The Conversation Begins: Equal Opportunity for Transgender Student-Athletes, a National Think Tank

Helen CarrolOn Oct. 26, 2009, in Indianapolis, Indiana, home of the National Collegiate  Athletic Association (NCAA), a gathering of top sports leaders from across the country, athletic directors, researchers, medical and legal experts on transgender issues, student-athletes and NCAA officials will meet to examine the question of how to make sports inclusive for the transgender student-athlete . A national think tank sponsored by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) with the Women’s Sports Foundation Initiative:  It takes a Team!  Education Campaign for LGBT Issues (ITAT) will address the issue of equal opportunity for transgender student-athletes. The gathering is groundbreaking in the United States as this is the first such nationwide meeting of transgender rights experts and leaders of high school and collegiate athletics. Following this historic convening, we aspire to provide positive guidance through a report outlining best practices and possible recommended policies. Most importantly, through this work we believe that the lives of transgender athletes and their teammates will be greatly enriched.  It is an ambitious undertaking and one that I believe will make the world of the high school and collegiate sports a better place for all competitors. Diversity has so many positive aspects.

In speaking to a number of young student-athletes on college campuses, I have seen the emergence of this new group struggle to claim their place in athletics in the face of bias, misunderstanding, arcane rules, and sometimes even discrimination. To think that students are not playing sports, quitting teams, or leaving sports forever because of their gender identity/expression, that is something that must be addressed. I’ve met many of these students firsthand in filming their stories, speaking with them on campuses this year, and becoming friends; I know who they are and the pain they’ve suffered when they’ve felt that, because of their gender identity or expression, their only option is to quit sports. And there is so much to be gained by participating in athletics—health and social benefits among them—including by transgender and gender non-conforming students. Those gathering in Indianapolis will have the unique opportunity to hear the stories of these collegiate athletes, and to address their needs.  My hope is that their voices will assist us to develop strategies for the fair and equal treatment of all student-athletes.

Athletics often follows behind society in the acceptance of social change and social justice. As a former coach, I do not like to admit this but often leaders in sport such as coaches and athletic directors lag behind their athletes in accepting the changes and personal growth of teammates. I believe the think tank has the chance to provide athletic leaders and decision-makers with the tools to proactively assist their coaches and teams to understand that having a transgender person in their organization or on their team is a just one part of the diverse experiences that benefits their team and all involved.

There simply has to be a way to put in place policies and rules that both treat everyone fairly and do not foster prejudice or discriminate against people for who they are, including based on gender identity and expression. These and other principles are at the heart of equal opportunity. Everyone should be able to play, and to learn the many lessons that flows from participating in collegiate sports. So on to Indianapolis, and keep an eye out for our report following this Think Tank, in the near future…

Helen Carroll
NCLR Sports Project Director

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