Protecting Transgender Youths' Right to Participate in Sports

February 25, 2021

While most young athletes across the U.S. nervously await announcements from sports conferences about the fate of their 2021 seasons amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, athletes like Lindsay Hecox also await another type of announcement about their future participation in sports: a court ruling. The ACLU is currently fighting for Lindsay’s right to compete on her school’s track team, which she hopes to join to make friends and pursue her love of running. Under Idaho’s new HB 500 law, Lindsay is unable to compete because she is transgender. Idaho is one of 20 states that recently introduced legislation banning transgender athletes from joining sports teams, with more similar bills expected to be introduced in this legislative season.           

In addition to being transphobic and violating civil rights, these bills are directly detrimental to public health. Sports have repeatedly been shown to have both physical and mental health benefits. Regular physical activity can protect against cardiovascular disease and diabetes, improve bone health, weight status, and cognitive function, and combat depression and anxiety.

As a former Division I athlete myself, I witnessed first-hand how sports instill essential teamwork skills, promote a sense of community, and build resilience. The benefits go on. It is, therefore, no surprise that the government has worked to increase youth sports participation, releasing a “New National Youth Sports Strategy Report” in 2020, which envisions “[T]hat one day all youth will have the opportunity, motivation, and access to play sports, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, ability, or ZIP code.” Yet the legislators turned around and supported bills limiting transgender youth’s participation in sports.

Transgender youth already face an alarming mental health crisis with high rates of depression, PTSD, and suicidality. Studies have found that transgender youth have over a threefold increased risk of depression and suicide attempts as compared to their non-transgender peers. Thus, the mental health benefits and the community support of sports are of critical importance for this at-risk population. Additionally, a 2016 study showed that transgender students denied access to gender-appropriate bathrooms on their college campuses were 45 percent more likely to attempt suicide. This has direct implications for sports participation, demonstrating how policies of exclusion can exacerbate the mental health crisis already surrounding transgender youth.

In order to best promote the health of all students, we need a national policy that allows transgender students to participate in the sports category associated with their gender identity without restrictions.

In order to best promote the health of all students, we need a national policy that allows transgender students to participate in the sports category associated with their gender identity without restrictions. At least 16 states have policies that facilitate the full inclusion of transgender students in high school athletics. A national policy modeled after these states could be rooted in the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause and Title IX, and would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity, explicitly mandating that students be allowed to participate in sports consistent with how they identify, regardless of the gender listed on their official record.

It is imperative that Congress acts quickly to introduce this policy. The rights of transgender girls are particularly under attack, as 14 GOP members of Congress have introduced a discriminatory bill ironically named the “Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act” to eliminate federal funding from schools that allow transgender girls to compete. Their arguments are rooted in transphobia and misinformation. Proponents of bans argue that transgender girls and women’s participation in sports will hurt cisgender women. However, gender policing can also hurt cisgender girls and women who may be particularly big or muscular by making them undergo invasive procedures to prove their “womanhood” if it is called into question. Additionally, promoting values of non-discrimination and inclusiveness will teach cisgender and transgender students alike valuable life lessons.

Furthermore, the commonly cited belief that transgender girls and women will dominate sports is unfounded, as there is currently no scientific evidence that transgender people have an athletic advantage. Transgender athletes have been eligible for Olympic, professional, and NCAA competition for years, without any instance of trans dominance in sports. While the pervasive issue of the gender binary itself remains problematic, bans like HB 500 are particularly harmful as they stem from anti-trans sentiment and fear, and disregard real evidence and individual health.

Codifying transgender students’ rights to participate in sports through the passage of an inclusive national sports policy would be a huge victory for civil rights and public health, providing transgender athletes access to the robust mental and physical health benefits of sports. It is also a chance to affirm young people’s rights to belong, feel comfortable in their bodies, and be a part of a supportive community. As a cisgender athlete, I benefited enormously from the lessons, opportunities, and health advantages sports afforded me. I call on Congress and other athlete allies to take a stand and make sure that when sports safely return after the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone has the chance to play.

Rachel Suss is an MPH student in the Department of Epidemiology.