My childhood was filled with sports. I remember growing up playing soccer, football and basketball. Any sport where you just needed a ball, an open field of grass (or the carport at our apartment), and enough kids for two teams — we played it.
But deep down inside, I resented this part of my life.
It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy playing sports. There was something incredibly fulfilling about being a part of a team, working together, and partaking in a shared experience even if it ended up in a loss. I found joy in the camaraderie and being a part of something bigger than myself.
I resented sports growing up because I never felt truly comfortable or welcomed enough to be an authentic version of myself in these teams or environments. I never felt safe enough to be out to my teammates or coaches, and I knew if I did, I would be ostracized from those spaces — or worse.
There was a lot of pressure placed on me by adults when I was a kid to play these sports as a way to “masculinize” me. Alongside this pressure came an underpinning message that if I played enough sports, it would prevent me from being gay, queer, and most of all, transgender.
This became distinctly apparent when I was sent to a “sports” camp (which was actually operating as a conversion therapy camp) when I was eight years old. Conversion therapy refers to a range of dangerous and discredited practices aimed at changing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The primary crux of this camp experience was to reinforce rigid and strict gender stereotypes: we, as folks assigned male at birth, would play sports outside all day, while those assigned female at birth were inside cooking, cleaning and creating art.
These traditional forced gender roles left us little room for self-expression or curiosity. It was difficult to explore beyond society’s preconceived ideas of what children are meant to do in order to grow into the adults traditional society wants them to be.
Fast-forward to high school, where I was told I “needed” to try football. I was not comfortable with it, as I wasn’t like all the other players. While I had a big and tall body that could be — and sometimes was — a potent force on the football field, I was existing in a space where I felt I did not belong, just because of who I was.
That year, I sat on the sidelines during football practice doing homework. Eventually I was allowed to quit.
While I loved the idea of playing sports, I simply felt early on that I didn’t belong. The locker rooms were a breeding ground for toxic masculinity. Just like in conversion camp, I felt forced to keep up appearances as someone I was not and would never be. Sports just never felt like a safe space for me to thrive openly as myself. And that was a shame.
As an adult and openly proud trans woman today, I reflect on these experiences and imagine how different it would have all been if I had that opportunity to feel I belonged, that I was welcomed, and that sports affirmed me for exactly who I am. Imagine not only the athlete, but the confident young adult I would have become had I not been denied these opportunities.
Eventually, I found my sport: running. In 2019, I ran my first half-marathon and fell in love with the freedom and joy that running has given me. It’s individual, safe and solitary, and I don’t have to worry about the judgment or discrimination that team sports so often bring to LGBTQ folks, even today.
In fact, a 2021 report on LGBTQ Youth Sports Participation conducted by The Trevor Project found that 68% of LGBTQ young people reported that they had never participated in sports, with many citing concerns of discrimination and harassment from peers and coaches, fears of how others would react to their LGBTQ identity, and policies preventing them from playing on the team that matches their gender identity.
In the world of today, there has been great progress in the name of inclusion in sports. We’re witnessing professional athletes coming out publicly, and leagues are taking a proactive stance to combat anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
Yet we still have a long way to go.
This year has seen a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced across the country, some of which seek to restrict many transgender and nonbinary young people from participating in sports that align with their gender identity. We’re talking about kids looking to have fun and play with their friends being treated like political pawns.
It’s for these reasons that I channel my passion for creating a brighter future for LGBTQ young people into my professional work.
Most recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate with PUMA to develop an innovative training for youth-facing adults: Reform the Locker Room. The training is designed for all adults – coaches, school administrators, athletic directors, teachers, parents, neighbors… anyone who comes into contact with young people.
As an organization at the forefront of LGBTQ youth-suicide prevention, we are all-too-aware that a lack of inclusion, affirmation and safe spaces increases LGBTQ youth-suicide risk. This Reform The Locker Room campaign is designed to create sports environments where young folks feel safe to be themselves.
A lot of the rejection some of them feel isn’t coming from their teammates and peers, but from the adults in the room – lawmakers, policies in their schools, coaches and parents.
We wanted to create a free, accessible training program, grounded in research, that would help educate and empower adults to be role models and mentors with a positive – and potentially even life-saving – impact on young LGBTQ lives.
As our research consistently shows, having just one accepting adult in an LGBTQ young person’s life is associated with significantly lower odds of attempting suicide.
Companies and global brands supporting LGBTQ young people is a necessary ingredient in creating equity for everybody. During my decade at The Trevor Project, I’ve seen influential sports and athletics brands (the NFL, NBA, WNBA and MLB, to name a few) help move the needle toward greater LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion – not just on the field or court, but in daily life as well. Here’s hoping that trend continues.
When I think back to my younger self playing in that apartment carport, I no longer feel resentment. Now, my driving emotion is hope.
Hope that we can expand inclusion efforts across sports environments.
Hope that trans kids get to be the ones who decide if they play sports.
And hope that together – with industry leaders and grassroots organizations alike – we can ensure that kids like me feel welcomed, no matter who they are.
Nova Bright-Williams (she/her), is the Head of Internal Training (Learning & Development) at The Trevor Project, the leading suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ young people.