Transgender sports ban could fuel more bullying, suicide risk among LGBTQ kids, experts say

Utah recently became the 12th state in the U.S to pass a law barring transgender girls from participating in school sports matching their gender identity.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students at West High School stage a walkout on Wednesday, April 6, 2022 to protest HB11, which bans transgender girls from participating in female school sports.

Editor’s note • This article discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255. Utah also has crisis lines statewide and the SafeUT app offers immediate crisis intervention services for youths and a confidential tip program.

Legislation targeting transgender individuals could fuel more bullying and increase the suicide risk among LGBTQ youth, mental health experts have warned.

A January poll by The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, found that nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ kids said debates surrounding state laws that restrict the rights of transgender people have impacted their mental health in a negative way.

James McGraw, a researcher at the University of Maryland Prevention Research Center who focuses on LGBTQ mental health disparities, said legislation targeting transgender kids sends a message that they don’t belong. He is concerned that message could increase transgender students’ suicide risk and lead to more bullying in schools.

The Utah Legislature recently passed a bill in March banning transgender girls from participating on school sports teams matching their gender identity, becoming the 12th state in the nation to pass such a law.

“There’s just no question that legislation that targets LGBTQ youth is adding additional stigma,” said McGraw, who grew up in Utah. “It’s going to have a negative effect on youth mental health.”

McGraw is not alone in his concern.

“Cruel and unnecessary”

From “bathroom bills” to participation in school sports, state leaders throughout the country have introduced legislation in recent years restricting the rights of transgender individuals. This year, for example, Idaho lawmakers sought to criminalize parents who seek out gender-affirming health care for their transgender children.

Supporters of the ban have argued that the law protects the integrity of women’s sports. They also have pointed to Lia Thomas, a college swimmer who is a transgender woman, who has stirred debate on transgender athletes competing in sports.

Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, calls such policies “cruel and unnecessary.”

“They are unpopular among a majority of Americans,” Ames said in a statement. “Criminalizing doctors, isolating trans youth from their support systems, and stigmatizing conversations around LGBTQ identity will only fuel more bullying, anxiety, and suicide risk among these youth.”

Utah State University assistant professor Tyler Lefevor, who specializes in LGBTQ mental health, said legislation targeting transgender students may also be seen as foreshadowing by LGBTQ kids who worry about what restrictions lawmakers may enact in the future.

“I think the biggest impact for LGBTQ youth is the idea that people are actively debating them,” Lefevor said. “Any sort of ruling that comes across as restrictive or prohibitive would lead people to feel more fear that other rights, that other things more important things will get taken away.”

In Lefevor’s own social circle, he said, friends have worried whether lawmakers would seek to repeal same-sex marriage or instill bans on gender-affirming health care.

In a letter explaining his veto, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox — who has been a vocal supporter of Utah’s LGBTQ youth and served on a community suicide prevention task force while lieutenant governor — warned of the bill’s consequence to children’s mental health.

“Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live,” he wrote to the Legislature’s Republican leadership.

McGraw said it is vital for LGBTQ youth to find or build support systems in the home, classroom or workspace.

For allies or supporters of the queer community, Lefevor recommends becoming educated on LGBTQ issues and vocabulary, as well as wearing visible markers of support, like a pride or a transgender pride flag pin.

Building community through sports

When Jacob Buck first moved to Salt Lake City from Chicago, he noticed an insufficient number of LGBTQ spaces, outside of bars, in the capital city.

So in 2019, Buck helped start an LGBTQ community sports league for adults in Salt Lake City. And since its launch, the Stonewall Sports chapter has had about 1,400 people participate in the sports league that includes kickball, dodgeball and other activities.

Buck said he has talked with the chapter’s board members about creating a summer sports league for LGBTQ youth, particularly for those who don’t feel accepted on their schools’ sports teams.

“Sports aren’t just for athleticism,” he said. “They provide a lot of teamwork skills, learning how to communicate, being dedicated to something or just like being part of a team.”

For some people, McGraw said being involved in sports can act as a method of suicide prevention. By preventing transgender children from playing on sports teams, it can make it harder for them to “build lives worth living,” he explained.

Buck recalls a woman joining the sports league after a divorce who later claimed being involved in the league “saved her life.”

“I’ve heard that from multiple people that it was finally somewhere that they could go and know that they would be included and not judged,” Buck said.