You are here

Mind, Body and Sport: Harassment and discrimination – LGBTQ student-athletes

An excerpt from the Sport Science Institute’s guide to understanding and supporting student-athlete mental wellness

By Susan Rankin and Genevieve Weber

Perhaps nowhere is the expression “the only constant is change” more evident than in higher education. The experiences of college students, including student-athletes, are ever changing, which means that faculty, staff, coaches and administrators have to recognize and act on these changes or they will quickly find themselves left behind.

Those of us who work with students who identify within the queer-spectrum (bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer, pansexual, same-gender loving, etc.) or the trans-spectrum (androgynous, gender-nonconforming, gender-queer, transfeminine, transmasculine, transgender, etc.) can attest to the extensive changes that members of these groups have experienced just in the last decade.

The settings of college campuses have improved for queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum students over the years; yet, when research examines the experiences of queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum students, one group – student-athletes – is routinely absent from studies.

One of the biggest changes has been the age at which students disclose their sexual identity. From the 1970s through 1990s, it was commonplace for queer-spectrum individuals who were planning on attending college, especially if the college was away from home, to wait until they were on campus and had developed new friends before they disclosed their identity. This disclosure is colloquially known as “coming out.”

In some cases, the students were not delaying disclosure, but simply did not recognize themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer (LGBQ) until they met others like themselves and were in a more supportive environment. Today, with a growing number of gay-straight alliances in middle and high schools, the availability of online resources and (for student-athletes) the rising number of professional athletes who are “coming out,” students more readily understand themselves to be attracted to others of the same sex/gender and often come out in high school and, increasingly, in middle school.

Although there has been an increased focus in the professional literature on the experiences and perceptions of queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum college students, there is limited research examining sexual identity and transgender identity in intercollegiate athletics.

In this section, we offer a review of the influence of campus climate on the well-being of queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum college students, including those who identify as student-athletes. We summarize a large amount of empirical and conceptual research related to the collegiate experiences and perceptions of queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum non-athletes in the absence of student- athlete-focused research. This is based on the assumption that the unique stress related to sexual and gender identity development influences both queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum student-athletes and non-athletes alike.

Campus climate within athletics

Historically, athletics programs on college or university campuses might be sources of specific concerns for queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum students. Studies have shown that despite the diversity of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geographic background and even sexual orientation, coaches, administrators and student-athletes nonetheless often exhibit heterosexist and homophobic attitudes.

One study of five Division I campuses in fact explored how athletics teams respond to diversity, including race, gender, socioeconomic level, geographic region and sexual orientation. The authors noted that “questions about sexual orientation brought about the most highly charged responses.” Many also denied that LGBT individuals were members of their teams or expressed negative reactions to the idea of having LGBT team members. The overall message from the findings was that hostility toward gay men and lesbians exists on nearly all teams and at all the case study sites.

In one of the first studies to comprehensively explore the perceptions and experiences of student-athletes with regard to campus climate, we developed and tested the Student-Athlete Climate Conceptual Frame, which suggests that individual and institutional characteristics directly influence both how student-athletes experience climate and a variety of educational outcomes unique to student-athletes. At the same time, student-athletes’ experiences of climate can also influence these educational outcomes.

The findings offered that climate significantly affects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) student-athletes’ academic and athletics outcomes. LGBTQ student-athletes generally experience and perceive a more negative climate than their heterosexual peers. These negative experiences with climate adversely influence their athletics identities and reports of academic success. Although sexual identity is not a direct predictor of academic success or athletics identity, the way LGBTQ student-athletes experience the climate significantly influences both.

Thirty years of research underscore the disproportionately higher rates of depressive symptoms, substance use/abuse, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum youth.

Experiences with harassment place queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum individuals at high risk for alcohol and drug use/abuse, and previous studies have noted that binge drinking is more prevalent among LGB college students than their heterosexual counterparts and that there is a relationship between psychological distress and alcohol use for LGB college students.

Other studies found that sexual-minority college students were more likely to experience and witness incivility (disrespectful behaviors) and hostility (overt violence), and personal incivility and witnessing hostility were associated with greater odds of problematic drinking. These studies and others generally conclude that experiences with minority stress place LGB individuals at high risk for adverse mental health outcomes, including alcohol and drug use/abuse.

The social stigma and discrimination associated with LGBTQ identities are contributing factors to the elevated rates of depression and suicide as well. Discrimination at the individual level (hostility, harassment, bullying and physical violence) and institutional level (laws and public policies) have been identified as risk factors for depression, social isolation and hopelessness, which in turn place LGBTQ people at risk for contemplating suicide.

Among college students, extant studies also indicate that sexual minorities are at increased risk for poorer mental health, including suicide attempts. LGB students have been found to be more depressed, lonely, and had fewer reasons for living compared with heterosexual students.

How athletics departments can help

While many of the experiences of LGBTQ student- athletes are similar to the general population, there are several ways in which their lives are very different from their heterosexual peers. Overall, “in-house” harassment, or harassment experienced at practice or similar athletics-related events, whether intentional or not, is the most prevalent kind experienced by our respondents. It follows, therefore, that athletics departments have the power to improve the collegiate experiences of all student-athletes through cooperation with athletics personnel, student- athletes and faculty members at their institutions.

However, to effectively address the experiences of LGBTQ student-athletes in particular, it behooves athletics personnel to look beyond the obvious and attend to the myriad ways in which LGBTQ student-athletes encounter discrimination and harassment as they strive to achieve both academic and athletics success as well as overall well-being in college.

We propose the following best practices for creating positive campus climates for queer-spectrum and trans-spectrum student-athletes.

The power of language. First, we encourage the use of language that extends beyond the binaries in all of the following recommended potential best practices. Many individuals do not fit the socially constructed definitions of gender identity, sexual identity and gender expression. Language instills and reinforces cultural values, thereby helping to maintain social hierarchies. While definitions facilitate discussion and the sharing of information, terminology remains subject to both cultural contexts and individual interpretation. As a result, the terminology that people use to describe themselves and their communities is often not universally accepted by everyone within these communities.

Therefore, it is recommended that we value the voices of those within our campus communities and use language that reflects their unique experiences. It is important for athletics personnel to familiarize themselves with the language offered in the beginning of this article with respect to LGBTQ communities. Using inclusive language provides a sense of safety for LGBTQ student-athletes.

Finally, the frequent use of derogatory language such as “faggot,” “that’s so gay,” or “dyke” are common sources of harassment experienced by LGBTQ student- athletes. Language is powerful and has a significant impact on LGBTQ student-athlete success. To create a more inclusive environment, we encourage athletics personnel to respond quickly to end the use of derogatory language aimed at LQBTQ student-athletes.

Offer a visible and supportive presence. There are multiple venues where intercollegiate athletics can offer a visible and supportive presence. This serves two goals: (1) It lets the LGBTQ community know that intercollegiate athletics at your institution is knowledgeable of the issues/concerns facing the LGBTQ community and stands as an ally in the fight against anti-LGBTQ bias, and (2) It provides an environment for LGBTQ student-athletes and athletics personnel to feel safe and supported in acknowledging their sexual and/or gender identities.

  • Create an athletics department or individual team videos (PSAs) that show your support of LGBTQ people and student-athletes. New York University ( and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, ( have developed videos to give you an example.
  • Support LGBTQ events on your campus (for example, National Coming Out Day; Day of Silence, LGBTQ Pride Week) by encouraging student-athletes and athletics personnel to attend the events. Just standing in solidarity alongside LGBTQ students and allies will speak volumes with regard to your support and may encourage them to attend more athletics events. If your institution has an LGBT Resource Center, they can provide a calendar of events. For a list of LGBTQ Resource Centers or other support services available on your campus, go to the Consortium of Higher Education Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Professionals home page at

Develop inclusive policies. Policies that explicitly welcome LGBTQ student-athletes, coaches and athletics personnel powerfully express the commitment of an athletics department and, based on the results of this project, will add to team success (winning!). Individuals will be more likely to be open about their sexual identity or gender identity when they know that the institution is supportive. When individuals do not have to expend energy hiding aspects of their identity, they are able to focus on team and individual goals.

Our recommendations include:

  • Develop/enforce inclusive policies. If your institution does not have a nondiscrimination policy inclusive of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, and gender expression, you can work with senior administrators to adopt one.
  • Develop fair and consistent enforcement (consequences) for incidents related to the inclusive nondiscrimination policies.
  • Prohibit homophobic, transphobic, and heterosexist behavior and language by fans at athletics events.
  • Include sexual identity and gender identity in the athletics department’s student-athlete handbook.
  • Include sexual identity and gender identity in the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) publications.
  • Extend health insurance coverage to athletics personnel’s same-gender partners/spouses.
    • If the institution does offer health insurance coverage, “gross up” wages for employees who enroll for these benefits to cover the added tax burden from the imputed value of the benefit that appears as income for the employee.
    • If the institution cannot offer health insurance coverage to employees’ same-gender partners/spouses, offer cash compensation to employees to purchase their own health insurance for same-gender partners/spouses.
  • Include sexual identity and gender identity issues and concerns or representations of people with various sexual identities and gender identities in the following:
    • Application for student-athlete financial aid/athletics grants-in-aid
    • Student-athlete health intake forms
    • Alumni materials/publications
  • Offer students who identify outside the gender binary the ability to self-identify their gender identity/gender expression, if they choose, on standard forms. For example:
    • Application for admission
    • Application for housing
    • Student health intake form
  • Provide appropriate health care for transgender student-athletes.

Increase awareness of LGBTQ issues and concerns. Since LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ individuals are socialized into a homophobic and heterosexist society, athletics community members need the space to question and examine unfounded attitudes and beliefs.

Acknowledging the contributions of LGBTQ former athletes/coaches in the sports arena is important to fully integrate LGBTQ concerns and experiences into the athletics community. The omission of such topics from athletics “de-historicizes” LGBTQ experiences and paints a false picture of the world in which we live. We offer the following potential best practices for consideration:

  • Provide the 2013 Champions of Respect: Inclusion of LGBTQ Student-Athletes and Staff in NCAA Programs to all athletics personnel. A copy of the publication is available at
  • Integrate LGBTQ issues and concerns into the Challenging Athletes’ Minds for Personal Success (CHAMPS)/Life Skills Program for student-athletes.
  • Integrate LGBTQ issues into existing courses for student-athletes. For example:
    • First-year student-athlete class (first-year seminar)
    • Student-athlete leadership development courses
    • Athletic Directors Leadership Institutes
  • Integrate LGBTQ issues and concerns into existing professional development programs. For example:
    • National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Management/Leadership Institute
    • NACDA Sports Management Institute
    • NCAA Women Coaches Academy (WCA)
    • NCAA Achieving Coaches Excellence Program (ACE)
    • NCAA Career in Sports Forum (Forum)
    • NCAA Diversity Education Workshops
    • NCAA Emerging Leaders Seminar
  • Include programs that incorporate topics regarding sexual identity and gender identity in all new athletics personnel orientations.
  • Promote the use of inclusive language in all athletics venues (playing fields, locker rooms, training rooms, etc.).
  • Create a pamphlet with examples of heterosexist assumptions and language with suggested alternatives.
  • Provide course credit to LGBTQ student-athletes for participating in peer education initiatives (Straight Talks, Speakers Bureaus, etc.).
  • Offer programming to discuss multiple identities of LGBTQ people (LGBTQ Latinos/Latinas, international LGBTQ people, LGBTQ people with disabilities, LGBTQ Muslims, etc.).
  • Offer resources about LGBTQ people and the intersections of their sexual identity and gender identity with their religious and/or spiritual needs (Unity Fellowship for Students, Gays for Christ, etc.).
  • Acknowledge the different ways that LGBTQ student-athletes experience harassment. Take steps to improve their perceptions of climate (for example, athletics department responses to acts of anti-LGBTQ bias incidents).

Respond appropriately to anti-LGBTQ incidents/bias. As long as anti-LGBTQ bias persists in athletics, LGBTQ student-athletes and athletics personnel will need to feel safe and supported by their departments when acts of anti-LGBTQ intolerance occur. LGBTQ student-athletes and athletics personnel should be able to speak and act without fear of homophobic reprisal.

  • Offer a clear and visible procedure for reporting LGBTQ-related bias incidents.
  • Develop a bias incident and hate crime reporting system for LGBTQ concerns that includes the following:
    • Bias incident team
    • Methods for supporting the victim
    • Outreach for prevention of future incidents
    • Protocol for reporting hate crimes and bias incidents

Offer comprehensive counseling and health care. The literature suggests that LGBTQ people who experienced both ambient and personal heterosexist harassment had the lowest overall well-being as compared with respondents who experienced only ambient heterosexist harassment and those who did not experience any heterosexist harassment.

Given that our results indicate many LGBTQ student- athletes experience heterosexist climates, the need for counseling support is evident. Further, more students are “coming out” as transgender in intercollegiate athletics. Although this growing population has unique needs related to physical and mental health care, most colleges and universities offer little or no support for this population.

We recommend the following best practices for addressing the counseling and health care needs of LGBTQ student-athletes:

  • Offer support for student-athletes in the process of acknowledging and disclosing their sexual identity and for other concerns with one’s sexual identity.
  • Offer counseling services that support LGBTQ people, with a staff that knows and understands LGBTQ student-athletes’ needs and experiences.
  • Provide training for team physicians, athletic trainers and other medical staff to increase their awareness of and sensitivity to LGBTQ people’s health care needs.
  • Actively distribute condoms and LGBTQ-inclusive information on HIV/STD services and resources.
  • Offer a student health insurance policy that covers ongoing counseling services for transgender students who need such counseling, as consistent with the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s (WPATH) Standards of Care.
  • Offer a student health insurance policy that covers the initiation and maintenance of hormone replacement therapy for transgender students who need such therapy, as consistent with the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s (WPATH) Standards of Care.
  • Offer a student health insurance policy that covers gender confirmation (“sex reassignment”) surgeries, including mastectomy and chest reconstruction, breast augmentation, complete hysterectomy, genital reconstruction and related procedures, for transgender students who need such surgeries, as consistent with the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s (WPATH) Standards of Care.

Increase awareness of transgender issues and concerns. In 2010, the NCAA reported that its national office received 30 inquiries in the previous two years about how colleges should “deal with transgender athletes.” Those numbers, NCAA officials offered, could increase, given that more people than in the past are identifying themselves as transgender, more are doing so at younger ages than in the past, and a growing number of colleges have anti-bias policies that cover gender identity.

A report titled, “On the Team: Equal Opportunity for Transgender Student-Athletes,” argued that in this environment, the lack of a national standard is unfair both to transgender students and to all student-athletes. The report divides its recommendations for colleges into two categories of transgender students: those who are undergoing hormone treatments and those who are not, and the report notes that many people who identify as transgender do not take medical steps.

For those undergoing hormone treatments, the report recommends that a male-to-female transgender student-athlete should be able to participate on a men’s team but should complete one year of hormone treatments before competing on a women’s team.

The report recommends that a female-to-male transgender student-athlete who is taking prescribed testosterone should be allowed to compete on a men’s team but must seek an exemption to NCAA rules barring the use of testosterone.

For those not undergoing hormone treatments, the report recommends that transgender students should have the option of competing on the teams consistent with sex assigned at birth, female-to-male students be allowed to participate on either the men’s or women’s team, but that male-to-female transgender students not be permitted to compete on women’s teams.

In 2011, the NCAA clarified its policies on transgender student-athletes. The new policy, which embraced the suggestions in the 2010 report from the National Center on Lesbian Rights and the Women’s Sports Foundation, ensures that student-athletes are allowed to participate on male or female teams, so long as they adhere to two key rules. The policy required no new legislation but rather clarified two pieces of existing legislation regarding banned substances – namely, testosterone – and a team’s official “status,” determined by the gender of its players.

  • Provide the publication “On the Team: Equal Opportunity for Transgender Student-Athletes” for all athletics personnel. A copy of the publication is available at 2013/07/TransgenderStudentAthleteReport.pdf
  • Provide the 2011 NCAA Policy on Transgender Inclusion to all athletics personnel. The policy is aimed at allowing student-athletes to participate in competition in accordance with their gender identity while maintaining the relative balance of competitive equity among sports teams. The policy will allow transgender student-athletes to participate in sex-separated sports activities so long as the student-athletes’ use of hormone therapy is consistent with the NCAA policies and current medical standards, which state:
    • A trans-male (female to male) student-athlete who has received a medical exception for treatment with testosterone for gender transition may compete on a men’s team but is no longer eligible to compete on a women’s team without changing the team status to a mixed team. A mixed team is eligible only for men’s championships.
    • A trans-female (male to female) student-athlete being treated with testosterone suppression medication for gender transition may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed-team status until completing one calendar year of documented testosterone-suppression treatment.
  • Provide the resources offered by the NCAA to all athletics personnel that includes:
    • Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes resource book.
    • A CD that contains the resource book and a slide presentation to educate administrators and student-athletes.
    • A 30-minute video that discusses transgender issues.
  • Increase the awareness of student-athletes regarding transgender student-athletes and policies in the NCAA.

Further recommendations for future research and promising best practices are offered in recent studies by Beemyn and Rankin (2011), Marine (2011) and Rankin et al. (2010).

Other recommended resources include the Campus Pride Friendly Campus Index (http://www.campuspride, Promising Practices for Inclusion of Gender Identity/Gender Expression in Higher Education (, and the Consortium for LGBT Professionals in Higher Education Architect (

Susan Rankin is a research associate in the Center for the Study of Higher Education and associate professor of education in the College Student Affairs Program at Pennsylvania State University. Rankin earned her B.S. from Montclair State University in 1978, an M.S. in exercise physiology from Penn State in 1981, and a Ph.D. in higher education administration in 1994, also from Penn State. Before moving into her current position, Rankin served for 17 years as the head softball coach and a lecturer in kinesiology at Penn State. She has presented and published widely on the impact of sexism, racism and heterosexism in the academy and in intercollegiate athletics.

Genevieve Weber is an associate professor in the School of Health and Human Services at Hofstra. She is also a licensed mental health counselor in the state of New York with a specialization in substance abuse counseling. Weber teaches a variety of courses related to the training of professional counselors, includes group counseling, multicultural counseling, psychopathology, and psychopharmacology and treatment planning. In her research and professional presentations, she focuses on the impact of homophobia and heterosexism on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals, with particular attention to the relationship between homophobia, internalized homophobia, and substance abuse among LGBT people.