Identity

Trans Athletes on What It's Like to Play Sports Despite Bans and Bigots

“I’ve had to refocus my college search and look for schools in states where there aren’t active efforts to pass anti-trans bills.”
July 22, 2021, 6:34pm
Grace Siobhan McKenzie running on a rugby pitch
Photo by Jackie Finlan / The Rugby Breakdown
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A series in which people across the U.S. offer firsthand perspectives about how social issues impact their real lives.

Trans athletes have been targeted by transphobic legislation in at least 25 states so far in 2021. The majority of these bills seek to bar trans young people from participating in student athletics, including elementary, high school, and college sports.

Many of the bills are framed as a way to preserve competitive fairness, alleging that young trans athletes, and particularly trans girls, automatically have a physical advantage over cis athletes. Some transphobic lawmakers and those who agree with them also imply that trans people are predatory or deviant by pointing to hypothetical harm cis children might face by playing sports with trans children. 

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Science disproves these obviously discriminatory claims. A study by the Center for American Progress found that trans-inclusive sports policies are in no way detrimental to cis young people, nor do they have a proven effect on competitive equity. Anti-trans groups tend to focus on individualized cases in which a transgender athlete outperforms a cisgender athlete in competition, of which there are very few to begin with. 

According to the CAP study, cis children and trans children reap the same benefits from playing sports: increased self-esteem, better academic outcomes, and greater social capital. The proposal and passage of sports bans accordingly have devastating consequences on trans people’s mental health, whether or not they are athletes. The American Medical Association has explicitly warned that further social and health-related marginalization resulting from athletic bans augments the hardships trans kids already face due to stigmatization, a lack of access to gender-affirming medications and health care, and the increased risk of death by suicide than their cisgender peers. All of these dangers are directly linked to discrimination.

Anti-trans legislation predominantly stems from the organized efforts of Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been designated as a hate group by the prominent legal watchdog organization Southern Poverty Law Center because of its actions concerning LGBTQ people. The ADF has been so destructively successful at pushing these types of bans because it writes bills and makes them openly available as model legislation for groups and lawmakers in other states to directly copy, a tactic the organization also employed (and continues to use) to lobby for the passage of transphobic bathroom bills. Another anti-trans group, Promise to America’s Children, has created a similar template for anti-trans legislation. 

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State legislatures are not the only official rule-making bodies adopting policies meant to limit transgender participation in sports. Competitive organizations have begun trying to overtly exclude trans athletes. USA Powerlifting is being sued for its ban on trans athletes competing. US Masters Swimming requires trans women athletes to have completed surgery, which not all trans people want, while USA Volleyball’s ruling uses outdated and restrictive language. While the International Olympics Committee doesn’t have an outright ban on trans athletes, trans women must submit to a variety of tests proving their testosterone remains below a certain amount, which has also affected cis women.

Despite the surge of anti-trans laws and bans, trans athletes are fighting for their right to compete in the sports they love. Athletes have started petitions, sued sports’ governing bodies, and advocated for themselves against transphobic lawmakers

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VICE spoke to five young people about what it’s like to train, compete, and live as a trans athlete in today’s transphobic political climate. 

Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Grace Siobhan McKenzie (she/they), 27, San Francisco, California

Grace Siobhan McKenzie

Photo by Jackie Finlan / The Rugby Breakdown

Playing women's rugby saved my life. I started playing rugby with a community league in 2019 after beginning my medical transition. I was recruited at a lesbian bar by my now–best friend, Indigo. 

Before the sport found me, I was struggling immensely with my self-image and esteem. The early days of transition can be very daunting, and as a lifelong athlete, I thought team sports were going to be inaccessible to me as a trans woman. When I first started playing, the things that concerned me most were based around making my teammates uncomfortable. I got to practice and games super early so I could use the locker room before my cis teammates arrived so I wouldn't “offend” them with my trans body. I was always very conscious of my performance in games and practices because I was nervous about the opposing team potentially calling out my participation as a trans woman if I had a particularly good game or even scored a try or two. I even wore makeup during games to avoid being clocked!

But when I stepped on the pitch, what I found was a supportive, inclusive, and overwhelmingly queer group of women and folks who immediately became my closest friends and safety net.

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I love rugby because the game is intentionally designed so that players of any body size or shape can find a place for themselves. It's a demanding, high-impact sport that truly pushes you to the peak of your physical limits. And it's such a global community that no matter where I live or travel, I know I can find other ruggers and a welcoming team to lace up with.

Three years in, I feel so confident that I belong in women's rugby that the massively transphobic ruling from World Rugby banning trans women from the game is still completely shocking—in fact, I was shocked because I felt that sense of belonging in women’s rugby. [The ruling applies to professional international athletes—the U.S. dissented from the ban and has a more inclusive policy.] This makes me especially sad for young trans people who might be pushed out of a sport that has truly given me so much.

Although I don't intend to stop playing unless someone literally pries the ball from my hands, I'd be lying if I said I haven't had moments of doubt as to whether I truly belong in this sport, or would really be safe playing in other parts of the world, or even the country. Rugby is a big traveling sport, so I think a lot about whether I’d be risking my safety or emotional stability by playing in certain places.

I started an international petition that has nearly 20,000 signatures in opposition to World Rugby's transphobic and scientifically unsupported ban against trans women that was introduced in 2020. A group of international athletes and I then started RugbyForAll, an organization that runs social media campaigns to dispel myths about trans people in the sport of rugby. I’m also involved with Stack the Deck Against Hate, a campaign which literally takes copies of these shameful bills and recycles them into trading cards of trans athletes, which I hope will help inspire young trans people to see a place for themselves in sports. The proceeds from the cards go to Lambda Legal, a nonprofit helping to fight anti-trans bills in court. 

JayCee Cooper (she/they), 34, Minneapolis, Minnesota

JayCee Cooper

Photo by Angelica Soave / Strong Shots

I have been lifting for most of my life, mainly as a part of cross training for other sports, but I really started training to compete in 2017. The queer and trans community in powerlifting is so—excuse the puns to follow—incredibly uplifting and powerful. We experience and feel the value of physical exertion through lifting to such a profound degree. It’s a way to express ourselves, release some of the impact of trauma and oppression, and compete with our peers. Most importantly, we experience what it means to feel empowered in our bodies—the same bodies that are relentlessly scrutinized due to ignorance and misinformation.

Even before I started competing seriously at a state level, I started to volunteer with a group called Pull for Pride in 2018. The organization runs this amazing annual powerlifting event of the same name that raises money for organizations supporting the LGBTQIA2S community. Eventually, I was asked if I’d like to co-direct the program alongside Breanna Diaz, a fierce advocate and friend.

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Unfortunately, some sports organizations heavily restrict the inclusion of, and even ban, trans athletes. In the fall of 2018, when I signed up to compete in the Minnesota State Championships held by USA Powerlifting (USAPL), one of its committee chairs told me that I was not eligible to compete because I am a trans woman. My membership card was subsequently changed from an open/competing status to a non-competing one.

In early 2019, I competed in another organization’s state championships and speaking out about my experience with USAPL. Four days later, USAPL went on to adopt and publicize what many called a “blanket ban” on trans participation. It was praised highly by anti-trans groups who target trans athletes like me.

After USAPL denied my eligibility to compete, and subsequently banned trans athletes from being able to compete in the division consistent with their gender identity, Breanna Diaz and many others came together with me in solidarity to voice our opposition and offer alternatives. This included a policy proposal concerning transgender athletes that was more inclusive and in line with policies from the International Powerlifting Federation and the International Olympic Committee. 

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USAPL’s governing body rejected the policy proposal and continues to harmfully misunderstand the trans community. Because of this, I filed a human rights complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and filed an ongoing lawsuit against USAPL in the courts with the help of Gender Justice, a legal advocacy group. Breanna Diaz and I also co-founded Share the Platform, a grant program under Pull for Pride that financially supports trans, nonbinary, and intersex athletes that want to participate in fitness and strength sports.

Yasha Rieth (she/her), 21, Fort Collins, Colorado

Yasha Rieth

I started running cross-country in middle school in Spencer, Indiana during the 2013–2014 school year, and I ran every year throughout high school. I came out as trans during the second semester of my junior year. In preparation for running with the girls’ team my senior year, I met with a district administrator alongside my high school’s athletic and activities directors and my mother. We set up a plan for senior year regarding bathrooms, locker rooms, pronouns, and athletics. When I began my senior year, my coaches and I discussed that if there were ever any complaints about me participating in sports, that the coaches and the school, not me, would be the point of contact, as a precaution for my safety. 

My track team was overall supportive of my transition. A majority of the team knew me, since I had run with the school’s team since freshman year, but the new runners were also kind and supportive and involved me as much as any other female runner.

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The narrative that trans athletes have unfair advantages and are taking away from the purpose of sport was definitely hurtful. When the discussion of these issues came up while I was in high school, it was very stressful for me. I suffered from anxiety during the track season in my senior year. I had intrusive thoughts about whether someone would try to hurt me during a race, or if any angry parent would come forward saying I took a spot away from their daughter. You’re already in the middle of a race—that’s not helpful.

I had a group of core people, including an administrator and certain teammates, who were my main support during these times of stress and anxiety, but most of the time, I’d just have to push through it. I wasn’t willing to let my anxiety stop me from running. I have moments come up from time to time now, but much less frequently than before. Now that I’m two years out of high school and eight months into taking hormones, I’ve come more into myself and tried to distance myself from negative people and experiences. 

I continue to run and bike weekly. I participate in local races every year. I’m currently in community college completing my associate’s degree, and once I do, I’m looking to continue my running career at whichever university I transfer to. 

I’m definitely still worried about how many states are attempting to pass and have successfully passed anti-trans bills. Even some states that have been considered safe in the past are trying to pass these bills, which is affecting me directly: I had planned to attend the University of Montana in Missoula, but since the state passed HB 112, banning trans athletes from college, intramural, and public sports in early May, I’ve had to refocus my college search and look for schools in states where there aren’t active efforts to pass similar bills. Now, I’m looking at local schools here in Colorado and the University of Oregon in Eugene. Being an athlete is a huge part of my identity, and running is a coping mechanism and a lifestyle for me. 

Mack Karam Beggs (he/him), 22, Mobile, Alabama

Mack Karam Beggs

I wrestle and do other mixed martial arts. Mixed martial arts prepared me for life mentally and physically. I play these sports to develop the person I am, and they’ve helped me go through life feeling able to handle anything thrown my way. There’s no other athletic outlet that has pushed me to be a better human being in society and this world.

I’ve had to endure roadblocks to doing sports, mainly, others’ judgement and a lawsuit that an ex-coach of mine filed against me in high school to ban me from participating in sports. It was squashed—the judge threw it out. I felt betrayed, since I thought I was close to that person and I trusted them, but I was supported by another coach—he was like my wrestling dad, and I knew I could go to him with anything—and my family. I have a really good support system who did their best to shield me from the lawsuit—I was just a kid. I’ve had many supportive wrestling coaches in my life so far, from the national level to the club level, as well as plenty of MMA coaches.

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Sports are life-saving. Today, I don’t want other kids who are battling anti-trans bills to have to struggle to play with the gender they identify as. I don’t want them to have the concept that being trans is negative. I’m lucky to have a platform on multiple social media platforms, where I’m able to talk about mental health, living a healthy lifestyle, spirituality, and sports. With this platform, I want to show people who do not understand transgender people or people who don’t fit into the gender binary that we are equal. 

One day, I want to have kids and create a family. If my child was trans, I would want them to have all the same rights as any other person. I’m doing a lot of civic work, indirectly and directly, with different nonprofits, advocacy campaigns, and by sharing my own story within my career as an athlete. I ultimately want to work on transgender rights as a global issue. I definitely have hero aspirations to change the world.

Drew Lopez (she/her), 19, Pembroke Pines, Florida

I started rowing my freshman year of college at Tulane University after becoming friends with people who were on the team. At the time, I was not out as trans, but I had been on HRT for more than a year. I joined the men’s walk-on team and because I wasn’t in shape and my hormones were changing, I was by far the worst on the team. It was a weird spot to be in because I couldn’t explain why my times were so bad, but my team started to respect me regardless because I never missed practice and always volunteered to take the heaviest boats to the water. 

When I originally joined, I just planned to leave when I came out, but I found that I actually loved the sport, and I loved being part of a team. 

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In order to officially move to the women’s team, I came out to my coach, though some people on the women’s team already knew I was trans. He simply asked me, “Do you identify as a woman?” 

I said, “Yes.” 

He responded, “Congratulations, you are now on the women’s team.” 

I remember holding in my emotions, but when we got in the vans to get back to school from the boathouse, I cried for longer than I expected. Turns out, my coach actually helped create a rule in USRowing allowing any student to play with the team with which they identify. A day later, I told everyone on both teams that I was trans and switching teams, and they all treated me with kindness and respect. I had built it up as such an issue, since my transition had been hard before that, and it was so refreshing to have everyone be like, This isn’t a problem—this isn’t weird.

Since I go to private school in Louisiana, none of the anti-trans legislation that was being worked on in the state affected my ability to play. Because rowing competitions are usually governed by outside organizations and the state laws would only affect sports at public universities, so I wasn’t worried for myself, even though the people who make the laws are basing them on hypotheticals, so I was nervous about being singled out. I still did my best to try and organize against these laws.

At the end of last year, I was elected Vice President of Academic Affairs at my college, a position I’ll serve in next year. I hoped to use the position in student government to reach out to other schools to urge them to vote on a resolution for their schools to publicly stand against the transphobic laws being pushed in different states. I even wrote slightly different versions for different states, depending on the bills and laws being pushed in each place. This was an overwhelming task to take on while the student government’s senate had been newly elected and was in a transition period between the departing and incoming senators, but I was able to get Tulane University and the University of Chicago to pass a resolution condemning transphobic state laws. I hope to continue this work when school starts again in the fall and that more schools will pick up the message. My team became such a support for me, and it’s hard to imagine kids losing the opportunity to have that support for themselves, too.

Follow Reina Sultan on Twitter.

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