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LGBTQ+ representation in sport is at an all-time high

Nearly 200 openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-inclusive (LGBTQ+) athletes competed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, including the first transgender and nonbinary competitors. At least 22 LGBTQ+ athletes also competed at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. These numbers are likely to be surpassed at the 2024 Paris Olympics, when LGBTQ+ fans and athletes can once again gather at Pride House on the Seine to watch LGBTQ+ athletes compete at the Games.

Source: Evan Agostini / Invision

Prominent athletes, including former USWNT star Megan Rapinoe, former NFL defensive end Carl Nassib and Team USA triathlete Chris Mosier, have publicly spoken out in favor of LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports. Organizations like Athlete Ally have committed to the same goal, while prominent companies like Adidas and Lebron James' Uninterrupted have collaborated on LGBTQ+-inclusive campaigns. Finally, in 2021, the International Olympic Committee released a policy framework to promote the inclusion and safety of LGBTQ+ athletes, and the NCAA updated its participation policy for transgender student-athletes as recently as May 2024.

According to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), LGBTQ+ identity in college sports is estimated at 14.2 percent LGBT and 1.6 percent transgender/nonbinary, although widespread underreporting is likely and these rates vary by NCAA division, sport, and political climate of institutions (Mullin, Baeth, & Vieira, 2023). The Trevor Project reports that nearly one in three LGBTQ+ youth participate in sports. With LGBTQ+ representation in sports at an all-time high, it is imperative to understand how to best support LGBTQ+ athletes in the sports field.

While some athletes tend to respond positively when coming out as LGBTQ+ to teammates, the fear of doing so (and the lack of clear evidence of support) may prevent some from coming out at all. In addition, LGBTQ+ individuals face unique stressors both inside and outside of sport, including increased mental health issues, anxiety, and negative experiences of coming out, as well as dealing with anti-LGBTQ laws. In addition, LGBTQ+ athletes are 28 times more likely to report harassment based on their identity, four times more likely to be pressured to remain silent about their identity, and six times more likely to be singled out as the “resident authority” regarding their sexual identity (Rankin & Merson, 2012). Nonbinary and transgender athletes are also excluded from sport and required to undergo invasive medical examinations and testing.

Source: Courtesy of Sounders FC Communications

Source: Courtesy of Sounders FC Communications

Ultimately, the overall climate of a sports environment directly impacts the sporting and other living conditions of LGBTQ+ athletes. Sports organizations can promote a climate of inclusion by reviewing policies related to non-discrimination, trans inclusion, sexual harassment, and codes of conduct for teams and fans. It is recommended to use LGBTQ+ inclusive language in policy documents and media releases and avoid derogatory and gendered terms.

Those working in sports organizations should respect the privacy, names, and pronouns of LGBTQ+ athletes. Ensuring access to LGBTQ+ inclusive locker rooms, uniform options, and travel and accommodation assignments is also recommended. In addition, visible signs of LGBT+ inclusion in sports venues can include Pride flags/signs and hosting Pride matches and games. Providing LGBTQ+ education for staff and athletes, such as inviting speakers or conducting training sessions (see Athlete Ally's Champions of Inclusion training), is also recommended. Finally, ensuring LGBTQ+ athletes have access to comprehensive, gender-affirming counseling and healthcare is essential.