Putting trans participation in youth sports in perspective

A new report dives deep into the benefits that inclusive sports policies have for transgender youth.

Hi, friends. Welcome back to Power Plays, a no-BS newsletter about sexism in sports, written by me, Lindsay Gibbs

Today, after a quick intro, we’re continuing our coverage of trans participation in sports by looking at a new report by the Center for American Progress. Then, I have a couple of pieces from the archives looking at the first five-set match in women’s tennis history, because the Australian Open is here and so tennis is on my mind!

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Report: Sports can be a literal life changer for transgender youth

As I said last week, we’re going to be doing a lot of coverage of the fight for — and against — transgender rights in sports here at Power Plays, because we refuse to let people use “protecting women’s sports” as an excuse to enact violent, harmful policies against trans people.

If you missed it, on Wednesday, we looked at the harm a high-profile working group is doing by lobbying the Biden administration to take a step backwards from its inclusive executive order, and enact extreme policies limiting the participation of trans youth in sports instead.

Well, today, the Center for American Progress (CAP***) released a report entitled, “Fair Play: The Importance of Sports Participation for Transgender Youth,” which serves as a reminder of why we need to take the fight for the inclusion of transgender athletes in sports so seriously: It is literally a matter of life or death.

The entire report, which was written by the great Shoshana K. Goldberg, is worth a read, but I’ve done my best to highlight some of the points that stood out the most to me below.

There is a mental health crisis among trans youth

Transgender youth, particularly trans youth of color, are among some of the most vulnerable members of our society due to the rampant transphobia they encounter, both on a personal level and from a political and policy level.

And for transgender kids, schools are particularly fraught with abuse.

Here are some statistics from the report that really stood out to me — I’ve used quotes when pulling directly from Fair Play; otherwise I have summarized the reports’ details; and the bolding is mine, for emphasis:

  • In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) of more than 40,000 transgender adults ages 18 and above, more than half (54 percent) of respondents reported being verbally harassed, one-quarter (24 percent) reported being physically attacked, and 13 percent reported being sexually assaulted as a result of others perceiving them as transgender in grades K-12. Almost 20% of respondents said they had to leave school due to such mistreatment. All of these rates are substantially higher for trans people of color.

  • This bullying and ostracizing can have life-threatening consequences for transgender youth. CAP analyzed data from the 15 states with publicly available data that assessed gender identity in the 2017 and 2019 Youth Risk Behavior State and Local Survey (YRBS), and found that almost 44 percent of transgender youth, versus 16 percent of cisgender youth, reported considering suicide in the previous year.

    Here is that data broken down by race:

  • The YRBS also found that “more than 59 percent of transgender youth, versus 33.5 percent of cisgender youth, felt ‘so sad or hopeless for at least two weeks straight … that [they] stopped doing some usual activities.’ Transgender youth were also significantly more likely than cisgender youth to report having been bullied at school or online, having been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property, and having skipped school at least one day in the past month due to safety concerns.”

  • “More disturbingly, among transgender students, those who had been bullied were 2.5 times more likely to have considered suicide than transgender students who had not been bullied, were more than three times as likely to have attempted suicide, and were 2.9 times as likely to have experienced depressive symptoms. Similar increases in risk for suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and depressive symptoms were seen for those who had skipped school due to safety concerns or who had been threatened on campus.”

Sports, if inclusive, can be extremely affirming spaces for transgender youth

For everyone, sports participation has been linked to improved mental and physical health, increased confidence, better academic performance, better social support systems, and even higher wages and better jobs after graduation.

Therefore, when trans youth are excluded from sports, they are missing out on the opportunity to gain those benefits. Perhaps more damningly, transgender bans in sports aren’t just taking away potential positives, they’re adding more strain and anguish because, as the study states, “they continue to perpetuate and legitimize rejection of gender identity.”

Here are a few statistics about how participation in sports impacts transgender youth that really stuck out to me from the study:

  • LGBTQ athletes, in particular transgender/nonbinary athletes, have significantly higher grades and 20 percent lower rates of depressive symptoms than LGBTQ nonathletes, according to The Trevor Project.

  • On a similar note, according to the 2017 National School Climate Survey, “although transgender youth were less likely to participate in school sports than their cisgender peers, those who did participate had higher rates of self-esteem and feelings of school belonging and lower rates of depression, with the largest improvements seen for transgender nonbinary students.”

You can see this significant difference in the chart below:

But significantly, transgender-inclusive sports policies don’t just impact transgender athletes; the data shows that they make the schooling experience better for transgender nonathletes, too.

  • “Exposure to gender-discriminatory school policies and practices, such as being discouraged and/or banned from playing sports, was cited as the underlying reason why more than one-third of LGBTQ youth did not expect or plan to graduate high school.

  • Additionally, GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey found that transgender and nonbinary students in schools with transgender-inclusive polices were “less likely to skip school due to safety concerns, felt greater belonging to their school community, and were less likely to hear anti-LGBTQ remarks or experience victimization or harassment based on their gender identity.”

  • CAP’s analysis of responses to the the 2017 and 2019 YRBS emphasizes this point as well, finding that “transgender students in states with fully inclusive polices (40.6 percent), and that allow participation with restrictions (46.1 percent) were significantly less likely than students in states with no guidance (54.6 percent) to have considered suicide in the past year, with those in fully inclusive states the least likely to have done so.”

Transgender participation in youth sports does not decrease cisgender participation

I’m just going to quote directly from the report here, because I’m running out of ways to say this, and it more than does the trick:

“There is no evidence to support the claim that allowing transgender athletes to participate will reduce or harm participation in girls’ sports” and, in fact, “evidence suggests that inclusion of transgender athletes has had no impact on sports participation or women’s athletic achievements.”

Want some data to back that up? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

  • According to the YRBS, participation among high-school girls in states with fully-inclusive transgender-inclusive sports policies remained the same from 2011-2019, while participation among girls in states with outright bans or trans-exclusive policies has actually decreased,

  • Confused? Well, you can dig deeper into the report itself if you want to, but essentially, the report found that “when transgender youth are allowed to play, the only result is that more women and girls—not fewer—are playing sports.”

Of course, when most people are fear-mongering about trans participation in sports, they’re not just talking about decreased participation from cisgender women and girls; they’re talking about trans women and girls completely dominating and taking over the category.

But we have data points now, and absolutely nothing about that data indicates that is anywhere close to a realistic scenario. From the report:

In Washington state—the first state to allow transgender athletes to compete in accordance with their gender identity, in 2008—only three transgender athletes had competed in sports as of 2017, none of whom had won a championship. At the Olympic level, transgender athletes have been allowed to compete since 2004, but to date, none have medaled. The only U.S. transgender athlete to ever make a U.S. national team for a World Championship is Chris Mosier, a transgender man, in 2016. Together, the fact remains that even when transgender athletes are included, it is the variability of athletic ability—not transgender status—among students that leads to success.

The cost-benefit analysis is a no-brainer

Those who are against fully-inclusive transgender policies in youth sports will always cherry pick a couple of high-profile examples of transgender girls beating cisgender girls in a competition, and portraying it is the end of girls’ and women’s sports as we know it.

It’s not. Every day, without any fanfare, transgender girls compete against or with transgender girls in youth sports. Often, the trans girls will lose. That’s fine.

Sports, ESPECIALLY ON A YOUTH LEVEL, is about far more than wins and losses.

With fully-inclusive transgender policies in youth sports, yes, every now and then, a cisgender athlete will come in second place to a transgender athlete in a competition. But cisgender athletes will beat transgender athletes, too. And the cisgender athletes who win and lose and the trans athletes who win and lose will all get to experience the social, mental, physical, and emotional benefits that sports provide.

And, thanks to the inclusive policies, transgender athletes and nonathletes alike will be more likely attend school and graduate, and less likely to be depressed and commit suicide.

That, frankly, should be the end of this debate.

(***NOTE: In the interest of transparency, I was the sports reporter at ThinkProgress for four years, which was a nonprofit, editorially-independent newsroom housed within CAP. But also, since we’re being transparent, CAP put me and my friends out of a job when they unceremoniously shut down ThinkProgress about 17 months ago, so I’m not really in the habit of going out of my way to cover the work they do unless I think it is really important, which is the case here.)

#FromtheArchives: The first best-of-five match in women’s tennis history

A few years ago, I did a deep dive into why women don’t play best-of-five matches at Grand Slams in tennis.

I’m going to share with you the New York Times write-up from June 27, 1891, of what is believed to be the first ever best-of-five match in women’s tennis — the final of the 1891 U.S. National Championships, the tournament that later became the U.S. Open, at the Philadelphia Cricket Club.

In the match, Mabel E. Cahill defeated Ellen Roosevelt, 6–4, 6–1, 4–6, 6–3, to win the title.

The following year, the very first five-set match in women’s tennis history took place at the 1892 U.S. National Championships, when Cahill beat 16-year-old Bessie Moore 5–7, 6–3, 6–4, 4–6, 6–2.

To excerpt from my 2016 piece:

The following year, Cahill met 16-year-old Bessie Moore in the final, and they played the first five-set women’s match in tennis history. Cahill was able to defend her crown with a 5–7, 6–3, 6–4, 4–6, 6–2 victory.

“The match was very close and very exciting,” the Times reported. “Both ladies were cool and skillful, and the rallies were prolonged to a great length.”

The tournament briefly went back to a best-of-three final in 1893, but in 1894, both the all-comer’s final and the challenger’s final was best-of five. (In those days, the defending champion only had to play in one match, the challenger’s final. The rest of the tournament was held to figure out who would be the challenger.)

Overall, six five-set women’s matches were played at the U.S. National Championship, culminating in the 1901 tournament, when both the all-comer’s final and the challenger’s went the distance.

Moore won both of these matches, defeating Marion Jones in the all-comer’s round and Myrtle McAteer in the challenger round, 6–4, 3–6, 7–5, 2–6, 6–2 — a total of 105 games in 24 hours. Despite the fact that Moore was fine, the all-male officials at the United States National Lawn Tennis Association decided that was simply too much for those poor, dainty women to be put through, and they changed the women’s tournament back to best-of-three sets throughout.

Want to know more? Well, in 1996, legendary tennis historian and journalist Bud Collins took time out of his busy day to write a letter to the New York Times editor correcting Martina Navratilova’s knowledge of tennis history. I’ll leave you with Bud’s thoughts on the 1891-1901 era in women’s tennis:

I’ve got some more great archival finds of the tennis/Australian Open variety, and will be sharing those with paid subscribers this week. Don’t miss out on our 21% off special!

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Thanks for reading, friends! So much love to all of you. Remember: We’re still in a global pandemic. It’s just been one month since a deadly insurrection in the Capitol. It’s winter and seasonal depression is real. If you’re not 100% right now, that’s normal, you’re not supposed to be.