LGBTQ+ Youth Participating in Sports & Their Legal Protections
Student athletes’ participation in sports is often correlated with higher academic achievement and self-esteem. However, many LGBTQ+ athletes have reported that they were harassed or attacked for their sexual orientation or gender identity while on a school sports team. The discrimination against LGBTQ+ athletes that occurs in school sports extends from early childhood all the way up to professional sports leagues.
Some recent progress has occurred in professional leagues. Notably, the NFL has included sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy. Further, states including California have approved laws that allow student athletes to choose whether they want to compete as male or female based on their gender identity. However, this area of law and policy is just beginning to evolve.
Title IX and School Sports
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal law banning sex discrimination in educational institutions (including in activities like sports) that receive federal funding. The ban on sex discrimination is supposed to be enforced at the elementary, secondary, college, university, and graduate school levels. In 2021, the Department of Education determined that Title IX encompasses sexual orientation discrimination. A federal judge in Tennessee blocked the implementation of this interpretation against some states in 2022, but proposed rules consolidating this interpretation are pending as of 2023.
Religious schools can apply for specific exemptions from Title IX by telling the Department of Education that the law requires them to violate their religious beliefs. The Department has little discretion over whether to grant exemptions, and at those particular schools, student athletes will not have any way of obtaining relief.
Transphobia in Sports
Transgender athletes face particular challenges in connection with sports participation. Sports teams and leagues are often organized by gender, with male and female athletes competing only against members of the same gender. The International Olympic Committee and NCAA have passed strict policies related to transgender athletes. For example, the NCAA policy requires female-to-male athletes who want to play on a woman’s team to undergo at least a year of testosterone suppression in order to become eligible.
Transphobia and misunderstanding of gender identity and expression in sports is rampant. For example, transgender women may face criticism or taunts in connection with their participation on sports teams when they compete against the gender with which they identify. However, based on the above-referenced Department of Education interpretation, Title IX protects students from discrimination and harassment based on their gender identity and should theoretically prohibit such conduct.
In spite of a national trend toward recognizing that transgender students should be able to participate in sports according to their gender identity, entities in certain states are actively working against inclusion. For example, the governing body for Texas high school sports proposed a policy that would require a student’s gender to be determined by their birth certificate for purposes of joining sports teams.
LGBTQ+ Legal Resource Center Contents