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Staggering number of LGBTQ teens are excluded from school sports, new study finds

Only 24 percent of LGBTQ youth say they play a school sport, compared to 68 percent of a national non-LGBTQ sample.

2nd June 2018, Aviva Stadium, Dublin, International Football Friendly, Ireland versus USA; The USA team with LGBT coloured team numbered jerseys  (photo by Peter Fitzpatrick/Action Plus via Getty Images)
2nd June 2018, Aviva Stadium, Dublin, International Football Friendly, Ireland versus USA; The USA team with LGBT coloured team numbered jerseys (photo by Peter Fitzpatrick/Action Plus via Getty Images)

Friday was an exciting day for LGBTQ progress in the sports community — Major League Soccer player Collin Martin told the public that he is a gay man. On Friday night, the Minnesota United FC midfielder will become only the second openly gay MLS player to compete in the league (Robbie Rogers was the first), and the only active out gay male athlete in U.S. professional team sports.

But Martin’s announcement also served as a stark reminder of just how much work there is to do in order to increase the level of LGBTQ participation in sports. And I’m not just talking about the professional level.

This week, the Human Rights Council released a groundbeaking report on LGBTQ inclusion in youth sports. The numbers paint a bleak picture.

Only 24 percent of LGBTQ youth play a school sport, compared to 68 percent of non-LGBTQ youth. And the numbers get worse when you break them down. Only 14 percent of transgender boys and nonbinary youth, and 12 percent of transgender girls, participate in school sports.

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HRC collected this data through a survey of more than 17,000 LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13-17, from all 50 states plus Washington, D.C.  Ashland Johnson, HRC Foundation Director of Public Education and Research, told ThinkProgress that it was crucial to gather data on both the overall climate of youth sports for participants in the LGBTQ community, as well as access.

“In the athletics space, we were missing hard numbers,” Johnson said. “Most LGBTQ advocacy focuses on pro sports, then college sports. But there are not enough resources invested in the youth sports space, even though this space impacts more athletes, has broader engagement, and has the potential to share the lives, ideas, and perspective of so many young people — and therefore, our notions of inclusion in society.”

Two of the biggest barriers preventing LGBTQ youth participation in sports are legislation and the locker room.

In the 33 states with anti-LGBTQ sport participation policies, only 20 percent of LGBTQ youth report that they participate in sports.

And, while LGBTQ people in the locker room has traditionally been framed as a danger to straight and cisgender people, the truth is that it’s the LGBTQ youth that feel threatened in locker rooms. The HRC study found that 11 percent of LGBTQ youth have never felt safe in a locker room, including 41 percent of transgender boys, 34 percent of transgender girls, and 31 percent of nonbinary youth.

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Johnson wasn’t surprised by the sharp discrepancy in youth sports participation between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ teenagers. However, she was surprised that the data clearly showed how much participation in youth sports benefits members of the LGBTQ community. Their data showed that LGBTQ youth who currently play sports are more likely to feel safe at school, and less likely to feel depressed or worthless, compared to LGBTQ youth who don’t participate in sports.

That’s why it’s imperative to bridge the sports participation gap. One way to do that is for high-profile LGBTQ athletes, such as Martin, to be open about their lives. But it also takes education, acceptance, and policy changes on the ground level. And in many cases, it starts with the coaches.

The HRC study found that 80 percent of LGBQ teens and 82 percent of transgender teens aren’t out to their coaches. Yet most coaches operate under the assumption that they don’t have LGBTQ players on their rosters.

“Coaches need to know they do have LGBTQ players on their team,” Johnson said. “Most LGBTQ youth aren’t out to their coaches, so one of the most important things we can do is erase that assumption and provide resources to help educate coaches. Coaches often want to do the right thing, they just don’t know what the right thing is.”

In recent years, proponents of LGBTQ inclusion in sports have made great strides — not just with Martin’s announcement, but also with the prevalence of Pride Nights at pro sports games across the country. However, until all LGBTQ people who want to participate in sports are able to openly participate in sports, the work is not done.

“We know this is a hard climate, especially for marginalized communities,” Johnson said. “Sports creates an avenue where people can find community and self confidence. We want all people to have access to that.”