgender in the United States” (Los Angeles: The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, 2017), available at https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Age-Trans-Individuals-Jan-2017.pdf.
- The Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee, “IOC Approves Consensus with Regard to Athletes Who Have Changed Sex,” Press release, May 18, 2004, available at https://www.olympic.org/news/ioc-approves-consensus-with-regard-to-athletes-who-have-changed-sex-1. TransAthlete.com, “Policies by Organization,” available at https://www.transathlete.com/policies-by-organization (last accessed January 2021); NCAA Office of Inclusion, “NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes” (Indianapolis: 2011), available at https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/Transgender_Handbook_2011_Final.pdf.
- Equality Federation, “Anti-Transgender Bills,” available at https://www.equalityfederation.org/equality-tracker/anti-transgender/ (last accessed January 2021).
- Hecox v. Little, No. 1:20-cv-00184-DCN (D. Idaho, Aug. 17, 2020) at 69.
- David Crary and Lindsay Whitehurst, “Lawmakers can’t cite local examples of trans girls in sports,” The Associated Press, March 3, 2021, available at https://apnews.com/article/lawmakers-unable-to-cite-local-trans-girls-sports-914a982545e943ecc1e265e8c41042e7.
- The athletes whose stories are included in this fact sheet were recruited through networks of advocacy organizations. All interviews were conducted remotely via Skype by the author in November and December 2020, transcribed using an online transcription service (Rev), and are presented here with minor edits for length and clarity. For more information and personal stories, see Appendix B in Shoshana K. Goldberg, “Fair Play: The Importance of Sports Participation for Transgender Youth” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2021), available at https://americanprogress.org/issues/lgbtq-rights/reports/2021/02/08/495502/fair-play/.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “YRBSS Data & Documentation.”
- California Interscholastic Federation, “California High School Sports Participation at All-Time High for Eighth Consecutive Year,” Press release, August 3, 2020, available at https://www.cifstate.org/mediacenter/releases/2020-21/PR-1_2019-20_CIF_Participation_Census_8.3.20.pdf; National Federation of State High School Associations, “High School Activities Participation Data: Connecticut Track and Field—Outdoor (2011 – 2019),” available at https://members.nfhs.org/participation_statistics (last accessed January 2021)
- Joseph G. Kosciw and others, “The 2019 National School Climate Survey” (New York: GLSEN, 2020), available at https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/NSCS19-Full-Report_2.pdf.
- The Trevor Project, “National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020” (New York: 2020), available at https://www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2020/.
- Jack K. Day and others, “Gay-Straight Alliances, Inclusive Policy, and School Climate: LGBTQ Youths’ Experiences of Social Support and Bullying,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 30 (S2) (2020): 418–430; Marla E. Eisenberg and others, “Risk and Protective Factors in the Lives of Transgender/Gender Non-Conforming Adolescents,” The Journal of Adolescent Health 61 (4) (2017): 521–526; Kosciw and others, “The 2019 National School Climate Survey”; Ilan H. Meyer and others, “Sexual Orientation Enumeration in State Antibullying Statutes in the United States: Associations with Bullying, Suicidal Ideation, and Suicide Attempts Among Youth,” LGBT Health 6 (1) (2019): 9–14.
- Kosciw and others, “The 2019 National School Climate Survey.”
- The Trevor Project, “The Well-Being of LGBTQ Youth Athletes” (New York: 2020), available at https://www.thetrevorproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/LGBTQ-Youth-Sports-and-Well-Being-Research-Brief.pdf.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “YRBSS Data & Documentation.”
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Shoshana K. Goldberg