OPINION: Trans students simply want to play the sports they love – and inclusion is the way to go

by Kathy Johnson Clarke | Gymnastics Commentator
Friday, 16 April 2021 08:47 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Players from the Herriman Mustangs (L) and the Davis Darts (R) square off during a game between the two high school teams, the first regular season football game in the United States since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic began, at Herriman High School in Herriman, Utah, U.S. August 13, 2020. REUTERS/George Frey

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As a former Olympic women's gymnast, I believe trans people should be fully included in sport

Kathy Johnson Clarke is a former elite gymnast, a two-time Olympic medalist, a college gymnastics commentator, and one of the first American gymnasts to win a major international medal

Being an athlete has taught me some of the greatest lessons of my life. I believe the same is true for so many Americans – athletics are woven into the fabric of our lives. From the tee-ball field to the neighborhood basketball court to the college football stadium, we turn to sports to learn how to work as a team, play fair, believe in ourselves, and communicate with others. We pass these values from one generation to the next, one athlete at a time. 

That’s why I was overjoyed to see USA Gymnastics honor the best values of our athletic tradition by adopting a new policy on the inclusion of transgender and non-binary athletes. As a former Olympic gymnast, a sports commentator, and an advocate for all athletes, I believe that every professional sports league should follow its lead.

It’s also why I feel passionately that state legislators in places like Florida, Montana, and Texas should not be passing laws that would categorically ban trans students from playing on school sports teams.

These bills do nothing to make sports safer and more equitable, and they are counter to the values we stand for as athletes. 

I know what it takes to be an elite athlete, and I have witnessed thousands of young athletes excel in their collegiate athletic careers in recent years. To be clear, much-needed policy updates are long past due, because it’s always the right time to choose fairness and equal opportunity. But the elite athletes of today are especially ready for this change. They are coming of age in a different world than the one I did – a world in which the rights and identities of trans and non-binary people are finally starting to be respected and protected. This is a good thing for all of us.  

The new USA Gymnastics policy is backed by experts and based in science. And USA Gymnastics isn’t the first to cement its commitment to inclusion.

From high school athletic associations nationwide to the International Olympic Committee, it’s reassuring that many institutions have long had policies in place that are inclusive of trans athletes and create pathways to participation for all aspiring athletes. But, more importantly, these policies are the right thing to do.

Trans athletes participate in sports for the same reasons as everyone else: to get and stay healthy, be part of a team, be a part of a sport they love, and ultimately, to strive for excellence. When trans athletes are excluded from participation on teams that align with their gender identity, the result is often that they are excluded from sports altogether. We shouldn’t be keeping people off teams and barring them from playing simply because of who they are. 

As a country, our goal should be for every person to be able to participate in sports and succeed. For too long, we have excluded trans and non-binary people from athletics, and from so many other areas of public life. Thanks to the work of organizations like Freedom for All Americans, Athlete Ally, and now USA Gymnastics, sports associations across this country are starting to see how critical it is that we shed these longstanding exclusionary policies.

So far this year, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas have passed laws banning trans youth from playing sports. Other states should not make the mistake of passing similarly dangerous bills that ban young people from participating in such an important childhood activity. 

It can be difficult to understand what it means to be transgender, especially for those of us who have never met a trans person. I understand that. But as more people learn about this topic and get to know their trans neighbors, I am confident we’ll be able to build a shared understanding and find common ground.

Let’s move forward together, treat each other with dignity and respect, and build a culture of athletics that is truly open to all. 

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