The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has published The Experiences of LGBT Students in School Athletics. The study examined over 8,500 LGBT middle and high school students aged 13-20 from all 50 states. The report looked to examine all aspects of the school athletic experience for LGBT youth.
GLSEN found that physical education classes can sometimes foster an unsafe environment for LGBT students and many LGBT students experienced discrimination and harassment in school sports. The study found that more than half of LGBT students were bullied or harassed during athletics because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. This would explain why 32.3% of LGBT youth said they avoided gym class, 39% avoided locker rooms, and 22.8% avoided athletic fields and facilities. Additionally, for those LGBT students who participated in school sponsored athletics, over 27% reported ever having been harassed or bullied for their sexual orientation and over 29% for their gender expression.
The reason why many LGBT student athletes reported feeling bullied or harassed in their school's athletics environment might be because of the studies finding that LGBT student athletes may not feel fully supported by athletics staff and school policies. LGBT student athletes stated that they would feel more likely to participate in athletics and less likely to avoid sports in school if they felt comfortable talking to their PE teachers or coaches about LGBT issues, or if their schools enacted comprehensive anti-bullying policies.
Both the perceived and legitimate lack of support of LGBT students in athletics may be what leads to the study's finding that LGBT students may be underrepresented on extracurricular sports teams. It states that only about 23.2% of LGBT students participated in interscholastic sports, which is less than half as likely as their straight peers (47.8%). Even more saddening is that only 6.1% of LGBT student-athletes served a leadership role on their team, barely over 1% of all LGBT student-athletes. Perhaps this underrepresentation in athletics and in team leadership roles has to do with the lack of support for LGBT athletes or perhaps it is due to discrimination. Whatever the correlation, the numbers are not where they should be.
However, the study also finds that LGBT students who played on school based sports teams actually reported better academic and mental health outcomes than did LGBT peers who chose to abstain from interscholastic sports. Not only did LGBT athletes have higher overall GPAs than LGBT non-athletes but they also reported higher senses of self-esteem and more positive feelings associated with belonging to their school community.
There is a divide between reality and perception in the level of support for LGBT people in athletics. This study should be a resource utilized by coaches, teachers, administration, and student peers of LGBT middle and high school students across the nation. The numbers prove that participating in school sponsored athletics is a positive and beneficial experience to the development of self-esteem and a sense of belonging in a young LGBT student. If school administration and student peers can open themselves up to discussions about LGBT issues and show that a positive environment for LGBT athletes could be created, then many LGBT students would feel comfortable participating on athletic teams.
Athletics are where youth should go to feel safe and comfortable among a devoted and supportive team and lose themselves in the sport they love. Whether LGBT youth prevent themselves from participating in sports because of perceived or actual discrimination and harassment is not important. The fact, in general, that these youth feel their sexuality or gender expression would prevent them from being accepted is why despite all the recent progress, the sports world is still one of the last mainstays of tolerated LGBT discrimination.
Sexuality and gender identity should not be an issue in the athletic arena. And when a team or program is accepting and welcoming of LGBT athletes, those things are not issues. It's when those student-athletes are harassed, or feel unsupported, or leave sports altogether that they become issues.