GOP-led states are making life harder for LGBTQ student-athletes

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Several states have passed laws targeting LGBTQ kids this year, creating what experts say are hostile school environments.

Bullying and harassment in sports is keeping some LGBTQ youth out of athletics, according to data released Wednesday by the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention for LGBTQ young people.

The survey results come as LGBTQ youth across the country are facing a wave of new legislation targeting their participation in sports and stigmatizing them in school. In Texas, the governor and several GOP state lawmakers are trying to pass a law prohibiting transgender kids from playing on the sports team of their gender and Republican attorneys general in other states are trying to kill federal government policies that support LGBTQ equality, including transgender people's participation in sports.

According to the Trevor Project data, pulled from a survey of LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 conducted between October and December 2020, 68% of LGBTQ minors have never participated in sports. Respondents gave several reasons for not joining a sports team, such as lack of interest and not having the money or transportation necessary to get involved in athletics. But a number of young people also said they were scared of being treated poorly by both adults and other young people.

The Trevor Project data included responses from some of those polled. One young LGBTQ person explained that they had not joined any school sports because "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."

Transgender and/or nonbinary youth said they were worried about school policies that would stop them from playing on the sports team of their gender as well.

"I probably wouldn't be allowed onto the boys' team because I'm a trans boy ... and even if I was allowed I'd be at a huge risk of bullying," another respondent said.

Eighteen percent of young people who did participate in sports said they had heard an athletic leader or a coach say negative things about LGBTQ people on at least one occasion.

Those fears have likely been compounded by a nationwide influx in anti-LGBTQ policies.

Eight states have passed laws or enacted executive orders this year that ban transgender athletes from playing on the team that corresponds to their gender. Those states include Tennessee, Arkansas, South Dakota, Montana, Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Florida.

A federal court has since blocked the West Virginia law from going into effect.

This year has also become the worst year in recent history for anti-LGBTQ bills, according to the Human Rights Campaign, with lawmakers introducing more than 250 of these pieces of legislation across the country, many of which target young people.

Tennessee is behind many of these bills.

The Volunteer State enacted legislation in May, which went into effect in July, that allows school, faculty, and students to take legal action against facilities where transgender students may use multi-user bathrooms. At least one trans boy who used the boys bathroom has already been reportedly bullied by cisgender youth and questioned by administrators following the passage of the law.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) also signed a bill into law back in May that requires parental notification and the option to students to opt out of lessons mentioning sexual orientation and gender identity.

Montana passed a similar anti-LGBTQ education law this year.

Christopher Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, told the American Independent Foundation before the latter Tennessee bill made it through the legislature that allowing parents to opt their children out of lessons mentioning LGBTQ topics would make life harder for already-vulnerable students.

"The teacher is going to have to announce in front of the class that we're going to be covering this, so make sure your parents get their permission slips or whatever in by a certain date. And what signal does that send about the LGBTQ students in the room?" he said at the time.

Carrie Davis, chief community officer at The Trevor Project, echoed that sentiment, saying such laws were making bigoted harassment in sports worse and putting additional stress on LGBTQ youth.

"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," she said. "No young person should be barred from the benefits of sports — friendship, fun, and stress relief — due to their sexual orientation or gender identity."

She added, "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."

Jonah DeChants, research scientist for The Trevor Project, explained, "By categorizing athletes solely based on the sex they were assigned at birth, these policies will work to exclude intersex students, erase nonbinary students, and lead to the interrogation of anyone who presents their gender in non-normative ways."

Republicans across the country are continuing to pursue anti-LGBTQ policies in schools, amid that scrutiny.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has called for a third special session, to start on Sept. 20, that includes another attempt to pass a trans sports ban, according to the Texas Tribune. Abbott put a bill prohibiting transgender people from playing on the sports team of their gender on a previous special session agenda that ended on Sept. 2, but it failed to pass at that time.

In July, Louisiana lawmakers attempted to override Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' veto of a trans sports ban, which made it part of the first override session ever for the state, according to Forbes. It failed by only two votes.

Republican policymakers are also attempting to block pro-LGBTQ policies at the federal level.

In August, more than 20 Republican attorneys general decided to challenge the Biden administration's policies supporting transgender people, including those protecting the rights of transgender students in schools.

The attorneys general cliamed that federal agencies had "no authority" to address transgender young people's right to use bathroom or athletic team of their gender, according to the Associated Press.

"The guidance purports to resolve highly controversial and localized issues," they wrote, "such as whether employers and schools may maintain sex-separated showers and locker rooms, whether schools must allow biological males to compete on female athletic teams, and whether individuals may be compelled to use another person’s preferred pronouns."

"But the agencies have no authority to resolve those sensitive questions, let alone to do so by executive fiat without providing any opportunity for public participation."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.