The Importance of Trans-Inclusive Environments for Adolescents

In February 2016, Texas superintendents overwhelmingly voted to use a high school student's birth certificate to determine her or his gender. You can see a review of this decision in the Texas Tribune.

The results have potentially devastating effects for trans students seeking to participate in athletics. This ruling means that should a high school student determines hir (a trans-inclusive pronoun) gender identity and expression are different than hir sex assigned at birth, few options exist. One possibility is for hir to undergo medical procedures, such as sex reassignment surgery or hormone treatment, neither of which is ideal or realistic for a 14-18 year old. Or, the student can simply opt out of participating in sport. And, if the latter is chosen, it means they miss the social, psychological, and physical benefits of sport and physical activity: benefits that are seen immediately and through adulthood. 

But, isn't this just common sense, and don't most states follow this process? No and no. Texas now joins six other states (Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, New Mexico and North Carolina) with the most restrictive policies in the United States. This means that 43 other states have determined ways to be more inclusive and allow trans athletes to participate in these important extra-curricular activities. In fact, even the NCAA, an entity that has a far more competitive athletics environment than that found in high school sports, adopts a less restrictive trans policy. For an excellent overview of different policies, see Erin Buzuvis's chapter in the edited book, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Sport: Essays from Activists, Coaches, and Scholars. You can also find a podcast where I discussed issues of trans inclusion and fairness here

The issue of trans inclusion is not just one at a conceptual level. Recent research from Kristina Olson, Lily Durwood, Madeline DeMeules, and Katie McLaughlin shows that trans-inclusion has meaningful positive effects on trans students' mental well-being.*

The authors collected data about 79 trans children ages 3-12 and 79 non-trans children in the same age range. They observed that when parents allowed and encouraged their trans children to live in a way that was consistent with their gender identity--including presenting to others in that manner--the children showed low levels of anxiety and depression. This is an important finding, as previous research has consistently shown that, absent that support, trans children experience poor mental health. 

Olson and colleagues' findings have clear implications for the athletics arena. When trans athletes are accepted, included, and encouraged to participate, it is likely they will not only experience the many physical benefits of sport, but the inclusive environment will also positively impact their psychological well-being. The lack of inclusion also reinforces the prejudice and stigma surrounding trans individuals. 

The only good news is that just as restrictive, discriminatory laws are passed, they can also be changed. We have seen this in other areas related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and we will continue to press Texas and the UIL to adopt more inclusive policies. 

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* Olson, K. R., Durwood, L., DeMeules, M., & McLaughlin, K. (2016). Mental health of transgender children who are supported in their identities. Pedatrics, 137(3), 1-8.