Why LGBTQ+ Representation in College Sports Matters

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  • Some LGBTQ+ athletes experience discrimination in college sports.
  • More student-athletes are coming out, and more fans and teammates accept them.
  • LGBTQ+ role models are important for increasing visibility and creating community and inclusion for queer athletes.

Byron Perkins, a defensive back for Hampton University, recently made history as the first historically Black college or university (HBCU) football player to come out as gay. Perkins told Outsports he wants to "end the stigma of what people think" and wants "people to know they can be themselves."

Research from the Center for American Progress has shown that sports teams that make statements about LGBTQ+ equality are generally viewed positively by the public. Perkins's coming out story has the potential to inspire others on college campuses to do the same and to encourage fans to become allies in the fight against LGBTQ+ discrimination.

Here's why having out LGBTQ+ student-athletes matters.

College Sports Historically Discriminate Against LGBTQ+ Athletes

Discrimination against LGBTQ+ college athletes has been common throughout sports history — and it's still happening today.

Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Sports History

In 2006, Jennifer Harris filed a lawsuit against her Pennsylvania State University basketball coach Rene Portland, alleging discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and invasion of privacy. Portland was said to have maintained a "no alcohol, no drugs, no lesbians" policy and allegedly harassed players she thought were lesbians, even forcing them to transfer schools.

In the early 2000s, Andrea Zimbardi made similar allegations regarding discrimination by her University of Florida softball coaches. She believed her coaches, who were vocal in their religious beliefs, discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation when they kicked her off the team.

Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Sports Today

The ACLU reports that in 2020, 18 states introduced laws that would prevent transgender athletes from participating in school sports. In 2021, 31 states introduced similar laws. Boise State University college student Lindsay Hecox, represented by the ACLU, filed a lawsuit due to not being allowed to participate on the women's track team based on a new anti-trans law in Idaho.

Increased acceptance and more legal protections — for instance, the recent affirmation of Title IX including sexual orientation — may allow LGBTQ+ athletes to feel more safe being out to their teammates and coaches. Increased visibility of LGBTQ+ athletes in the media may also inspire more student-athletes to embrace LGBTQ+ individuals on their teams.

On-Field Attitudes Can Change a College's Climate

College athletes are often influencers to other students — making it important for them to be good role models and follow codes of conduct. The National Collegiate Athletic Association upholds principles that include gender equity and best practices for LGBTQ inclusion, such as promoting team allies in sports. In recent years, more athletes in schools and professional sports have emerged as allies for their LGBTQ+ teammates, demonstrating the importance of diversity and inclusion to campuses and society.

A Journal of Intercollegiate Sport study surveyed 159 college student-athletes from two public universities to measure their level of engagement as LGBTQ+ allies. The study reported that:

  • Eleven male student-athletes responded that they were not an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.
  • No women athletes indicated that they were not an ally.
  • Only women athletes reported the importance of accepting all teammates regardless of sexual orientation.
  • Respondents reported having "a responsibility to be role models on their campuses for the equal treatment of LGBTQ people."

One student-athlete even stated: "As an athlete, I am held to a higher standard, and people think more of our stances on issues. For me to voice my opinions on this matter means more than someone else in the community, in my opinion."

Playing Sports Means Better Mental Health for LGBTQ+ People

When more student-athletes come out, more LGBTQ+ people will want to join sports, which could improve their mental health starting early on. The Trevor Project's survey on LGBTQ+ youth athletes revealed the mental health benefits of participating in sports, particularly for LGBTQ+ youth.

One in three LGBTQ+ youth who played sports reported getting mostly A's. Also, LGBTQ+ youth who played sports had nearly 20% lower rates of depressive symptoms. However, most transgender and non-binary youth did not report lower rates of depressive symptoms.

These findings demonstrate that there is a significantly positive effect of participating in organized sports for many LGBTQ+ athletes. However, there are still issues to address for some students, particularly transgender and non-binary individuals, who may face barriers to playing sports due to anti-trans sentiments, policies, and violence.

Teammates Can be a Source of Support for LGBTQ+ Athletes

Another recent study conducted by Outsports, the University of Winchester, and the Sports Equality Foundation showed promising results in the experiences of 370 LGBTQ+ high school and 630 college athletes in the U.S. and Canada. In the survey, 82% of LGBTQ+ athletes reported positive experiences when they came out to their teammates.

It was also found that more college than high school students reported at least one good response to coming out from their teams (88% vs. 71%) and that the acceptance from teammates was "measurably better" than the acceptance received from schoolmates outside their teams.

Just three out of the 1,000 students reported their teammates' response as the "worst-possible scenario."

Fans Favor Teams That Support LGBTQ+ People

A Center for American Progress study examined the public's sentiments about professional sports teams that support LGBTQ+ issues. Over half of respondents said their opinion of a professional sports team would be either somewhat or significantly more positive if the team expressed support for LGBTQ+ athletes and fans and LGBTQ+-supportive laws.

5 LGBTQ+ College Athletes Changing the Game

Having role models on campus can foster a sense of community and acceptance for LGBTQ+ athletes. The following LGBTQ+ athletes have influenced sports culture.

Lia Thomas

Lia Thomas, a transgender college swimmer for the University of Pennsylvania women's team, broke school and conference records for the 2021-22 school year and won a 2022 NCAA Division I women's swimming national championship. She attends law school with a focus on civil rights and public interest law. She has advocated for other transgender athletes as well — for instance, when speaking at the Philly Trans March on her experiences and against legislation that prevents trans youth from participating in sports.

Ty Wright

Brigham Young University (BYU) track and field athlete Ty Wright, has defied expectations by finding support and acceptance among teammates at a conservative, religious university. Wright came out to his coach and teammates, a brave endeavor given BYU's Honor Code, which states that "same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code."

August Donato

Transgender student August Donato is a member of the men's rugby team at Ithaca College. Originally given a scholarship for the women's rowing team at Fordham University, Donato found himself having to choose between repressing his identity to be on the women's team or being open about his identity, which included taking testosterone. Ultimately, he was able to medically transition and play rugby at Ithaca.

Jaden Vazquez

Jaden Vazquez, a Division I college football player for Fordham University, found acceptance among his teammates when he came out as bisexual. Vazquez said to Outsports that since he has come out, "I don't get homophobic comments at all on my team, and I don't fear the jokes coming from my team." In an effort to help other LGBTQ+ athletes have similar experiences, Vazquez began leading a LGBTQ+ subgroup of a student athlete support network called Fordham Connect in 2020.

Megan Duthart

In 2020, Megan Duthart, a college rower who identifies as bisexual and queer, started theCougar Pride Student-Athlete Alliance at Washington State University. Duthart began the club in order to promote the on-campus visibility of LGBTQ+ athletes, staff members, and allies.