I have been an athlete my entire life. When I didn’t know who I was or how I fit in, sports gave me a purpose and a sense of belonging. I am so grateful for my identity as an athlete and especially grateful that I continue to compete at the highest level of my sport as a transgender athlete.
As the first openly transgender member of Team USA, I have become a visible model to trans youth of what is possible. Every day I hear from young trans athletes who are afraid that they won’t be able to compete (or even survive) because of who they are. They feel vulnerable and targeted because many of them live in states like South Dakota where their government representatives are working to expel them from participation in fundamental aspects of secondary education and extracurricular activities.
This week I learned that a new law is being proposed in South Dakota, SB 49, which would void that state’s policy allowing transgender athletes to participate in athletic activities consistent with their gender identity and replace it with a policy that mandates participation based on the gender listed on a person’s birth certificate. It breaks my heart because I know just how damaging these laws and policies are for trans youth and for all athletes.
Like other policies targeting trans youth, this bill send a message to trans students that they are shameful and not worthy of the basic educational benefits available to their peers. For many of us who find purpose in athletics, it is especially cruel to take that away. Lawmakers proposing these bills generally have very little understanding of who trans people are and what it means for us to compete in sports, particularly for young people.
The reality is that transgender girls are girls and transgender boys are boys. There is a fear that somehow allowing girls who are transgender to compete with other girls will give them a competitive advantage but this completely misunderstands the facts and is based on false stereotypes. High school athletes come in all shapes, sizes, and skill and ability levels, and it's unfair for us to police bodies and make determinations of who should be able to compete in sports, particularly when we know there are so many physical, mental, social, and psychological benefits associated with young people participating in these activities.
On the flip side, barring trans people from participation hurts everyone. Young people start to think that there is no place for them in athletics and they drop out, even when it is the one place where they may find belonging and hope. It affects every aspect of their educational experience and can even reduce the likelihood that they graduate from high school. It robs transgender youth from connecting with their peers, and can even cause adults at schools to treat trans students differently.
The truth is, the current South Dakota policy allowing trans students to compete consistent with their gender identity has been in place for years with no problems. In fact, the policy in South Dakota has been one of the most inclusive as shown on my website, Trans Athlete. Changing this policy to one of the worst in the nation would be disgraceful.
Our community already faces staggering rates of discrimination in schools, at home, in the workplace, and among health care providers. Rejecting a young person’s identity can lead to lifelong negative physical and mental health consequences and contribute to the devastatingly high rates of suicide in our community.
South Dakota lawmakers have a responsibility to their constituents to represent them fairly and equally. There is no problem of trans people dominating sports because of some mythic competitive advantage. There is, however, a problem of trans people struggling to survive because we are told that we don’t belong anywhere. But we do.
I am grateful to be an athlete at the top of my sport while being open about my identity as a transgender man. I work hard to achieve what I have and I am grateful for everyone who put faith in me along the way – it made all the difference. No one should have to choose between being their authentic self and playing the sports they love.
My hope is that South Dakota lawmakers see that this bill is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist and that it will only hurt the people of South Dakota. It may deter the next collegiate star from pursuing their dream; it may cause a young person who listens to the debates to believe there is no place for them; it will change the way trans students are treated by their coaches, teachers, and peers.
Please join me in opposing South Dakota’s Senate Bill 49.