Sports symbolize our ideals of equality, perseverance, discipline, structure, honest competition, and integrity. Although, in any athletic environment, they are not always safe and affirming spaces for LGBTQIA+ youth. Some young individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community find it cumbersome to participate in sports. While others feel it is a sense of belonging and bonding experiences in a positive, affirming environment. Unfortunately, a higher percentage of our LGBTQIA+ youth do not participate in youth sports because of the problematic pathways of navigating through fear of LGBTQIA+ based discrimination. Studies show that 32 percent reported being part of organized sports activities, and 68 percent never participated. Of those who played in youth sports, 16 percent heard positive comments and felt supported and affirmed by their teammates and coaches. Although, 18 percent report experiencing a more hostile climate that adversely influences their athletic identities, poor academic progress, and increased mental health challenges. They are targeted with negative and derogatory comments and feel discriminated against. Many are victims of being bullied, harassed, taunted, and excluded on playing fields and locker rooms. They do not think they would be accepted or safe.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation partnered with researchers from the University of Connecticut in a 2017 survey capturing the experiences of LGBTQIA+ youth in various settings. The study showed individuals had stated some common reasons why they stay away from sports:
“I would need to prove my masculinity to my teammates – that isn’t worth how much I loved playing sports.”
“The guys on the sports teams call everything they don’t like gay.”
“I was bullied by coaches and attacked by teammates.”
“I was bullied for being transgender.”
“I don’t know which team I’d be placed into – the girls’ team or the boys team.”
“My parents would find out if I were placed into a boys’ team and be forced to come out to them.”
“I don’t feel safe in the locker room.”
“My parents told me I’d hold the tea back by not being cisgender.”
It is common for young LGBTQIA+ athletes are not comfortable speaking with their athletic coaches or physical education teachers about their sexual orientation, gender identity, or LGBTQIA+ issues. This issue is most concerning to gay and transmen because of the stigma of masculinity which often has a tremendous impact on being an athlete. According to John P. Carnesecchi, LCSW, CEAP, “Toxic masculinity is a repressive term used to describe machismo’s negative, embellished behavior, a gender stereotype.” They feel intimidated and scared to speak freely and seek support and encouragement because they don’t fit the stigma of being tough, athletic, strong, or looking like a “manly man.” When a school supports the LGBTQIA+ youth community and promotes an inclusive school environment, the youth is less likely to avoid athletic spaces, gym classes, or locker rooms. The increased usage of locker rooms consistent with their gender identity will enhance their comfort in speaking freely with coaches and educators.
As the world evolves, a sense of community and inclusivity is growing. Schools must enhance the sports climate allowing LGBTQIA+ youth full access to school life and opportunities. There is an uptick of the LGBTQIA+ youth participating in sports in their schools or outside organizations. But a lot more work is needed. Reports show the increase in involvement has reflected positive experiences in affirming environments with supportive coaches and peers.
LGBTQIA+ young people want to play sports for the same reasons as straight individuals – the passion for the sport, camaraderie, overall fun, and physical well-being- all significantly benefiting mental health. Sports participation plays a significant role in helping young people build their self-confidence. There are many benefits to being part of a supportive team.
- Learn life skills including accountability, leadership, and dedication
- Positive psychological well-being
- Lower levels of depression
- Helps cope with adverse thoughts and gender dysphoria
- A strong sense of community
- A significant feeling of inclusion in these spaces, especially for trans and nonbinary people who are often excluded
- Builds interpersonal relationships
- A close affirming connection with an adult coach accepting sexual orientation and gender identity helps decrease suicidal thoughts.
- Improves fitness and longer-lasting healthy habits
- Improves mood by releasing endorphins
- Builds confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth
- Enhances team-building and problem-solving skills
- Cisgender males have the most favorable outcomes compared to all other groups (i.e., higher self‐esteem, school belonging, and lower depression). Cisgender females had more positive results than all others except cisgender males.
- Transgender students who identify as nonbinary have greater self‐esteem from school sports participation.
LGBTQIA+ youth miss out on these vital character-building lessons and benefits when excluded.
Reflecting on how our community is changing and embracing inclusivity in youth sports, it couldn’t be a more perfect time to watch “Heartstopper.” It is a new teen LGBTQ romantic drama Netflix series adapted by writer Alice Oseman of her graphic novel series. It is an excellent series relevant to youth sports, LGBTQIA+ youth, young romance, mental health challenges, and school environments. It is an inspiring story of two teen boys who become close friends, fall in love, and conquer unique challenges that come with queer romances. One boy is openly gay, and the other is straight and an athlete on the school’s rugby team. They work through challenges of bullying, discrimination against LGBTQIA+ youth sports participation, eating disorders, self-esteem issues, and one learning to be authentic to himself as a gay teen conquering the homophobic world that surrounds him. They overcome obstacles of young love, learn to feel confident to express their gender orientation, overcome challenges participating on a sports team as a gay teenage boy, create a special bond, and grow together. This show promotes individuality and acceptance and brings warmth and humor to all its viewers.
Heartstopper is a great show that is perfect for adolescents, teenagers, and adults. It promotes real-life scenarios and positivity. It shows people that negative parts of life have positive outcomes. If you or a loved one has reservations about joining a sports team, this is a great show to watch to get some strength and encouragement.
Gateway to Solutions is a LGBTQIA+ affirmative mental health practice. We help support young children to the elderly, find their true authentic selves, embrace acceptance, and live life to the fullest while navigating through the trial and tribulations of life. We are here to walk you through this journey of life.