Participation in sports can often be a positive experience for young people, helping them build skills, learn teamwork, and make friends. But many LGBTQ+ youth avoid sports because they fear discrimination -- and sometimes that fear is well-founded, according to an issue brief released today by the Trevor Project.
The brief, using data from the Trevor Project's 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, notes that 32 percent of respondents reported participating in a school or community league or club, compared with half of the general youth population.
"Many LGBTQ youth reported that they didn't participate in sports due to concerns about discrimination and harassment from peers and coaches, fears of how others would react to their LGBTQ identity, and policies preventing them from playing on the team that matches their gender identity," the brief explains.
Those who did play sports said they heard negative things about LGBTQ+ people from coaches or other leaders about as often as they heard positive things, and they were unlikely to go to these leaders if they were experiencing mental distress.
"Given the existing mental health and suicide disparities experienced by LGBTQ youth compared to their straight and cisgender peers, there is an urgent need to provide sports leaders and coaches with training on ways to better support LGBTQ youth athletes and their mental health," the document explains. "Such training is needed to ensure that every team in every league can provide a welcoming and affirming environment."
Some young athletes reported that locker rooms were a particular source of stress. "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 respondent said.
Another noted, "I never hated sports, but I hated how I was treated by kids and adults who played sports. 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."
But some had positive experiences with athletics. Sports "help me cope with gender dysphoria and depression," one said. Another remarked, "I find that sports are a good way to distract me from negative thoughts."
The report comes at a time when many high-profile elite athletes have come out, such as pro football player Carl Nassib, who is gay, and weight lifter Laurel Hubbard, the first out trangender woman to compete in the Olympics. There were at least 180 out LGBTQ+ athletes in this year's Summer Olympics, and they won 33 medals.
But it is also a time when LGBTQ+ student athletes, especially transgender girls and women, are under attack. Eight states have passed laws barring trans students from competing on public school teams under their gender identity: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, and West Virginia (some of the laws apply to public colleges and universities as well), and South Dakota's governor has issued executive orders to this effect. Some of the laws are being challenged in court, while politicians continue to promote them in other states.
The Trevor Project, which assists LGBTQ+ youth in crisis, is calling for change. "The rate of LGBTQ youth participation in sports is significantly lower than that of their straight, cisgender peers, indicating that more needs to be done to make sports a welcoming and affirming environment for all who wish to play," Carrie Davis, chief community officer at the Trevor Project, told The Advocate via email. "No young person should be barred from the benefits of sports -- friendship, fun, and stress relief -- due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is a cruel irony that state lawmakers continue to push legislation that would ban transgender and nonbinary youth from participating in sports, while so many youth already choose not to participate out of fear of discrimination and bullying. We need more coaches and fellow athletes to speak up against anti-trans policies and to foster inclusion on the field and in the locker room."
Find the full brief and the larger survey at TheTrevorProject.org.