Why Must We Address Transgender Issues in School Athletic Programs?

The introductory word of On the Team: Equal Opportunity for Transgender Student Athletes, states that "Educators must address transgender issues in athletics for several reasons. First and foremost, core values of equal opportunity and inclusion demand that educational leaders adopt thoughtful and effective policies that enable all students to participate fully in school athletic programs. Over the course of many years, schools have learned and continue to appreciate the value and necessity of accommodating the sport participation interests of students of color, girls and women, students with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. These are all issues of basic fairness and equity that demand the expansion of our thinking about equal opportunity in sports. The right of transgender students to participate in sports calls for similar considerations of fairness and equal access."

The vast majority of school or community athletic programs have no policy governing the inclusion of transgender or gender variant athletes. Typically, the coaches, trainers and league organizers have little or no experience accommodating a transgender athlete who wants to play on a team. Even basic accommodations can be confusing, such as what pronouns or name to use to refer to that student, where that student should change clothes for practice or competition, what bathroom that student should use, or how to apply team dress codes.

The International Olympic Committee and some local and state policies explicitly address this important area. All young people should have the opportunity to play recreational sports and have their personal dignity respected. Transgender young people are no different. In fact, because transgender young people often must overcome significant stigma and challenges, it would be particularly harmful to exclude them from the physical, mental and social benefits that young people gain through athletics. The impact of such discrimination can be severe and can cause lifelong harm.

In contrast, permitting transgender children and youth to participate in recreational sports in their affirmed gender can provide an enormous boost to their self-confidence and self-esteem and provide them with positive experiences that will help them in all other areas of their lives. In late 2009, Transgender Law & Policy Institute released its long anticipated Guidelines for Creating Policies for Transgender Children in Recreational Sports that spells out in great detail ways in which school athletic associations can address this important area. For further analysis of this issue, see The Transgender Athlete.

Ways We Can Help

Gender Spectrum can support coaches, league officials and athletic departments to create more sensitive and welcoming conditions for transgender or gender nonconforming athletes. We can work with both the adults who run the teams and programs, as well as the fellow athletes who will be the teammates of a gender variant child or teen. We can also conduct individual consultations with coaches and other adults, as well as athletes themselves or their families. Our services include examining policies, practices, and documents to assess the degree to which they are inclusive of children regardless of gender expression or identity.

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