- New research from The Trevor Project sheds light on the benefits and challenges LGBTQ youth face while participating in sports.
- An online survey of 34,759 LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 found that only 32 percent say they’ve participated in school/community sports, while 68 percent say they have never participated.
- A number of LGBTQ youth reported choosing not to participate in sports due to fear of LGBTQ-based discrimination.
- However, a growing number report they’ve had positive experiences with sports in affirming environments with supportive peers and coaches.
For young people who are members of LGBTQ communities, participating in sports can be an affirming, community-building experience, while for others, it can mean navigating the difficult, painful waters of discrimination.
These experiences — both positive and negative — can have a broad effect on a young person’s mental health, sense of belonging, and overall physical health and well-being.
A new research brief released today from The Trevor Project sheds light on the realities of LGBTQIA+ young people’s participation in sports.
It takes data from The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, a survey of just under 35,000 LGBTQ young people. The participants ranged from ages 13 to 24, and answered a range of questions.
To compile this new brief, The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ young people, focused on both multiple choice questions to assess whether the respondents participated in sports and then a series of open-ended questions.
The results showed that close to 1 in 3 LGBTQ youth reported they participated in sports activities. They found 32 percent reported being part of an organized sports activity, in or out of school, while 68 percent never participated in one.
Among those who were part of one of these activities, 18 percent reported they heard negative comments about LGBTQ people from a coach or similar leader of the activity, while 16 percent heard the opposite, positive comments from a coach or sports leader.
Even in circumstances of having a positive experience, the survey revealed that a lot of LGBTQ young people might not necessarily feel comfortable confiding in a coach.
Just 4 percent said they would talk with their coach or sports leader if they were experiencing feelings of depression, sadness, stress or just having a hard time in general.
Jonah DeChants, research scientist for The Trevor Project, told Healthline that he was surprised to find some of the more positive comments from these young people, especially from their answers to the open-ended short response questions.
He said he anticipated hearing a lot of comments about being bullied or harassed, of not feeling comfortable in a locker room.
“What I wasn’t expecting was that some of the answers to ‘why we play a sport’ had some emphatic, clear themes. LGBTQ young people play sports for the same reasons that straight people play sports and adults play sports, for their all-around physical health. These youth are very articulate about how sports benefit their mental health, help them cope with negative thoughts and gender dysphoria,” DeChants said.
He added that a lot of the positive comments also surrounded the strong sense of community that can come from being part of a sports team. Many discussed why it was meaningful to be included in these spaces, especially those that have often excluded (discriminately, violently, in some instances) trans and nonbinary people.
DeChants explained that LGBTQ young people who had positive experiences with sports often talked about the benefits of being part of a supportive team, of being connected to their peers, connected to their coaches.
DeChants said data from The Trevor Project in the past has shown just how impactful a close, affirming bond with an adult who accepts a young person’s sexuality or gender identity can have “incredible benefits in decreasing experiences of suicidal thoughts.”
On the flip side, negative experiences certainly persist. Some young respondents report feeling uncomfortable in locker rooms, especially if their peers know about their sexuality or know their gender identity and taunt, tease, and bully them because of it.
“Some say that they are uncomfortable if others ‘know I am bi or a lesbian,’ then those individuals won’t sometimes even bother to try to go out for a team,’ ” he said. “Some worry that if they are forced to stay on a team and not quit, people will judge them and face real discrimination and harassment. There’s a large perception that sports are not a safe space.”
David Rosenthal, D.O., Ph.D., the founding medical director of the Center for Transgender Care in New York City and New Hyde Park, New York; the medical director for the Center for Young Adult, Adolescent and Pediatric HIV in Great Neck, New York; and an attending physician in the Division of Allergy/Immunology at Northwell Health in Great Neck, said that physical activity is “essential to overall health.”
He described that the benefits of this kind of activity can improve fitness and foster long-lasting healthy habits.
When it comes to mental health, being part of a sport can improve one’s mood, activating the release of endorphins, embrace a sense of team collaboration and build confidence.
“An accepting sports environment for LGBTQ youth allows them to gain all of the benefits of sports and physical activities and allows them to be their authentic selves while doing so,” Rosenthal, who was not part of the Trevor Project’s research, wrote in an email to Healthline. “Bullying in school and in sports programs cannot be allowed, as it decreases confidence and is antithetical to the intent of team-based sports.”
He said safe environments for LGBTQ youth to participate in sports are crucial.
“Safe spaces on and off the athletic field, such as in locker rooms, and in the dugout/sidelines need to be maintained for LGBTQ youth,” he wrote.
Rosenthal expressed that a young person participating in a sport, or other group activities like a drama or debate club, along with other team activities, builds self-confidence and allows one to learn skills that could help them navigate the workplace or the challenges of higher education.
“These activities help young people build communities of peers and friends to interact with and to share a common goal. Many youth find friends through these activities and build interpersonal connections which help support them,” Rosenthal said.
DeChants said that the “macro-level” societal and cultural dynamics that can make youth sports inhospitable to some LGBTQ young people are hard to overcome.
He cited the recent wave of state and Congressional legislation aimed to exclude trans women from sports as an example. He said that even if a ban isn’t passed, the negative discourse and conversation “still trickles” down to young people’s ears.
“This can communicate to them that sports is not an option for them,” he said.
On the more positive side, if you move to a more micro school level, the more schools that pass rules that allow trans and nonbinary young people to openly and proudly participate in sports activities can help communities heal, can make youth athletics a more inclusive and positive experience overall.
It might be hard to push back against the currents of national politics, but within schools, administrators can play a needed role in making sports safer for LGBTQ young people, especially trans and nonbinary people.
He said he would love to see more coaches get involved and be vocal supporters, citing that the low 4 percent of young people who reported a coach or sports leader was someone they could confide in.
For trans youth in particular, Rosenthal said school and sports settings can be hard in general.
“There are societal pressures on these youth from many aspects of society. We need to create safe spaces for trans youth to thrive and to be the best athletes they can be in a supportive environment,” he wrote. “Trans youth are not identifying as transgender/gender-nonconforming/nonbinary because it is easy, or to win in sports. They are being their authentic selves and we should support and admire this.”
When asked what schools, sports leagues, and other groups can do to make more inclusive environments, Rosenthal said that “they should have a zero tolerance policy for bullying at any time, and coaches should encourage participation of LGBTQ athletes.”
“Structural barriers that prevent trans athletes from participating in sports should be re-evaluated, and health class should provide additional supportive information about both gender identity and sexual orientation to support LGBTQ youth,” Rosenthal said.
When it comes to looking ahead, DeChants said the Trevor Project hopes to continue this analysis of their survey research. Not every single member of the 35,000-member survey group responded to every short answer.
He said there is a lot of information to parse through out of the thousands of responses they did receive to those questions.
He also said it would be important to “look at deeper trends” and look at isolated subsets of people, such as trans feminine respondents in high school and middle school and how they are being impacted by bans on young trans athletes, for instance.
“To me, I feel hopeful. I feel sports is a place where people get the benefit of ‘doing this for my health, doing this to feel connected,’ ” DeChants said.
“This is really a place for intervention, to see if we can train coaches, train school administrators to make sports safe and affirming spaces for young people who can then benefit from all of these things, for their physical health, to get that social benefit. This is a story of opportunity to make sure these programs are affirming young people and want them to participate.”