You don’t have to scroll through the internet for long to understand that trans kids in America are under attack. Whether it’s lawmakers who are hell-bent on denying them life-affirming care or legislating which bathrooms trans people get to use, or far-right groups (both online and IRL) protesting drag shows and calling LGBTQ+ people “groomers,” we are in a moment of moral panic about transgender people.One of the areas where the anti-trans rhetoric has taken on a particularly vitriolic tone is in school sports. In April, House Republicans introduced the first-ever federal legislation to ban trans female athletes from competing alongside cisgender girls and women. The story is similar throughout the country; 22 states have laws prohibiting trans students from competing on teams that align with their gender identity.Despite rhetoric you hear from conservative lawmakers and media about some kind of social contagion making kids trans, the number of kids who identify as trans is actually relatively small. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that less than 2% of high school students were trans, and, of course, not all or even most of those kids play sports. To be clear, all athletes should be allowed to play on the teams that align with their gender identity, no matter what percentage of the population those athletes represent—but it’s important to be intellectually honest about the fact that a stunning amount of time and energy is going into stopping an extremely small number of kids from taking part in athletics.There are some numbers related to trans kids that are alarmingly high. The Trevor Project surveyed 28,000 LGBTQ+ young people ages 13 to 24 in 2023 and found that one in three LGBTQ+ kids reported that their mental health was poor “most of the time or always” due to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Half of trans and nonbinary respondents said they’d seriously contemplated suicide in the last year.Instead of further isolating, ostracizing, and marginalizing the relatively small number of trans student athletes, we should be advocating for all of them to be able to access the things they need and want to survive and thrive. For many kids, that’s the opportunity to play sports with their friends, something that provides enormous mental health benefits.It’s easy to feel powerless and hopeless amid this barrage of anti-trans legislation and rhetoric, but there are people all over the country who are fighting back by making their communities’ sports teams safer and more welcoming for trans kids. SELF spoke with activists and community leaders in different parts of the country about what all of us can do to let trans kids know they’re loved—and to help them take the field alongside their friends.Sarah Mikhail, a social worker and the executive director of Time Out Youth, a North Carolina advocacy group, describes the situation in the state as “scary.”“I don’t think the government is going to save us,” Mikhail tells SELF. “So what kind of community can we build for youth so that they’re protected from a government that wasn’t designed for us?”Look to the organizers already doing this work in your community.Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel or start something from scratch, see if there are already people working on initiatives in your city or state. It’s not always easy to find them, because not every place has an LGBTQ+ community center or a place where queer and trans people can gather safely. Sometimes, though, finding the right organizations and resources can be as simple as doing a Google search. Beyond that, social media can really come in handy—if you poke around on Facebook, Instagram, or even TikTok, you can likely find the people and organizations who are already doing the work and follow their lead. Start by typing “trans” plus your state or other key search words into the social media search bar to start looking for organizations that might not turn up as readily via Google.See what local rec leagues can offer.If your town or city has recreational youth sports, they may offer trans athletes opportunities that local schools do not. “If you can’t play it at school, find a rec league. And if you can’t find a rec league, find somewhere where you feel safe playing and invite your friends and start your own thing,” Gio Santiago, a senior field organizer at Athlete Ally, an organization that fights anti-gay and anti-trans attitudes in sports, tells SELF.
SELF talked to five young people whose stories are noteworthy not only because they offer a counter narrative to the fearmongering and misinformation, but also because they show that trans kids who play sports are simply kids who play sports. The teens who spoke to us shared how they fell in love with the game—with the thrill of competition, the camaraderie, the challenge of learning new skills, or any of the other many benefits playing sports provides.While most of these stories are positive, we would have been remiss to ignore the reality that many trans youth are currently facing in this country—one of pushback, roadblocks, and outright participation bans. The stories we feature here reflect the full spectrum of experiences trans kids are having on the playing field, focusing on the good while acknowledging the ugly.Most importantly, these stories reflect what it actually looks like when trans youth are allowed to participate in the sports they love. They aren’t breaking records or taking spots from cis kids; they might not even be the best player on their team. They just…go to practices, compete, and come home and do their school work. They win, they lose, they learn, they grow, just like all kids do.Sivan, 18, MassachusettsSivan has been playing sports for most of his life. There was a time during elementary school when he was playing year-round soccer, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring, and running track. Eventually, the demands of both school and athletics increased and he had to pick one to focus on. The choice, for him, was never going to be a hard one to make—soccer was his favorite.“I like a lot of things about soccer, from the feeling that I get when I’m playing to the feeling of belonging that the game really provides,” Sivan said. “But I think what I really love most about soccer is how much I’ve learned.”Yes, he’s talking about the different skills that he’s picked up and how to get the most power behind a kick and the ability to be aware of where all of his teammates are on the field at any given time. But he’s also talking about so much more than that. Soccer, and sports in general, teach us how to handle loss.“Through playing sports, you’re going to learn that in life, you can’t and won’t always win,” he said. “But after every loss, you have to get back up and train even harder and come back even stronger together as a team. And soccer teaches you part of the basics of life, hard work and discipline, and dedication, and all while having fun at the same time.”Sivan was what most people would call a shy kid; sports gave him more confidence. “In the classroom, I might have been a little quieter, but on the field, I blossomed,” he said.The best way Sivan’s parents supported him was, he said, really simple: “When I told them who I was, they just heard me and accepted me right from the start.” His folks explained their parenting philosophy to him, that their job is to support their children to live their happiest and most fulfilling lives, whatever that looks like. Sivan’s brothers—one twin and one older—were equally accepting and quick to have his back, stepping in to correct people when they used the wrong pronouns. The family wanted to make sure that Sivan didn’t have to experience the discomfort of having to correct people himself, especially when the switch was new.
The question remains: How, exactly, do bans on trans athletes protect girls from abuse? The answer is, they don’t. The notion that trans girls are a threat or pose danger to cis girls is simply untrue. If anyone’s safety is at risk right now, it’s trans kids’, whose access to gender-affirming care and safe spaces is being taken away as right-wing lawmakers continue to unleash a torrent of anti-trans laws and rhetoric.Distressingly, in 2020 Idaho passed a law that actually invites further harm to girls and women through invasive genital or bodily inspections, according to the Movement Advancement Project. This is beyond horrifying and something no parent would want their child subjected to. Who gets to decide what a “real girl” looks like? What about tomboys, like I was as a child? Will they be subjected to invasive exams simply because they aren’t “feminine” enough?Female athletes are already subjected to rigid gender norms as well as pressure around their performance and appearance, which is detrimental to their mental and physical health. NCAA athletes across the country are often tested for body composition to determine their level of body fat, which an expert told The New York Times is “steeped in weight stigma, stereotypes, and misinformation.” According to one survey, a staggering number—70%—of student athletes are experiencing mental health issues.Between the inequities in resources, the dangers posed by people in positions of power, the pressure to look a certain way, and the high rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems, there are more than enough threats to girls’ sports with clear evidence of damage. Every legislator pushing forward legislation to ban trans girls in the name of “saving women’s sports” should have to answer how, exactly, they are addressing all of these very real documented threats to girls in sports.Instead, lawmakers are focusing their influence and resources on pitting cis and trans girls against each other. This harms all kids and stokes the flames of anti-trans hate by implying that, if trans girls are granted equality, cis girls will be harmed. This is inaccurate, untrue, and should be recognized for what it is: a talking point for those seeking not to protect cis girls, but to marginalize and harm trans girls.The recent story of a Vermont high school deciding to forfeit a basketball tournament rather than play against a team with a transgender girl shows how all young female athletes are hurt by anti-trans beliefs. Rather than giving one trans girl a chance to play, school leaders punished everyone.Fairness and equality means kids of all genders get more opportunities to playThe data is there to show that when school sports include transgender athletes, engagement is stronger for all girls. One 2021 report states that, in California, where trans youth have been allowed to play on teams in line with their gender identity since 2014, high school girls’ sports participation was the highest it has ever been in 2020, increasing by almost 14% since 2014.
When I was a kid, sports were the place where I found my friends and my community, as well as my confidence and sense of self. I loved sports because they allowed me to challenge myself, but mostly because playing them was when I could hang out with my buddies and just have fun.Now, as an adult athlete and transgender man on Team USA, it’s been heartbreaking for me to see how trans kids in sports have become the target of legislators across our country. The idea of including trans and nonbinary people in sports has been positioned as “political” when in fact it is not.Sifting through all of the information presented as a “debate” on social media can be overwhelming, and every day I speak with parents, coaches, and sports fans who have questions about transgender athletes and specifically trans kids in sports. That’s why I’m here to answer your questions in a judgment-free zone.All young people should have the opportunity to play the sports that they love and not have to compromise any part of themselves. That’s why I work every single day to ensure that every young person—no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression—can experience the lifesaving power of sports.Do trans kids have inherent, unfair advantages in sports?No. Transgender kids, like all kids, vary in athletic ability, size, strength, and speed. There are a lot of factors that go into determining if someone will be a good athlete, including coaching, access to camps and skill development, proper nutrition and rest, high-quality equipment, mental toughness and resilience, and support and encouragement from family, as well as basic capabilities like agility and coordination. In his 2020 expert testimony about transgender athletes, Joshua D. Safer, MD, a staff physician in the endocrinology division of the Department of Medicine at the Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, stated that a person’s genetic makeup and internal and external reproductive anatomy are not useful indicators of athletic performance.In fact, a recent literature review commissioned by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport looked at all relevant studies about trans women in elite sports from 2011 until 2021 and found that the existing scientific findings do not support banning trans women and girls from women’s sports.According to the 2020 Human Rights Watch report “They’re Chasing Us Away From Sport,” women and girls in sports have been subjected to scrutiny over their appearance, bodies, and performance for decades, spanning back to the 1940s. For elite women athletes, these tests included mandatory genital and gynecological exams; “nude parades,” in which women had to display their nude bodies in front of a panel of judges; and assessment of secondary sex characteristics. These humiliating practices were stopped in the 1990s, but similar invasive inspections for K–12 children have been introduced in the language of bills and, in at least one case, become law. No one should be okay with adults inspecting the bodies of young kids.
On a warm October day in 2019, Rebekah Bruesehoff sprinted across a large field in New Jersey. She was gripping a yellow-and-black field hockey stick, ready to strike the ball in front of her. So far that season, her team was undefeated and Bruesehoff was excited to be part of a squad that worked together both “on and off the field,” she shared on Instagram.“I am a midfielder. So I’m sort of in the middle of it all, which is super fun. It’s exciting, it’s fast, and we’re all working toward a common goal. And we win together, we lose together,” Bruesehoff recently told SELF.Bruesehoff was assigned male at birth but has “deeply” known that she is a girl from a very young age. She socially transitioned by changing her name and pronouns at the age of eight—a decision that both her family and medical professionals supported. Now 16 years old, Bruesehoff is living as her authentic self. “When I’m on the field, nobody cares that I’m trans. I’m really just like any other player.”Many young athletes feel a similar sense of happiness and belonging when they’re out on the field, court, or track with their peers, whether they’re building camaraderie through diligent training or resilience through friendly competition. It’s well-known that getting regular movement can be integral to kids’ physical and emotional well-being, yet trans youth like Bruesehoff are being systematically targeted by state lawmakers through a wave of bills that attack trans rights, including trans kids’ access to sports.Currently 22 states ban trans students from simply existing as themselves while participating in the sport they love, according to the Movement Advancement Project. A law in Texas, for example, requires a student to play on a sports team that corresponds with the sex listed on their birth certificate, which must have been issued near the time they were born.Conservative lawmakers are also targeting trans youth, particularly trans girls, at a national level. In April, the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed the so-called Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act. The bill would amend Title IX—a civil rights law that prohibits schools that receive federal funding from discriminating based on sex—and require students to compete in sports “based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”As a society, we’ve generally agreed that sports are positive, healthy, and valuable activities that contribute to a well-rounded educational experience for kids, says Elizabeth Meyer, PhD, an associate professor who researches gender and sexual diversity in K–12 schools at the University of Colorado Boulder. So it is vital that all kids are welcomed and accommodated, she tells SELF. Here are just a few of the many reasons that politicians should take a back seat and let them play.Trying a sport is often a fun way for kids to stay active.Sprinting around bases as a crowd cheers, shooting the game-winning basket, and spiking a volleyball with everything you’ve got don’t always feel like a grueling gym workout. Sports can make exercise feel exciting, and that’s crucial during kids’ formative years.