Why Are LGBTQ Youth Avoiding Sports In School? Fear Of Discrimination, Research Shows

“I never hated sports, but I hated how I was treated by kids and adults who played sports.” That’s how one young LGBTQ person responded to the Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, when asked to describe their attitude toward athletics in school. “The locker room was always a nightmare, the athletic kids at my school hated me, the coaches at my school hated me, and as much as I didn’t care for a lot of mainstream sports in general, I avoided athletic activities out of terror, not disinterest.”

That response is just one selection from the new data released Wednesday by the organization, as it sifts through its 2021 survey of more than 35,000 LGBTQ youth. The Trevor Project is the nation’s leading nonprofit providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention resources to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, queer and questioning youth. And its focus this time is on LGBTQ young people’s experiences and attitudes about participating in sports.

Among the findings published Wednesday:

  • Fewer than one-third of LGBTQ youth—only 32%—reported that they had ever participated in sports for a school or community league or club; More than two-thirds, or 68%, reported they never once took part in any school or community sports.
  • Locker rooms were especially stress-inducing for LGBTQ youth; One out lesbian reported the “girls in my class don’t want me to change in the locker room with them because they think I’ll stare at them/hit on them.”
  • Sports helped a number of respondents improve their mental health. According to a trans student who participated in the survey, playing sports “help me cope with gender dysphoria and depression.” Another said, “I find that sports are a good way to distract me from negative thoughts.”
  • Among those who did participate in sports, 18% reported they heard a sports leader or coach say negative things about people who are LGBTQ, and 16% reported that they had heard positive things about LGBTQ people from a sports leader or coach.
  • Only 4% of out LGBTQ student-athletes reported feeling comfortable turning to a sports leader or coach for help when they were feeling sad, stressed, or depressed.

“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,” said Carrie Davis, Chief Community Officer at The Trevor Project. “No young person should be barred from the benefits of sports — friendship, fun, and stress relief — due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Eight states across the U.S. have enacted laws or executive orders that restrict LGBTQ youth from participating in school sports, most of them banning trans females from competing with cisgender girls and women at the elementary, high school and collegiate levels. The Department of Justice and American Civil Liberties Union are tackling these laws in court.

Texas, which last month reclassified gender-affirming healthcare for children as “child abuse,” is gearing up for another attempt to become the ninth state to outlaw trans girls and women. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has called lawmakers back for a special session beginning Sept. 20.

“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 youth already choose not to participate out of fear of discrimination and bullying,” said Davis. “We need more coaches and fellow athletes to speak up against anti-trans policies and to foster inclusion on the field and in the locker room.”

The organization points to out LGBTQ sports role models like Carl Nassib, the Las Vegas Raiders defensive end whose game-saving play on Sunday led the NFL team to its first victory of the season. Nassib came out in June, known in the LGBTQ community as Pride month.

This summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo included at least 180 openly LGBTQ athletes from around the world, including Great Britain gold medalist Tom Daley, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, American skateboarder Alana Smith and American BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe. Canadian soccer player Quinn made history as the world’s first trans nonbinary athlete to compete in the Olympics and its first-ever gold medalist.

In all, LGBTQ athletes won 33 medals at the Summer Games. Inspiring stories like theirs play a part in The Trevor Project’s mission to end suicide among LGBTQ youth.

“We recognize the need to make sports inclusive to all LGBTQ youth who wish to participate,” the organization announced in a news release issued with the new findings. “No young person should be barred from the benefits of sports participation—friendship, fun, and stress relief—due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The group has two teams to address these issues: A public education team to guide organizations and provide training for sports leaders to better affirm LGBTQ youth and support their mental health; And an advocacy team, working to oppose anti-LGBTQ legislation.

“Policies that seek to ban transgender youth from sports only serve to heighten experiences of stigma,” said a spokesperson for the Trevor Project, “and reduce the ability of youth to receive the positive physical, social, and emotional benefits of sports.”

Read the full 2021 National Survey by clicking here. Find out more about the Trevor Project at its website here.


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