How Colleges Can Support Trans Athletes

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  • Transgender women do not have inherent physical advantages over cisgender women.
  • Anti-trans sports bills do not protect (cisgender) women; they harm (trans) women.
  • Colleges and athletics organizations must act to support trans student-athletes.

The recent explosion of anti-trans bills has cast transgender girls and women as the central political football in the conservative culture wars. In April, the NCAA released a statement saying that it "firmly and unequivocally supports" trans student-athletes but then quickly undermined that claim by selecting three states with anti-trans sports bans to host the 2021 college softball tournament.

These bills have devastating impacts on trans student-athletes' safety, well-being, and performance in the classroom and on the field. It is critical that the NCAA, National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA), college coaches, and athletic directors act to prevent and mitigate this damage.

History of Trans Inclusion in College Sports

Trans student-athletes have long participated in college sports, but only within the last decade have some of these athletes disclosed their trans status while on college teams.

In 2011, the NCAA published a handbook guiding college athletics programs on its trans inclusion policy and "how to ensure transgender student-athletes fair, respectful, and legal access to collegiate sports teams." In 2015, NIRSA did the same. Dozens of colleges and two conferences have trans inclusion policies for varsity, intramural, and club sports.

Dozens of colleges and two conferences have trans inclusion policies for varsity, intramural, and club sports.

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Across these policies and guidances, little is said about nonbinary student-athletes. Policies that include nonbinary athletes only allow them to participate based on their assigned sex. That is, nonbinary athletes assigned male can only participate on men's teams, and nonbinary athletes assigned female can only participate on women's teams.

While showing awareness of nonbinary athletes is a first step, these inflexible policies devalue and dismiss students' nonbinary identities and reaffirm the gender binary by equating sex (male, female, intersex) with gender (man, woman, nonbinary, etc.).

Do Trans Athletes Have an Advantage?

Anti-trans sports bills regurgitate myths about trans girls' and women's "advantage" over cisgender girls and women, perpetuating the transmisogynistic "man in a dress" trope that endangers trans girls and women. This trope, along with many others in the media, has detrimentally shaped the cultural narrative on trans people, as exemplified in a 2019 South Park episode.

The advantage argument has no basis in any reported issues arising from trans inclusion in sports and is scientifically unsound, as demonstrated by Joanna Harper's research on trans women athletes. Physical advantages are always a part of sports — see Michael Phelps' torso and feet or Brittney Griner's wingspan, height, and hand size.

These bills further isolate trans people from public life and do not protect cisgender women. In fact, they reinforce sexist assumptions about cisgender women being weak.

The Actual Challenges

Trans student-athletes themselves face several challenges in their pursuits to play.

  • They are almost always the only trans person on the team and have to rely on their teammates' and coaches' willingness and advocacy to ensure their safety and continued participation. This often means trans athletes have to do additional work to educate others.
  • Trans student-athletes contend with misgendering, and trans women in particular are subject to constant harassment and vitriolic heckling. This abuse may come from the opposing team and its supporters, their own team's supporters and other students on campus, the general public, the media, and even their own teammates.
  • Nonbinary student-athletes are unacknowledged in trans inclusion policies that still rely on a gender binary.
  • Enactment of anti-trans sports bills decreases trans athletes' ability to compete in K-12, be seen by college recruiters, and earn athletic scholarships. Additionally, a factor that could reduce trans students' desire to pursue athletics in K-12 would be the introduction (or, in some cases, reintroduction) of the policing of children's sex through invasive and humiliating "sex verification" practices, written into some of the bills as requirements.

These "sex verification" practices — stemming from the 1930s — overwhelmingly impact Black women and other dark-skinned women of color, whose femininity and womanhood are scrutinized against norms defined by white women's femininity. The trans girls and women who are most often and most viciously targeted in the media and by a transphobic public are Black trans girls and women, such as Terry Miller, Andraya Yearwood, and CeCé Telfer.

Transmisogynoir (the intersection of anti-Blackness, misogyny, and transphobia) ensures that trans feminine Black people have the most to lose from the enactment of these bills, including removing another pathway to college from an already vastly underrepresented population in higher education.

In addition to the many challenges that trans and nonbinary students face, these bills add further pressures on trans student-athletes, impacting their academic and athletic performances, their ability and desire to persist in college, and their mental well-being. Ironically, participation in sports is linked to improved mental health and self-esteem in youth and young adults, making these bills particularly nefarious.

Future Possibilities for Trans Athletes in College Sports

With unequivocal and actionable support from the NCAA, coaches, athletic directors, and the athletics community at large, trans athletes can be celebrated for their successes and welcomed into college sports. Some practices that can make this possible include the following:

  • Using inclusive language (e.g., dropping "lady" from team names).
  • Disconnecting participation from hormone therapy requirements (e.g., this 2018 policy enacted by Canada's college sports governing body).
  • Including nonbinary students through explicit policy inclusion and facility restructuring.
  • Educating members of the campus athletics community about trans athletes' supposed "unfair advantages."
  • Partnering across campus to dismantle transphobia (student-athletes are not only athletes).
  • Pressuring other institutions and conferences to ensure adoption of appropriate facilities and practices.
  • Informing journalists and sports commentators of student-athletes' correct pronouns, particularly for student-athletes using gender-neutral pronouns.
  • Collaborating with school districts and local LGBTQ+/trans activists to resist the adoption of anti-trans sports bills and revoke existing policies.
  • Hosting conference and championship competitions only in states and on campuses that make trans students' participation possible.

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Sports often play an important social role and can help shift U.S. culture toward gender-expansive and affirming ways of thinking. This makes the NCAA and college sports critical harbingers in advancing (or impeding) equity and inclusion for trans athletes and nonathletes.

Trans people are already leading the charge. The sports world just needs to follow.