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(Content note: The following article contains mention of suicidal thoughts.)

When I was four years old, my top priorities included having Kraft Macaroni & Cheese for dinner, building a taller tower out of wooden blocks than my pre-K classmates, and hanging out at soccer practice with my friends. However, if I was a four-year-old today, I wouldn’t be permitted to participate on a boys’ soccer team in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Montana, or Tennessee. By the time I was in middle school this would also be true in South Dakota, and by high school in West Virginia. Why are so many states denying me access to youth sports? Simply because I am transgender.

Ample studies show the mental health benefits of sports participation: decreased risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts, and increased sense of self-esteem and self-confidence. Despite these facts, lawmakers are creating a devastating reality that denies the benefits of sports to transgender youth, a population already at higher risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. The Trevor Project found that 70% of trans and nonbinary youth experienced symptoms of major depressive disorder and 77% experienced symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, compared to 53% and 65% of their cisgender LGBTQ+ peers, respectively. They also found that trans and nonbinary youth who had access to gender-affirming school environments were less likely to attempt suicide. The evidence is clear: Sports save lives. 

Still, during this legislative session alone, at least 75 anti-transgender athlete bills were introduced across more than 30 states. Many of these bills target kids as young as pre-K age. These young trans kids could benefit tremendously from friendships with teammates and the guidance of caring coaches. That’s what I remember most about youth sports: the incredible community.

Following my introduction to athletics via toddler soccer, I explored other sports: T-ball, tennis, basketball, cross country, track and field, and field hockey. My natural athleticism combined with my competitive spirit benefitted me immensely, but my best memories are not my times, stats, or win-loss record. My best memories are passing around orange slices during halftime at soccer games; singing on the bus ride to cross country meets; introducing my running mentor (who I absolutely idolized) to my mom for the first time; and celebrating the end of our field hockey season with a team potluck. Years after I stopped competing in sports, my memories are not about my athletic performance—they are about my athletics family.

As a teenager, I struggled immensely with my mental health. I was that one out of two transgender and nonbinary youth who seriously considered suicide. I missed a month of my sophomore year of high school and nearly two months of my senior year due to severe depression and anxiety. It was my teammates and coaches who got me through. Even when I tried to push them away so they would not see me so vulnerable, my teammates and coaches kept reaching out. They lifted me up when I felt I was not worthy of anyone’s support.

After years of suppressing my true self and fearing that I would lose the unwavering support of my athletics community, I came out as transgender. The first two people I told were teammates on my college field hockey team. With their support, I reached out to my head coach. I knew my teammates had my back even if my coach did not. Luckily, my coach was incredible and remains to this day one of my fiercest supporters. Though I was forced to quit field hockey to receive the life-saving gender-affirming health care I need, my athletics family has never left my side. When I was hospitalized for mental health reasons, it was my coach who picked me up at the end of treatment. When anxiety and gender-related imposter syndrome overwhelmed me, it was my teammates who listened to me talk as we walked circles around campus for hours into the night.

My team and I are with each other through the good times, too: winning the conference championship, bragging about each others’ accomplishments, and now celebrating the wedding of the first teammate I came out to. I am here and alive and thriving today because of and alongside my athletics family. All trans and nonbinary kids should share that experience.

What can we do to achieve this? Fight for the inclusion of trans kids in sports. Educate yourself. Follow trans and nonbinary athletes on social media. Call and write to lawmakers about inclusive legislation. Speak out when you witness a trans person getting harassed. Proactively create a trans-inclusive team culture so kids feel safe coming out.

Sport has the unique power of bringing people together in an environment of unparalleled support and camaraderie. It gives kids the space to figure out who they are, to challenge themselves to be better, to learn how to fail and keep going, and to know what true friendship is. Every kid deserves that space.

My ask is simple: Let kids play.

Emet Marwell (he/him) is a lifelong athlete, intersectional feminist, and passionate advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion. In his free time, Emet enjoys hiking with his dog, Foxtrot.