Meet Athlete Ally, the Nonprofit Championing LGBTQ+ Inclusion and Equity in Sports

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Sports have always been more than just a game. While basketball and baseball are relatively new to the history of humankind, our love of athletics can be dated as far back as 2600 B.C., with wrestling being the first known recreational sport of choice. One of the greatest unifiers, sports brings people from all walks of life together to celebrate feats of the human mind and body. For athletes themselves, sports can provide a space for community, self expression, and potentially a lucrative career path.

Sadly, politicians and anti-trans activists have turned stadiums and fields into battlegrounds over transgender athletes' right to exist. As part of the nationwide backlash against transgender people, 22 states have passed laws banning trans students from competing in sports aligned with their gender identity.  In April, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill that bars trans women and girls from competing in the sport category that aligns with their chosen gender. Even sports regulatory bodies like World Athletics (which governs track and field competitions) have ruled to exclude transgender women from competing in women's events.

Experts In This Article
  • Joanna Hoffman, Joanna Hoffman is the director of communications at Athlete Ally, a non-profit organization that champions LGBTQIA+ inclusivity in sports.
  • Lauryn Thompson, Lauryn Thompson is a forward on Texas State University’s women’s basketball team as well as a social justice activist who champions for inclusivity in sports.

Proponents of these bans claim they are protecting women and ensuring fairness in sport. But LGBTQ+ advocates say there are very few trans athletes even attempting to publicly compete in school sports. Instead, bans on transgender people's rights primarily affect the safety and well-being of trans people themselves. According to The Trevor Project, 86 percent of transgender and nonbinary adolescents say that public debates around anti-trans bills have negatively impacted their mental health. Roughly 45 percent of trans youth report experiencing cyberbullying as a result of recent anti-LGBTQ+ policies, and nearly one in three reported “not feeling safe to go to the doctor or hospital when they were sick or injured.”

“Just thinking about the experiences that I've had, I think it's really heartbreaking that anyone would be denied access to the sport that they love, or would feel like they have to drop out of sports because they can't participate as who they are.” – Joanna Hoffman, Director of Communications, Athlete Ally

Avid runner and longtime nonprofit organizer Joanna Hoffman knows first-hand the magic that can surround sports, which is why she’s dedicated her career to fighting for LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports. “I’ve been running my whole life,” says Hoffman. “Just thinking about the experiences that I've had, I think it's really heartbreaking that anyone would be denied access to the sport that they love, or would feel like they have to drop out of sports because they can't participate as who they are.”

Five years ago, this passion for athletic inclusivity led Hoffman to become the director of communications for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization and advocacy group that aims to end homophobia and transphobia in sports. The organization, which was founded by University of Maryland collegiate wrestler and activist Hudson Taylor, joins a rising network of groups that push for policy changes in sports in order to create a safe, welcoming environment for athletes of all backgrounds and orientations.

According to Hoffman, the harm caused by excluding young trans athletes goes beyond the devastating feelings of being left out.

“It isolates them, it deprives them of all of the mental and physical benefits that sports brings, and we know from research that when kids are a part of sports, their grades go up, their overall health goes up, they're more likely to be leaders later in life,” says Hoffman. “It changes the trajectory of a child's life when they're able to participate in sports. When they lose all of that access, they lose all of those benefits and those opportunities. And I think just more devastating is the message it sends them, which is ‘you don't get to exist here.'"

How Athlete Ally champions LGBTQ+ athletes

One of the primary ways that Athlete Ally seeks to change the landscape of sports is through education, says Hoffman. “We find that often the people who most need to be educated about LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports are educated the least, so we try to meet that gap,” she says. In 2018, the nonprofit launched Champions of Inclusion, an online video module curriculum for athletic departments that educates coaches and athletic leaders about issues facing LGBTQ+ athletes, plus ways that they can foster a more inclusive environment for their teams.

Athlete Ally, which now has over 30 chapters of coaches and student-athletes across the United States, also hosts in-person training courses across the country at some of the nation’s top colleges, universities, and sports institutions (NBA and MLB, just to name a few). At these trainings, led by Hoffman, Taylor, policy and program director Anne Lieberman, and director of research Dr. Anna Baeth, attendees learn about sexuality and gender, obstacles that queer and trans athletes face, and how to enforce sustainable, inclusive policies and practices.

The nonprofit also launched a first-of-its-kind ranking system that judges collegiate athletic departments on their efforts to include LGBTQ+ athletes in their sports programs. Called the Athletic Equality Index, this system ranks institutions on several criteria, including if their athletic staff are required to take educational trainings and if they have nondiscrimination policies in place that protect queer and trans athletes.

Beyond education, Athlete Ally has collected numerous wins for inclusion in sports since its inception. The nonprofit launched the campaign Principle 6, which successfully pushed the International Olympic Committee to include sexual orientation in the Olympic Charter (protecting LGBTQIA+ athletes from discrimination). The organization also works with trans athletes like powerlifter JayCee Cooper in their individual fights against discrimination. Earlier this year, Cooper won a discrimination lawsuit against national powerlifting organization USAPL after a judge ruled it had violated Human Rights Act’s anti-discrimination statutes. Athlete Ally worked closely with Cooper's legal team, Gender Justice, to craft a communications strategy surrounding her case.

Seeing high-profile coverage of trans athletes succeeding (on the playing field or in a courtroom) can instill hope in queer youth athletes, says Hoffman. “When they see a victory like this, it tells them that they can continue to play the sport that they love, that they don't have to turn away from sports, they don't have to make a horrible choice of either being who they are and having to leave sport, or having to be someone they are not just to be able to keep playing.”

Continuing the fight for inclusivity in sports

While there's still plenty of work to be done in the fight for queer and trans rights, Athlete Ally is setting the stage for a new generation of informed, confident activists through youth outreach.  In mid-June, Athlete Ally hosted the Athlete Activism Summit in Seattle, Washington in partnership with Adidas and University of Washington Athletic Department. This week-long summit brought student athletes, coaches, and administrators together to celebrate Pride Month through team-building activities and educational seminars.

Texas State University women’s basketball forward and graduate student Lauryn Thompson, 23, says that the summit left her feeling energized to continue the fight for inclusivity in collegiate sports. Thompson, who founded TSU’s Black Student-Athlete Alliance organization, walked Seattle’s Pride parade for the first time—right alongside Athlete Ally ambassadors.

“I was so excited to get out to the summit so I could connect with other like-minded student athletes and professionals who are interested in inclusiveness in sports,” says Thompson, who hopes that the intersectionality of marginalized groups remains at the forefront of conversations about sports equity. “I'm very encouraged and pushed to tell people that when we speak on inclusiveness, that means from all races, and all avenues, and all perspectives.”

Looking ahead, Hoffman says that strong allyship can help propel us toward a more inclusive playing field in sports. Effective allyship, says Hoffman, is the tie that binds marginalized athletes to those who have the legislative power to protect their human rights. Through education and community outreach,  Hoffman hopes that finally, trans athletes can participate in the magic of sports, too–without having to stifle their identities.

“It shouldn't just be on LGBTQ folks to be that voice every time–we need allies,” says Hoffman. “We need allies not just during Pride month, but all the time.”

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