Despite the high profile of out athletes such as Michael Sam and Adam Rippon, adolescent LGBT athletes are “overwhelmingly closeted,” according to a study the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the University of Connecticut.
Play to Win: Improving the Lives of LGBTQ Youth in Sports analyzes the responses to sports-related questions in HRC’s online 2017 LGBTQ Teen Survey, taken by more than 12,000 people ages 13 to 17 within the United States. The report revealed that many LGBT athletes were not out to their coaches, a smaller percentage of LGBT individuals play sports than their non-LGBT peers, and some LGBT young people do not play a sport at all for fear of an unaccepting environment.
"Sports are a transformative way for students to build social skills and community, but when too many LGBTQ student-athletes are blocked from being their true selves -- we fail them," said Ashland Johnson, HRC Foundation director of public education and research, in a press release. "Coaches and administrators must do more to make every court, field, track and mat a welcoming place for all. When LGBTQ teens can be their true selves in athletics, it not only benefits that athlete, it benefits their team and community. This data is an important starting point to identifying ways schools can improve the experiences of their LGBTQ players."
The report found that 80 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual athletes and 82 percent of transgender athletes kept their identity hidden from their coaches. Eleven percent of LGBT young people reported they never felt safe in a locker room. For those who are not cisgender, that percentage jumps to over 30 percent.
Respondents said experiences with homophobic and transphobic coaches and teammates were among the reasons they remained closeted. A transgender teen reported fear of being outed by a school’s decision regarding team placement for a gendered sport. Another respondent said, "I would need to prove my masculinity to my teammates -- that isn’t worth how much I loved playing sports."
Most LGBT students opted not to play sports at all. Seventy-six percent of LGBT respondents said they refrain from athletic competition, compared to 32 percent of non-LGBT people. In 33 states that have anti-LGBT policies regarding sports participation, only 20 percent of LGBT respondents reported playing a sport at all.
The environment does not improve much when these LGBT high schoolers get into college. According to an analysis of the NCAA Power 5 Conferences reported in the Athlete Ally Index, "only five schools had a fan code of conduct that explicitly prohibited anti-LGBTQ language and behaviors in the stands, and 34 schools lacked an accessible code of conduct for fan behavior at all." Athlete Ally executive director Hudson Taylor said more than half of the schools lacked both pro-LGBT statements from their athletic programs and the space for conversations about LGBT inclusion.