Unfortunately, politicians and anti-trans activists have turned stadiums and pitches into battlegrounds for transgender athletes’ right to exist. As part of the national backlash against transgender people, 22 states have passed laws barring trans students from competing in sports aligned with their gender identity. In April, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill barring trans women and girls from competing in sports that align with their chosen gender. Even sports regulatory bodies like World Athletics (which governs track and field competitions) have decided to exclude transgender women from competing in women’s events.
Proponents of these bans claim that they protect women and ensure fairness in sport. But LGBTQ+ advocates say there are very few trans athletes who would even attempt to publicly compete in school sports. Instead, prohibitions on the rights of transgender people primarily affect the safety and well-being of trans people themselves. According to The Trevor Project, 86 percent of transgender and nonbinary teens say that public debates over anti-trans bills have had a negative impact on their mental health. Approximately 45 percent of trans youth report experiencing cyberbullying as a result of recent anti-LGBTQ+ policies, with nearly one in three reporting that they “didn’t feel safe going to the doctor or hospital when sick or injured.”
“Just thinking about the experiences I’ve had, I think it’s really heartbreaking to have someone denied access to the sport they love, or feel like they have to give up sports because they can’t participate like they do. are.” – Joanna Hoffman, Director of Communications, Athlete Ally
Avid runner and longtime nonprofit organizer Joanna Hoffman knows firsthand the magic that can surround sports, which is why she has dedicated her career to fighting for LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports. “I’ve been running my whole life,” says Hoffman. “Just thinking about the experiences I’ve had, I think it’s really heartbreaking to have someone denied access to the sport they love, or feel like they have to give up sports because they can’t participate like they do. are.”
Five years ago, this passion for athletic inclusion led Hoffman to become director of communications for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization and advocacy group that aims to end homophobia and transphobia in sports. The organization, which was founded by collegiate wrestler and University of Maryland activist Hudson Taylor, joins a growing network of groups advocating for sports policy change to create a safe and welcoming environment for athletes of all backgrounds. and orientations.
According to Hoffman, the damage caused by the exclusion of young trans athletes goes beyond the devastating feelings of being excluded.
“It isolates them, it deprives them of all the mental and physical benefits that sports provide, and we know from research that when kids are a part of sports, their grades go up, their overall health improves, they are more likely to be leaders later on. in life,” says Hoffman. “It changes the trajectory of a child’s life when he can participate in sports. When they lose all of that access, they lose all of those benefits and those opportunities. And I think even more devastating is the message it sends to them, which is ‘you can’t exist here.'”
How Athlete Ally stands up for LGBTQ+ athletes
One of the main ways Athlete Ally seeks to change the landscape of sports is through education, Hoffman says. “We found that often the people who need education about LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports the most are the ones who receive the least education, so we try to fill that gap,” she says. In 2018, the nonprofit organization launched Champions of Inclusion, an online video module curriculum for athletic departments that educates coaches and sports leaders on the issues LGBTQ+ athletes face, as well as ways they can foster a more inclusive environment for their teams.
Athlete Ally, which now has more than 30 chapters of coaches and student-athletes in the United States, also hosts in-person training courses across the country at some of the best universities and sports institutions in the country (NBA and MLB, just to name a few). In these trainings, led by Hoffman, Taylor, Director of Policy and Programs Anne Lieberman, and Director of Research Dr. Anna Baeth, attendees learn about sexuality and gender, the obstacles queer and trans athletes face, and how enforce sustainable and inclusive policies and practices
The nonprofit organization also launched a first-of-its-kind ranking system that judges university athletic departments on their efforts to include LGBTQ+ athletes in their sports programs. This system, called the Athletic Equality Index, ranks institutions based on various criteria, including whether their athletic staff are required to complete educational training and whether they have nondiscrimination policies that protect queer and trans athletes.
Beyond education, Athlete Ally has racked up numerous victories for sports inclusion since its inception. The non-profit organization launched the Principle 6 campaign, which successfully pushed the International Olympic Committee to include sexual orientation in the Olympic Charter (protect LGBTQIA+ athletes from discrimination). The organization also works with trans athletes like powerlifter JayCee Cooper in their individual fights against discrimination. Earlier this year, Cooper won a discrimination lawsuit against the national weightlifting organization USAPL after a judge ruled that he had violated the anti-discrimination statutes of the Human Rights Act. Athlete Ally worked closely with Cooper’s legal team, Gender Justice, to design a communication strategy around her case.
Seeing high-profile coverage of trans athletes succeeding (on the field of play or in court) can instill hope in young queer athletes, Hoffman says. “When they see a win like this, it tells them they can keep playing the sport they love, that they don’t have to walk away from sports, that they don’t have to make a horrible choice to be whoever they are. they are and having to leave the sport, or having to be someone who is not just to be able to continue playing.
Continue the fight for inclusion in sport
While there is still much work to be done in the fight for queer and trans rights, Athlete Ally is setting the stage for a new generation of informed and confident activists through youth outreach. In mid-June, Athlete Ally hosted the Athlete Activism Summit in Seattle, Washington, in partnership with Adidas and the University of Washington Athletic Department. This week-long summit brought together student athletes, coaches and administrators to celebrate Pride Month through team building activities and educational seminars.
Texas State University basketball forward and graduate student Lauryn Thompson, 23, says the summit left her energized to continue the fight for inclusion in college sports. Thompson, who founded TSU Alliance of Black Students and Athletes organization, participated in the Seattle Pride parade for the first time, along with the Athlete Ally ambassadors.
“I was so excited to go to the summit so I could connect with other like-minded student athletes and professionals who are interested in inclusion in sports,” says Thompson, who hopes the intersectionality of marginalized groups will remain at the forefront of the conversations. on sports equity. “I am very encouraged and pressured to tell people that when we talk about inclusion, that means all races, all avenues, and all perspectives.”
Looking forward, Hoffman says a strong partnership can help us move toward a more inclusive playing field in sports. Effective alliance, Hoffman says, is the bond that unites marginalized athletes with those who have the legislative power to protect their human rights. Through education and community outreach, Hoffman hopes that trans athletes can finally participate in the magic of sports, too, without having to stifle their identities.
“It shouldn’t just be LGBTQ people being that voice every time, we need allies,” Hoffman says. “We need allies not only during Pride month, but also all time.”