For five years, Rebekah Bruesehoff has played field hockey on a girl’s team, the team that corresponds with her gender identity.
The other students and parents cheer her on as they do everyone else on the team. She’s celebrated for being an anchor on defense and bringing excitement to every play. This year, she made it through try-outs to earn a spot on the varsity team at her new middle school in southern New Jersey.
“My teammates love and support me for me, on the field I’m just a player. I’m so much more than trans,” Bruesehoff, 14, said.
But amid a growing national debate over whether transgender women should be prohibited from competing with cisgender women, Jamie Bruesehoff, Rebekah’s mom, has started to worry whether her daughter will be banned from her favorite activity — or bullied over who she is.
“I’m sitting there, heart pounding, looking at the sidelines wondering ‘is someone going to make this all go badly?’” Bruesehoff, 38, said.
With 29 state legislatures across the country debating bills to ban transgender girls and women from girl’s and women’s sports, family members and experts are warning of potential long-lasting negative impacts faced by LGBTQ kids. Trans athletes and their allies say groups promoting these bans rely on harmful traditional definitions of gender. Transgender advocates point to the fact that all major medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association, recognize the validity of transgender identities and support transgender kids in their gender transitions.
According to a Gallup survey released this year, 0.6% of the American adult population are transgender. Among Gen Z adults, representing people ages 18 to 23, 2% identify as transgender. Overall, 5.6% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ, with 15.9% of Gen Z claiming the identity.
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this month about the Equality Act, which would expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include LGBTQ Americans and create additional protections for people of color and women, lawmakers arguing against the legislation focused mainly on transgender girls in sports.
Civil rights experts said competitive sports are the latest facet of life being targeted by anti-transgender legislation. So-called “bathroom bills,” which attempted to restrict access to multiuser restrooms on the basis of sex assigned at birth, as well as former President Donald Trump’s transgender military ban, are recent examples of attempts to exclude transgender Americans from public life.
“It’s a proxy for them having lost the bathroom war,” said Veronica Ivy, a competitive cyclist and expert on transgender rights whose research on sports demographics has appeared before the International Olympic Committee.
Unlike previous iterations of anti-transgender legislation, this year’s crop of bills targeting transgender students would limit participation in extracurricular activities, which could in turn harm children’s mental health, growth and ability to pursue certain higher education and career opportunities.
Proponents of the transgender athlete bans argue it is unfair to have any cisgender girl, meaning a girl who identifies with the gender she was assigned at birth, play sports against a transgender girl, a notion that has not been substantiated by scientific data.
Hear more interviews from sources by clicking play on the audio below
Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas have already banned transgender women and girls from participating in women’s sports, while other states such as North Carolina, Alabama and Montana, are debating similar measures.
Groups pushing for anti-transgender bills targeting trans women and girls include the group Save Women’s Sports and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian-right group that was also behind the campaign for bathroom bills, which have been proposed in at least 46 states since 2013.
The political discourse around sports could be damaging for young people coming to terms with their gender identity, experts said.
A 2020 survey from The Trevor Project, a national group focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ young people, concluded that positive school environments make the biggest difference in kids’ lives, compared with other environments such as the home and work settings.
“Sports are, whether we like it or not, a really classic long-standing component of the ways that young people can get engaged in their health, and in their peer networks,” said Stephen Russell, a professor whose work has focused on child development at the University of Texas.
Russell said he’s worried about many ramifications resulting from current calls to exclude transgender kids, such as negative physiological, mental health and behavioral effects.
LGBTQ people, racial minorities and women can all experience what’s known as discriminatory stress when they’re treated differently than other people, Russell said. Over time, this can affect one’s sense of self.
“It seeps into the culture, gets into our heads, and could cause a kid to tell themself, ‘I’m not worthy of being treated the same as other kids,’” Russel said.
Transphobia and misogyny led to exclusion and threats
For curler and powerlifter JayCee Cooper, sports are both a part of her daily workout routine and a social outlet.
“That is the main vehicle I use to find friendship and to find community,” Cooper, 33, said.
Cooper said sports have always been the part of her life that gives her the most confidence, even before she transitioned.
Pre-transition, at age 19, when Cooper won the junior nationals curling tournament, she received a message from her coach that’s stuck with her to this day.
“My coach pulled me aside and said, ‘you know, no one can ever take this away from you,’” Cooper said.
Years after transitioning, while Cooper was competing as a powerlifter, USA Powerlifting stripped her of the opportunity to compete, based on her gender identity as a transgender woman.
She received an email from the organization in December 2018 saying she couldn’t compete because “male-to-female transgenders are not allowed to compete as females.”
At the time, USA Powerlifting did not have specific guidelines for transgender people’s participation, but since then, the organization has moved to ban all transgender athletes.
When Cooper learned she would be prohibited from competing, she said she felt both ostracized and not accepted for who she is. She said she still feels the organization’s decision was the result of fear-mongering.
“That hits so deeply,” Cooper said. “There’s nothing more damaging than being told you’re different and that because of that, you don’t belong.”
When Ivy,a track cycling world champion, competes at meets across the country, organizers have to hire extra security because of how many death threats she’s received.
Ivy said she often faces transphobic verbal attacks from spectators, fellow competitors and officials.
These days, Ivy said she is most grateful for the many friends and allies she’s made through the sport, because at some events, they become her entire safety net — the only thing physically standing between her and the threats.
“That takes all of the fun out of sport for me to know that I can’t just focus on my performance,” Ivy said. “I have to think, ‘what horrible thing is someone going to say or do?’”
Despite the danger, Ivy remains one of the most famous and successful transgender women athletes in the world, claiming two world championships in women’s track cycling.
Athletes like Ivy said transgender women receive so many threats in part because they’re scrutinized more harshly than their transgender men peers in the sports world.
The bills aiming to ban transgender women from women’s sports often don’t address transgender men who want to participate in men’s sports.
Traditional gender stereotypes allow for discrimination
In recent months, the debate over transgender inclusion in sports has increasingly revolved around physical characteristics such as height and weight. Lawmakers claim transgender women have competitive advantages over cisgender women due to these physical features.
Transgender women said calls to judge their abilities based on their bodies are reminiscent of centuries-old sexist presumptions that men are more athletic than women, an idea that prevented women from participating in sports in the past and contributes to inequalities between men and women in professional and school sports today.
Advocates point to data from the International Olympic Committee that shows greater physical variation among people of one gender, and less variation in height and weight between men and women.
“People always conveniently forget about the massive diversity within bodies of women in sport,” Ivy said. “It is not as simple as looking at bodies and saying what is fair and unfair.”
Ivy, whose research on transgender rights has helped steer International Olympic Committee policy, said that based on arguments extrapolating athletic skill from physical characteristics, the case can be made that women at the low end of the weight spectrum for women shouldn’t be allowed to compete against women on the opposite end of the weight spectrum.
“These hateful debates depend on not knowing the numbers,” she said.
Transgender youth told ‘they don’t belong’
Earlier this year, six high-profile women athletes,including tennis icon Martina Navratilova and two-time Olympic gold medalist Donna de Varona,organized to propose federal legislation to exempt girls’ and women’s competitive sports from President Joe Biden’s recent executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.
The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group claims they aim to foster more inclusivity for transgender athletes by advocating for new guidelines for transgender women and girls. But the group’s strategy has already faced serious criticism from other leaders in the sports world.
The group is asking U.S. lawmakers to restrict the participation of transgender girls and women who have experienced all or part of male puberty, and require hormone and sex tests based on a male-female gender binary. They want transgender women and girls who don’t meet those criteria to compete in separate heats and games, an idea LGBTQ advocates and their allies deem impractical and exclusionary given the comparably small population of transgender athletes compared to cisgender athletes.
The working group’s membership has also been called into question because none of the members are transgender.
Because the group would have some transgender athletes barred from teams altogether or competing in their own heats without competitors, LGBTQ advocates said the working group is creating additional opportunities for transgender women and girls to be discriminated against and be excluded.
Two working group members came under fire in August 2020 for being among the first people to sign a letter sent to the NCAA on behalf of Save Women’s Sports, a national organization activists describe as stoking fears about protecting cisgender women from “biological males,” a transphobic term used to target trans women.
“The gatekeeping they are engaging in is damaging for the trans community,” Cooper said. “Trans youth are watching and they’re hearing the message that they don’t belong.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves cited Biden’s protections for transgender people when he passed his state’s ban on transgender athletes earlier this month. “I never imagined dealing with this, but POTUS left us no choice. One of his first acts was to sign an EO encouraging transgenderism in children. So today, I proudly signed the Mississippi Fairness Act to ensure young girls are not forced to compete against biological males,” he wrote on Twitter on March 11.
Exclusion from sports could harm young kids more than other groups
When questioned earlier this year, a majority of U.S. lawmakers pushing to ban transgender athletes from women’s sports could not name a single instance of a transgender person’s participation in sports causing a problem, according to the Associated Press.
To date, there has never been a transgender Olympian, even though trans athletes are allowed to participate in the Olympic Games.
Advocates like transgender coach Layne Ingram say this year’s wave of anti-transgender sports bills will end up deterring young kids the most — not highly competitive athletes — by robbing them of a sense of wellbeing.
Ingram said when he was a kid, he would play basketball against boys as a girl, the gender he had been assigned at birth.
“When I first started, they would look at me and say, ‘you don’t have to guard her because she’s a girl,’” Ingram said.
But then immediately, when a 10-year-old Ingram started knocking down shot after shot, the boys started guarding him as much as the other players.
Ingram transitioned five years ago and is the head women’s basketball coach at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan. He said the current barrage of sports bills make him wonder how different his own life would have been if he was banned from playing the game he loves.
“Basketball saved me,” he said. “I can’t imagine where I would be if I didn’t have basketball because it teaches you how to be a team player, it teaches you how to communicate, it teaches you how to work hard.”
When he was a kid shooting baskets, he said the only thing that mattered were his skills.
“If you can play the game, you should play. I think that’s how we need to look at it,” Ingram said.
When Rebekah Bruesehoff, the New Jersey student-athlete, joined Amanda Hofmann’s field hockey team in 2017, Hofmann had never coached a transgender athlete before. In fact, she had no clue Bruesehoff was transgender.
Her first impression of Bruesehoff came when, as a 5th grader, Bruesehoff showed some of the most genuine interest in field hockey that Hofmann had seen in her more than 20 years of coaching.
“She showed that excitement, and it was like ‘OK, we’re keeping an eye on this one,’” Hofmann said.
Hofmann said Bruesehoff is a star athlete because she gives 110% and listens to coaching feedback attentively, and that her success doesn’t stem from physical abilities.
She said the families who put their kids in sports, which includes over two-thirds of kids ages 6 to 12, should focus on affirming all athletes instead of making unsubstantiated claims about who belongs in the game.
“There’s nothing to be fearful of,” Hofmann said. “Rebekah is one of those kids who is striving to better herself, not striving to take something away from other people or take something she doesn’t earn.”