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 tryouts 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.
Amid a national debate over whether transgender women should be prohibited from competing with cisgender women, Jamie Bruesehoff, Rebekah’s mom, worries 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.
As 29 state legislatures debate bills that would ban transgender girls and women from girl’s and women’s sports, family members and experts warn of potential long-lasting negative impacts on LGBTQ kids. Trans athletes and their allies say groups promoting 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 transitions.
According to a Gallup survey released this year, 0.6% of the American adult population are transgender. Among Gen Z adults, ages 18 to 23, 2% identify as transgender. Overall, 5.6% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ, and 15.9% of Gen Z claim 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 targeted by anti-transgender legislation.
“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 contributed to International Olympic Committee policy.
“Bathroom bills,” which attempted to restrict access to restrooms on the basis of sex assigned at birth, as well as the transgender military ban under President Donald Trump, are recent examples of such rules.
This year’s crop of bills targeting transgender students would limit participation in extracurricular activities.
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.
Hear more interviews from sources by clicking play on the audio below
Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas banned transgender women and girls from participating in women’s sports, and other states such as North Carolina, Alabama and Montana, are debating similar measures.
Groups pushing for bills targeting trans women and girls include Save Women’s Sports and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization behind a 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.
In 2020, a 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, Austin.
Russell said he’s worried about the ramifications of calls to exclude transgender kids, such as negative physiological, mental health and behavioral effects.
LGBTQ people, racial minorities and women can experience discriminatory stress when they’re treated differently from 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, Cooper was competing as a powerlifter, when USA Powerlifting stripped her of the opportunity, based on her gender identity.
She received an email from the organization in December 2018 saying “male-to-female transgenders are not allowed to compete as females.”
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 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 death threats she’s received.
Ivy said she often faces transphobic verbal attacks from spectators, fellow competitors and officials.
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 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 is one of the most famous and successful transgender women athletes, claiming two world championships in women’s track cycling.
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
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.
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.
Data from the International Olympic Committee 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 could 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’
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 executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.
The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group says it aims to foster more inclusivity by advocating for guidelines for transgender women and girl athletes. The group’s strategy has faced criticism from other leaders in the sports world.
The group asked 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. It wants transgender women and girls who don’t meet those criteria to compete in separate heats and games, an idea LGBTQ advocates deem impractical and exclusionary given the comparably small population of transgender athletes compared with cisgender athletes.
None of the working group’s members is 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.
In August 2020, two members of the working group signed a letter to the NCAA on behalf of Save Women’s Sports, a national organization activists accuse of stoking fears about protecting cisgender women from “biological males,” a term they call transphobic.
“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 this month. “I never imagined dealing with this, but POTUS left us no choice. One of his first acts was to sign an EO (executive order) 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
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.
There has never been a transgender Olympian, even though trans athletes are allowed to participate in the Olympic Games.
Advocates such as transgender coach Layne Ingram said this year’s wave of anti-transgender sports bills will deter young kids the most – not highly competitive athletes – by robbing them of a sense of well-being.
Ingram said that when he was a kid, he played 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.
As soon as 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 barrage of sports bills makes him wonder how different his 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. In fact, she had no clue Bruesehoff was transgender.
Her first impression came when, as a fifth 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 that 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 more than 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.”