Soccer goal net with ball on a trans flag backdrop

Trans Rights

Protecting Trans and Nonbinary Kids Is a Life-or-Death Issue

GOP lawmakers around the country claim they’re “protecting women and girls” in school sports. But, as this genderqueer writer attests, these humiliating, discriminatory laws can have devastating consequences on our kids.

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In the past year, Republican legislators across the country have been introducing—and enacting—bills with a fever to prevent trans and non-binary kids from competing in school sports, purportedly in the name of “protecting women and girls.” As trans and non-binary advocates, LGBTQ and women’s rights organizations, NCAA players, and openly LGBTQ soccer phenom Megan Rapinoe have all made clear: There is no evidence that transgender athletes have an unfair advantage over their cis peers, or that their participation in school athletics is in any way harmful to anyone. The only people being denied opportunities are the kids. Blinded by fear and bigotry, these lawmakers are missing the point of school sports: the love of the game. 

This year, 2021, now goes down as the worst year in modern history for state legislative attacks targeting LGBTQ rights. Over 22 anti-LGBTQ bills have now been signed into law, making this year even worse than the three previous years combined. In the face of widespread public opposition, lawmakers are legislating hate, enacting laws that deny trans kids life-saving medical care, and that deny trans people the right to use the restroom

A majority of these dangerous bills directly target the lives and welfare of an already vulnerable group—trans and non-binary youth—including their ability to participate in athletics with their peers. Over seven anti-trans sports bills have been passed this year, in Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Montana, and West Virginia. Predicated on gender stereotypes that harm athletes of all genders, many of these bills could only be enforced with deeply invasive practices, including a bill being considered in Ohio that would allow genital examinations if an athlete’s gender is disputed.

Lawmakers are prioritizing attacking their own constituents over legislation that would help their constituents recover from one of the darkest periods in modern history. Fueled and coordinated by extremist anti-LGBTQ groups, like the bathroom bills before them, and the bills seeking to prevent marriage equality, these bills are nothing more than the next chapter in a culture war being scripted by people who seek to profit over division. 

Trans kids have been participating in sports for years, and these hateful laws we are seeing across the country are nothing more than venal lawmakers betraying their constituents and deflecting from real issues. But if these bills are specious, that makes them no less dangerous. They are fueling a wave of violence that targets the entire transgender community, particularly Black and Brown trans women. They are also directly targeting the health and wellbeing of young people who are routinely discriminated against and  face a heightened risk of depression and suicide. And ultimately, as 550 student-athletes wrote in a letter to the NCAA, “the harm these bills will cause will be felt by generations of athletes to come.”

As a lifelong amateur athlete, my first-hand experience has shown me that playing sports can truly be a life raft. I’ve played soccer since  I was 5 years old, and also played basketball, ran track, and threw a discus for field events. I was a shy, nerdy kid whose gender presentation didn’t neatly fit into any category growing up in the Maryland suburbs in the 1990s—but I had a fierce competitive streak. In general, I didn’t feel like I fit in. Trying to blend in sometimes felt like trying to lock myself into a box. While I now identify as gender-queer, I didn’t have a name for it back then, and spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years feeling like I was too much or not enough. 

I was lucky enough to have parents and a sister who supported me. But the places outside my family where I felt safe to be myself were few. I had what I called the “lunch bunch,” where the librarians allowed me and my friends to eat with them. I had books. And above all,  I had sports.

For most of my life, athletics has been a place where I could push myself, and hang out with cool people without actually having to talk too much. Every game of soccer I played, every 800 I ran, every discus I threw (#Xenaforever), I always went in it, to win it. But winning wasn’t what I showed up for. Like many young people, I was made to feel ashamed about my body that was never “skinny enough,” and I was sometimes bullied for not being “girly” enough. When I was on the field, it just mattered if I was strong enough, and fast enough, and willing to play keeper when no one else wanted to. Nobody cared that I was awkward. They just cared that I showed up and gave it my all.  

Being able to play sports in school offered me a lifelong love of the game and connections that helped me get through some really hard times. Throughout my 20s, I played on the Geckos, the world’s worst women’s recreational soccer team. We lost—and I cannot emphasize this enough—a lot. But it was the best part of my weekend, getting on the field with my friends to see what magic we could make happen. Even when my life was at its worst, there was a part of my life that brought me joy. And there were people who cared whether I made the game, whether I was feeling alright. 

I think of trans and non-binary kids across the country being denied that lifeline, and it breaks my heart. All young people—no matter their gender identity—deserve the chance to play, and even get their butts handed to them as I did, as every kid does. As CeCe Tefler, former NCAA champion and trans athlete said, “Athletics is a way for people to get out and to get away from negativity and just breathe.”  

There is certainly more work to be done in terms of gender equity in sports, and to make sure LGBTQ kids feel safe when they compete. But these anti-trans sports bills in Arkansas, Alabama and elsewhere, and the slate of anti-trans legislation being advanced and enacted across the country, only bring harm to our nation’s young people. Right now, we need everyone off the sidelines to show up for our youth. Because although this state legislative session may be winding down, we are just at the start of our fight to defeat the forces behind these bills and to ultimately ensure all young people are able to thrive.

Whether you’re a professional athlete or a weekend warrior like me, a serious sports fan or someone who just tunes in on holidays—or simply a person who believes in equity and social justice—we need your voice in the fight. We need all trans kids to know that they are loved, they are welcomed, and that they have a place wherever they want to be.

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