When I was younger, I found my community and friends through sports. No matter what people’s first impressions were of me off the court or field, I was almost instantly accepted, respected, and loved by my teammates and coaches because I worked hard, had a strong competitive spirit, and had the same goal as everyone else on my team: do the best we could and ultimately win.
I loved the camaraderie and competition that sports fostered. My teammates were my family, and they didn’t care what I looked like, how I expressed myself, or who I was interested in. When I pulled on my uniform, the only thing that mattered was my focus, speed, and skills. Our team cared about one thing: if you can play, you can play. All athletes should be able to experience that community, camaraderie, and true definition of “team.”
We know there are countless benefits to participation in sport and sporting environments for athletes, coaches, and fans. Participation in sports teaches us dedication, perseverance, determination, goal setting, leadership skills, and how to work with others. This is particularly important for youth participants as they build confidence and self-esteem. The social, psychological, mental, and physical benefits of being involved in sport are unmatched. All people should be able to experience these benefits, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
However, from the outside, sport seems to be one of the last frontiers of LGBTQ inclusion. According to Out on the Fields (2016), the largest study of homophobia in sports 84 percent of Americans surveyed witnessed or experienced homophobia in sports and 78 percent believe youth team sports are not safe for LGB people. Perhaps for this reason, it is estimated that young LGBTQ people are about half as likely to participate in sport as their peers.
As a transgender athlete, I understand the hesitation to be involved at both the youth and adult levels of sport. Homophobic, sexist, and transphobic language can make spaces feel unsafe. I experienced this in “straight” leagues, but also in LGBTQ leagues where members thought they had a pass to use biased language because they were part of the community. Hearing gay men call each other “trannies” led me to confrontations in an LGBTQ league in New York City. Hearing them defend their use of transphobic language drove me from the league altogether and to find a new group of people who would better exemplify the values of sport.
In many ways I am grateful for this experience because it led me to a more supportive team. I became determined to continue to play the sports I loved – not just because I deeply valued my identity as an athlete, but because I thought about how many others may have been driven from the sports they loved because of situations like this. I wanted to show other athletes that you can be your authentic self and continue to play the sport you love.
Being out and open about my identity has allowed me to more fully participate without distractions and helped me focus on my performance in ways I had not been able to before when I was concerned about how others would perceive me. Because of my dedication to being fully myself, I was able to become the first openly transgender athlete to represent Team USA in the gender with which they identify, which was a catalyst for the change to International Olympic Committee guidelines for the participation of transgender athletes.
As a trans athlete, it has been my greatest honor to represent my country in international competition, but LGBTQ athletes still struggle right here at home with experiences like the one I had seven years ago. Think about the language people use when they are talking about athletes who are underperforming, or if they are talking trash about an opposing team: many of the words and phrases used are rooted in homophobia and sexism.
In my role as an advocate and as Vice President of Program Development at the You Can Play Project I work to create more inclusive spaces for LGBTQ athletes. The environment of sport can be greatly changed by eliminating the use of casual homophobia in our vocabularies on the fields, in locker rooms, and in the stands. This is a simple change each of us can make to create safer, more respectful, and more inclusive spaces for all athletes.
In the Out on the Fields survey, 89 percent of people believe sport is more homophobic than the rest of society. I believe sport is a vehicle for social change, and that discrimination has no place on the field of play. It is the responsibility of everyone in sport to make every teammate, coach, and fan feel welcomed and part of the team. Words have power, and together we can change the language of the game.