USA TODAY International Edition

Bullying keeps LGBTQ youths from sports

Briefing comes as some aim to ban participat­ion

- Marc Ramirez

LGBTQ young people play team sports far less than the general population, and some cite fears of bullying or discrimina­tion as the reason.

The finding, reported in a briefing issued this week by the Trevor Project, is troubling for advocates who fear those young people are losing out on sports’ benefits – and it comes as efforts rise to stifle participat­ion by some in the community. Lawmakers in more than 20 U. S. states have introduced bills that would ban transgende­r athletes from high school and college sports, or require students to play only against those assigned the same gender at birth.

“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 youths already choose not to participat­e out of fear of discrimina­tion and bullying,” said Carrie Davis, chief community officer for the Trevor Project, which focuses on suicide prevention among LGBTQ young people.

Around the country, lawmakers pushing bans on transgende­r athletes have warned of scenarios in which physically dominant athletes suddenly inundate girls’ sports. An investigat­ion by USA TODAY revealed such speculatio­n to be based on overstated or outright false anecdotal informatio­n.

The Trevor Project’s newly released briefing highlights informatio­n gleaned from the organizati­on’s annual survey on LGBTQ youth mental health. The nationwide study, conducted in late 2020, included responses from 35,000 LGBTQ youth and individual­s ages 13 to 24.

According to the report, only onethird of respondent­s reported ever participat­ing in team sports, either in school or in a community league or club. Meanwhile, data collected in 2017 by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services showed 58% of kids ages 6 to 17 had played team sports or taken sports lessons in the previous year.

“The rate of LGBTQ youth participat­ion in sports is significantly lower than that of their straight, cisgender peers, indicating that more needs to be done to make sports a welcoming and affirming environmen­t,” Davis said.

Survey respondent­s were asked to indicate how often they participat­ed in various activities compared with before the COVID- 19 pandemic, with sports among the options.

“I never hated sports,” one respondent wrote, “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.” The same respondent said they avoided athletic activities “out of terror, not disinteres­t.”

Another wrote that her female classmates objected to her changing with them in the locker room, fearful she would stare at or hit on them because she is lesbian.

“One of the biggest reasons LGBTQ youth don’t participat­e is the fear of bullying and discrimina­tion,” said Paula Neira of GLMA: Health Profession­als Advancing LGBTQ Equality, an advocacy organizati­on based in Washington, D. C. “And when you’re talking about transgende­r kids, it’s the outright attempt to ban their participat­ion for reasons that aren’t based on anything real. It’s the stigmatiza­tion.”

Sports benefits for young people are more than physical, offering friendship, camaraderi­e and lessons in team- building, goal- setting and self- discipline.

“For LGBTQ folks, sports are a way of being recognized as part of our social groups,” Neira said. “When LGBTQ youth aren’t able to participat­e fully in athletics, it increases isolation and that sense of being ‘ the other.’ ”

Respondent­s in the survey also said sports helped them cope with gender dysphoria, depression and identity- related stress, which makes their low participat­ion “especially devastatin­g,” said Joanna Hoffman, communicat­ions director for Athlete Ally, a New York Citybased organizati­on dedicated to ending homophobia and transphobi­a in sport.

When teammates and coaches who may not consider themselves discrimina­tory use “locker room talk” or practice other anti- LGBTQ behavior, Hoffman said, it perpetuate­s an unwelcomin­g culture for LGBTQ athletes. She advocates comprehens­ive education for teams, coaches and leagues about LGBTQ respect and inclusion.

“Anti- LGBTQ language, regardless of intent, sends a message to LGBTQ athletes and fans that it isn’t safe for them to be their authentic selves,” she said.

Willow Breshears, 18, a transgende­r activist in Little Rock, Arkansas, said friends in school often urged her to join them on the volleyball squad, but she ultimately chose not to.

“Being trans definitely impacted my decision,” Breshears said. “I just never felt comfortabl­e. I would have been looked at differently.”

For Breshears, it was the sense of belonging that she’d most looked forward to. “People who have been in sports for years feel like those people are their family,” she said.

Team bonds can be crucial for LGBTQ young people, said Jack Turban, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University’s School of Medicine in California. “They look out for each other and protect each other,” Turban said. “This is particular­ly important for LGBTQ youth who may be experienci­ng harassment or bullying.”

For these young people, national discourse opposing their participat­ion in sports is particular­ly damaging, he said.

“Politician­s and pundits have been saying they’re a danger to their peers,” Turban said. “While transgende­r youth may know this isn’t the case, hearing that over and over can start to sneak into their unconsciou­s … and drive anxiety and depression.”

A handful of athletes have gone public in the past decade about their LGBTQ identity. Carl Nassib of the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, came out as gay this year, as did Collin Martin of Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United in 2018.

This year’s Olympics in Tokyo featured at least 180 LGBTQ athletes, with 33 medal wins. The competitor­s included New Zealand powerlifte­r Laurel Hubbard, the Games’ first openly transgende­r athlete.

Previous Trevor Project research shows that LGBTQ athletes are less likely to be out about their identity compared with LGBTQ youth who are not involved in sports.

“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 project’s briefing concluded.

Breshears, the Little Rock activist, doesn’t regret her decision to not try out for the volleyball squad. “Even though it’s something I wish I would have been able to do, I didn’t, ultimately – to protect myself and my own well- being.”

 ?? ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Thomas Daley and Matty Lee, of Britain, after winning gold medals in men’s synchroniz­ed 10- meter platform diving at the Tokyo Olympics.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Thomas Daley and Matty Lee, of Britain, after winning gold medals in men’s synchroniz­ed 10- meter platform diving at the Tokyo Olympics.

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