LGBTQ youths are far less likely to participate in sports than the general population, primarily due to fears of bullying, harassment, or discrimination, according to a briefing from the country’s top LGBTQ suicide prevention organization.
According to a research brief issued by The Trevor Project, fewer than 1 in 3 LGBTQ youth reported participating in some athletic activity, with only 32% saying they had ever participated in sports for a school, club, or community league.
The data cited in the research brief was drawn from The Trevor Project’s annual survey on LGBTQ mental health. The survey, conducted in late 2020, polled 35,000 LGBTQ youth and individuals aged 13 to 24.
However, the small percentage of LGBTQ youth participating in sports pales in comparison to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Youth Sports Strategy, which found that 58% of all youth aged 6 to 17 had played team sports or taken sports lessons in the previous year.
“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, the chief community officer for the Trevor Project, said in a statement.
The Trevor Project’s brief was published as lawmakers in various states have either passed or are attempting to pass bills barring transgender students from sports teams that align with their gender identity. Bans have passed in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, and West Virginia, and Texas lawmakers are currently debating a similar bill in a special session that kicked off on Monday.
Lawmakers pushing the bans have said they are needed to protect the integrity of sports and ensure cisgender females are not denied athletic opportunities, medals and awards, or scholarships that for which they might otherwise be eligible. However, a recent investigation by USA Today indicated that the threat posed to women’s sports by transgender participation is largely overstated.
“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,” Davis said.
The Trevor Project’s survey asked youth respondents how often they participated in various activities, including sports, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and whether they’d heard negative or positive things about LGBTQ people from a variety of adults that they may interact with, such as coaches. It also asked open-ended questions to youth about why they do or don’t play sports for a school or community league, and allowed them to provide anecdotes or accounts of their real-life experiences.
“I never hated sports,” wrote one respondent, “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.” That same respondent said they avoided athletic activities “out of terror, not disinterest.”
One lesbian student said that other girls in her class were hostile to her and didn’t want her to change with other females in locker rooms out of fear she’d stare at them or hit on them. A transgender male student said that not only was he prohibited by his school and parents from playing for a boys’ sports team, but said that even if he was allowed to, he likely wouldn’t because of fear that he’d be bullied.
That said, LGBTQ athletes said they also enjoyed some of the benefits of participating in sports, namely a sense of camaraderie with their teammates and personal wellness. One trans youth noted that sports helped them cope with gender dysphoria and depression, while another respondent said participating in sports helped to distract them from negative thoughts or the stresses of life.
Among LGBTQ youth who had participated in sports, 18% reported that they had heard negative things about LGBTQ people from a sports leader or coach, while 16% reported they had heard positive things about LGBTQ people from a sports leader or coach. Interestingly, despite the outsized influence that coaches can potentially play in their athletes’ lives, only 4% of LGBTQ youth athletes said they would talk to a sports leader or coach if they were struggling emotionally or feeling sad, stressed, or depressed — underscoring the need for coaches and other adults to take proactive steps to make LGBTQ youth athletes feel included and accepted.
“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 Trevor Project concluded in its brief.
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