LGBTQ+ Youth in Sport

It is widely held that involvement in athletics promotes the healthy development of youth. Whether playing a pick-up game at the park, going to gym class at school, or participating in an organized sports league, youth are constantly exposed to sport and often engaged in it. Sports are a supposed global unifier, with countries putting international affairs on pause every two years when the Olympic rings are lit. With sports being so pervasive globally, one might assume that they are also universally inclusionary. However, youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer (LGBTQ+) are actively discriminated against and excluded from sports. Anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination has negative consequences including emotional distress, economic cost, school avoidance, substance use, suicidality, and negative well-being.

Gender Identity

A central cause for the discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth in sport is due to [biological] sex-segregation. On teams at all levels and in sports of all kinds, men and women are separated into distinct categories with rigid definitions. This results in extremely challenging environments for transgender, gender non-conforming, and all queer-gendered youth. These youth are often excluded from participation in sport due to their non-compliance with gender ‘norms’. If one’s assigned sex does not match their gender expression, they often do not have a space to participate in sport. They are excluded from both groups on the basis of their gender identity. Also, gender-queer youth face increased instances of violence and discrimination in the locker room. These youth face violence for their gender identity from teammates and have a much higher likelihood of being a victim of violence than do their cis-gendered peers. Such instances result in shifting attitudes among queer-gendered youth, as is marked in their lower participation rates in sport.

Sexual Identity

Having a queer (non-heterosexual), sexual identity also has repercussions for youth in sport. Much of this discrimination is rooted in widespread anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric that exists in much of Western society. As such, LGBTQ+ youth, when identified, face increased harassment, bullying, and exclusion. Moreover, as was previously mentioned, sports culture has a clear male/female dichotomy. Having distinct groups defined in terms of gender leads to the creation of expected gender ‘norms’ within sports. For example, gay men might be bullied on their team for not displaying the expected and tolerated characteristics of hegemonic masculinity. On the other side of the same coin, lesbians are often excluded from sport because women are expected to fit the mold of ‘femininity’.  Having a queer sexual identity does not fit into these molds, and as such, queer youth are less accepted in sport than their straight counterparts.

Next Steps

Sport culture needs to be reimagined to become more inclusionary. Some experts assert that getting rid of sex-segregation in sport is a good first step to mitigating bullying of LGBTQ+ folks. Moreover, sporting institutions and organizations are encouraged to reform existing policy in order to provide safer physical spaces for LGBTQ+ youth. Coaches, trainers, and teachers are challenged to help change existing attitudes toward LGBTQ+ youth in sport by raising awareness and changing our fundamental understanding of sex and gender.

Written By: Sarah Fobert