LGBTQ student athletes risk mental health when joining a sport

People march with a rainbow flag at a gay-pride parade. (Photo courtesy Getty Images)

Youth sports are often the best opportunity for kids to socialize and learn new skills. However, for LGBTQ youth there is a price to pay if they want to play. Harassment and discrimination present obstacles to students who don’t fit into the straight, cisgender community.

For LGBTQ youth who want to participate in sport, harassment and bullying can force them out of the game.

Kids are told not to bully, but bullying doesn’t always mirror the Hollywood image of shoving someone into a locker or tripping them in the cafeteria. Bullying can be less obvious, such as making someone feel like they don’t belong in the locker room or telling a kid they aren’t allowed to play on the team because it will make other players uncomfortable. Maybe it is not even as direct — it can be snickers and pointing or the passive attitude thrown at someone to make them feel like they aren’t welcomed.

The Human Rights Campaign carried out a study in 2017, “Play to Win: Improving the Lives of LGBTQ Youth in Sports,” on how often LGBTQ youth are harassed or discriminated against. The report addresses how frequently LGBTQ youth are bullied, how that behavior discourages those kids from trying to join sports and how the coaches play a part.

“Despite the growing visibility of LGBTQ athletes, coaches and officials and the incremental gains in professional and collegiate sports, youth sports continues to lag behind,” according to the report. “Too many LGBTQ youth report that they have witnessed or been the targets of anti-LGBTQ treatment or exclusion. They fear discrimination from coaches or officials, which may force them to conceal their identities from their teams.”

The study’s findings include:

  • 84 percent of Americans surveyed have witnessed or experienced anti-LGBTQ attitudes in sports.
  • In the 33 states that have anti-LGBTQ participation policies, 20 percent of the LGBTQ youth report they participate in sport (compared to the 68 percent of high school seniors who play at least one sport).
  • 4 of 5 LGBTQ youth are not open to their coaches about their sexual orientation.
  • 78 percent of American spectators and athletes believe youth team sports aren’t safe for LGBTQ people.

Trans youth often have a more difficult time and face more barriers when trying to participate in sports. Many of the anti-LGBTQ participation policies target transgenders by barring them from certain bathroom and locker rooms. Within the LGBTQ community, transgender youth are the least likely to come out to their coaches and peers.

Liam Miranda, one of the authors of the HRC report, said one of the most surprising findings was how many students weren’t out as LGBTQ to their coaches. He said it reaffirmed how important this study was and why this issue needs to be addressed more.

The bullying toward LGBTQ youths can be seen from all angles of an athletic environment from the school administration to coaches to teammates. Harassment and bullying can be oral, such as anti-LGBTQ comments, or physical, such as pushing or even assault, Becca Mui, Education Manager of GLSEN said.

“LGBTQ students often get the message that they’re not welcome in sports, whether it’s structural such as the binary nature of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ teams, the policing of gender based on stereotypes, bullying and harassment from peers, or from unsupportive or uneducated PE teachers and coaches,” Mui said.

Even if the coaches or adult leaders are not purposefully discriminating against LGBTQ student athletes, they can still be at fault for turning a blind eye or ear to the abuse. Young athletes look up to their coaches and often mimic their behavior on what is and isn’t acceptable. If the coaches don’t speak up, the athletes don’t know that their behavior shouldn’t be tolerated.

Athlete Ally is one of the many programs that work to spread awareness and information to high school- and college-level athletic departments, coaches and players. Athlete Ally Senior Communications Manager Joanna Hoffman said one of the points the organization teaches is what harassment looks like and how it can be prevented.

“Discrimination and harassment may not look very different coming from a coach versus a youth player, but it could include less direct forms of abuse such as minimizing player time on the field, targeting an athlete for criticism, or refusing to allow them access to the bathroom or locker room they use that’s consistent with their gender identity,” Hoffman said.

What does this do to the mental health of these young athletes? That’s an important question. While each experience is unique to the individual, it’s fair to reason that isolation often leads to anxiety and depression, and possibly suicidal thoughts, according to Hoffman.

This points to a dire need for comprehensive education on LGBTQ inclusion, zero-tolerance policies on abuse and harassment, and LGBTQ-inclusive mental health resources for students everywhere,” Hoffman said.

Mui explained how for students in general, having the opportunity to participate in sports can result in positive mental health outcomes such as better grades, higher educational and occupational aspirations, and improved self-esteem. By feeling rejected from sports, LGBTQ youth are not able to participate fully in school life. A GLSEN report showed LGBTQ athletes had higher GPAs than non-athletes, and more than half of those athletes felt a greater sense of belonging as a result of being on a team.

There are a number of resources for school and coaches that can help them prevent this discrimination and promote a welcoming environment for all students. Athlete Ally created a system to judge how inclusive schools were, and how to improve their policies if they restricted some students from joining.

The Athletic Equality Index was developed as a way to measure LGBTQ inclusion policies and practices in athletic spaces,” Hoffman said. “This first-of-its-kind inaugural report provides a comprehensive look at how member programs of the NCAA Power Five conferences are supporting their LGBTQ student-athletes, coaches, administrators, staff and fans. To do this, a weighted scale was developed that scored the implementation and accessibility of nine critically important LGBTQ-inclusive policies and best practices.”

Schools can support their LGBTQ students by adopting more inclusive policies that allow all students to feel supported by their administration, coaches and peers. Athletic directors and other leaders should seek out or take advantage of groups like Athlete Ally who reach out and try to educate about creating a welcoming environment.

Miranda said the purpose of the HRC report was to increase dialogue about the ways we are and are not supporting young LGBTQ athletes. GLSEN, Athlete Ally and the Human Rights Campaign offer ways people can join the dialogue.

Nikole Tower is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University