A wave of state-level legislation around the rights of transgender youth is making headlines. Director of Youth Development Program Quality Rachel Keener writes today to explain what is happening, why it is so important, and what we can do. Please note: this post contains frank discussion of discrimination, oppression, bullying, and suicide.
It’s April 2021. Springtime birds have returned to your front yard, little blades of green grass are making their way up in the cracks in the sidewalk outside of your apartment, and your face mask is feeling extra hot under that glimpse of summer sun. You are on your way back to school, where you’ll see your classmates in person for the first time in over a year. So long, Zoom room. Though much of the United States continues to keep a wary eye on the spread of COVID-19, vaccination access is expanding, hope is on the horizon, and you might even be able to get back on the soccer field before summer break.
If you are one of America’s 150,000 transgender youth however, your return to some of the normalcies of pre-pandemic day-to-day might be clouded by a wave of recent state-level legislation seeking to limit your access to that sport you love, and even your access to healthcare. According to Freedom for All Americans, a bi-partisan LGBTQ nondiscrimination organization, there are currently almost 100 bills spread across 30 different states seeking to limit trans and nonbinary people’s protections from discrimination, access to medical care, and participation in school sports. Most of these legislative proposals target young people.
I am writing this blog post for a few reasons. I care deeply about young folks, and I can hear how much trans and nonbinary youth need safe places and caring adults right now. I know that my fellow youth workers, who dedicate their skills and energy to this work, also want to be there for all the young people in their lives. I also know how difficult it can be to navigate the complexity of legislation in the United States, and to understand how it might impact your community. My hope is to provide you with a factual summary of current legislation, useful resources, and clear steps you can take to ensure the safety and wellbeing of transgender and nonbinary youth at your Club.
Let’s begin by reviewing the impact these legislative efforts would (and in some cases, will) have and defining some of the terms. Nearly 16% of people born between 1997 and 2002, known as Generation Z, identify as LGBTQ, and 1.8% identify as transgender. That percentage has increased every year since data tracking on LGBTQ youth began and grows with each generation. Overall, the number of Americans who identify as LGBTQ increased by 4.6% since Gallup’s 2017 study.
Transgender (or trans) is an umbrella term to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Many transgender people will transition to align their gender expression with their gender identity, however you do not have to medically transition to be transgender.
Nonbinary is used to describe people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as outside of the male-female gender binary. Many other words for identities outside the traditional categories of man and woman may be used, such as genderfluid, genderqueer, agender, etc.
Two-Spirit refers to a person who identifies as having both a masculine and a feminine spirit, and is used by some Indigenous, Native American, and First Nations people to identify their sexual, gender, and/or spiritual identity. (A note: the 574 federally recognized Indian Nations within the colonized United States are not subject to state law. However, State legislation that limits access to health care and sport participation would impact Indigenous communities who wish to seek medical treatment or play sports within institutions impacted by state legislation.)
For an expanded glossary of LGBTQ identities and terms, visit The Trevor Project, the US’s leading LGBTQ youth mental health advocacy organization.
There are trans and nonbinary young people in every state and community in this country, regardless of how urban, rural, liberal, or conservative. There are more transgender youth than youth who play hockey, lacrosse, run track and field, or wrestle in the United States. Despite the increasing number of transgender youth in our communities, discrimination and lack of awareness is rampant. According to The Trevor Project:
- 38% of transgender and nonbinary youth have experienced housing instability
- 34% of transgender and nonbinary youth have attempted suicide
- Among LGBTQ youth who reported that they were kicked out of their home due to their identity, 50% were transgender and nonbinary
- 40% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported being physically threatened or harmed in their lifetime due to their gender identity
I don’t want to paint a doom-and-gloom picture of what it means to be a transgender young person in the US. What I’m hoping you’ll take away from the section above is this:
- Transgender and nonbinary youth exist in all of our communities, even though we may not be aware of it.
- They live in diverse places and come from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds.
- Due to discrimination and oppression, they are at an increased risk for a variety of life-threatening events and deserve our targeted attention and support.
So, what are the current legislation battles all about? Most of the current anti-transgender legislation falls under two categories:
Preventing transgender and nonbinary youth from participating in sports
(MT, UT, AZ, NM, TX, ND, SD, KS, OK, MN, IA, MO, AR, MI, OH, KY, TN, MS, Al, GA, FL, SC, NC, WV, NJ, CT, NH, ME)
Though each state’s proposed or passed legislation contains its own nuance, in general they seek to:
- Restrict participation in girls’ and women’s’ sports to athletes who can prove their assigned sex at birth matches their gender identity and/or expression.
Why this matters:
- Participating in team sports positively impacts the mental and physical health of young people and teaches valuable life skills. Denying transgender and nonbinary youth access to team sports denies them access to these benefits, reinforces stigma, and is discriminatory.
- Allowing trans and nonbinary youth to participate in sports provides them with the benefits of improved emotional regulation, decreased hopelessness and suicidality, fewer depressive symptoms, and higher self-esteem. Additionally, there is no scientific basis or anecdotal history that identifies a problem with trans youth participating in sports.
- Clubs understand the importance of experiencing a sense of belonging as a young person, especially for teens. Excluding youth from sports and recreation negatively impacts their sense of belonging, which can have detrimental effects on their well-being.
Denying transgender and nonbinary youth access to gender-affirming health care
(MT, UT, AZ, ND, KS, OK, TX, IA, MO, AR, IN, KY, TN, MS, AL, GA, SC, FL, WV, NH)
In general, this legislation seeks to:
- Make it a criminal offense, or otherwise impossible, to provide minors with transition or gender-related healthcare. This includes medication that delays the onset of puberty, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), or mental health therapy that affirms their gender identity.
Why this matters:
- Transgender youth who have access to gender-affirming healthcare are significantly less likely to feel anxious, depressed, or attempt suicide.
- There is no medical basis for this legislation. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association have all released statements opposing these efforts.
- Access to gender-affirming healthcare, like puberty blockers for transgender youth, dramatically reduces the prevalence of suicidal thoughts according to a Harvard Medical School study involving 20,619 transgender people.
The impact of increased public attention and controversy around this legislation is already being felt among the trans, nonbinary, and larger LGBTQ community, and is having detrimental effects on LGTBQ people’s mental health and wellbeing. Watching your government and community debate whether you deserve to be who you are or participate in the sport you love is harmful on its own. When you add this to the everyday stress trans and nonbinary youth experience at home, in school, and even at the Club, you have a recipe for significant negative impacts on mental health.
Now here’s the important part: What can we youth workers do? How can the Club support youth who might be struggling?
- Educate yourself and your colleagues.
- BGCA’s Serving LGBQ Youth Toolkit
- Trevor Project’s Glossary of LGBTQ Terminology
- Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020
- Freedom for All Americans Legislative Tracker that reviews all anti-transgender legislation in the US that updates daily
- An AWESOME free guide to being an ally to transgender and nonbinary youth from the Trevor Project
- Recommendations for inclusive athletic participation from GLSEN, a leading LGBTQ youth development organization, that can be used in your Club’s athletic programs.
- Check in with young people who might be struggling, using the resources above.
- If a young person tells you that they are transgender or nonbinary, support them and affirm their gender identity.
- If a young person tells you their pronouns, or corrects the pronouns you are using for them, respect their identity and refer to them using the words and language they ask you to use. Be mindful that pronouns can change over time and youth may not be comfortable sharing. Check in with them about where, when and with who it is safe to use them. Some youth may be “out” at the Club but not with parents, for example.
- Support proper pronoun use among Club members and staff through discussion and education.
- Top tip: When in doubt, remember that the youth themselves is the expert in their own identity, and we can best support them by listening and being responsive to what they are telling us, even if it changes or does not make sense to us.
- Identify resources in your community that transgender and nonbinary youth can access if they need support.
- Nationally, The Trevor Project has a phone hotline, online chat or text messaging all with licensed counselors ready to support. Find out more at https://www.thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now/
Though it’s true that transgender and nonbinary youth are facing a tough year ahead, the Club can be a safe haven in the storm. Youth who report having high levels of support from caring adults are significantly less likely to suffer negative health effects or attempt suicide, and support is what Clubs do best.
If you have additional questions or would like to connect with BGCA staff about LGBTQ resources for Clubs, visit the Serving LGBTQ Youth page on BGCA.net.