'I Do' vs. 'I Can': Marriage Equality and Youth Sports

This summer, Americans witnessed the highest court of the land deliver a message to LGBTQ youth that one day they too, can say "I do." But little more than a month prior to the ruling, a rather startling survey revealed that many LGBTQ youth continued to suffer from widespread prejudice in sports settings across the nation. The levels of homophobia and discrimination in youth sports, in which the U.S. ranked worst of the six countries surveyed, suggest that the legal victory of "I do," while important, may have little bearing on the persistent social challenges faced by LGBTQ youth in saying "I can." By "I can," I mean "I can play baseball." "I can play basketball." "I can play football."

The study looked at 9,500 LGBTQ people in six countries and found that 84 percent of gay males and 82 percent of lesbians were subject to verbal slurs like "faggot" and "dyke" while participating in sports. Half of gay men and nearly a third of lesbians hid their sexuality from their teammates for fear of rejection, and only 1 percent of those surveyed felt that gays and lesbians were completely accepted in youth sports.

Invariably, in every one of the situations in which discrimination occurred, there was an adult, also known as the coach, who either paid no attention or tacitly allowed these homophobic slurs to slip under their radar without intervening. The effects of these coaches' ignorance are not just that the vast majority of LGBTQ drop out of sports because they do not feel welcomed, but also that the coach establishes a norm in which the wider umbrella of prejudice and bullying becomes acceptable to all youth, gay or straight. This is neither good for sports nor good for this nation.

Sports programs must be inclusive of all youth, and coaches must be trained to value and promote diversity and inclusion. We simply cannot afford to have any child drop out of sports based on prejudice. It is anathema to what sports represent to our society as a way to bring people together. It is also damaging to the overall process of child development. The evidence that participation in sports creates healthier and more engaged citizens is overwhelming. Boys who play sports are much less likely to drop out of school and much more likely to avoid making bad choices like joining a gang. Girls who play sports are more likely to have confidence and self-esteem, graduate from school, and avoid teenage pregnancy. The regular physical activity that comes from sports is now being linked to stress reduction, cognitive skill building and crucial brain development that contribute to children's grit and self-worth. The case for youth sports is clear: youth sports are critical to child development. For LGBTQ youth who experience higher rates of depression and suicide, these benefits may literally save lives.

It is critical that schools, parks and other publicly financed institutions require coaches to be certified in sports-based youth development (SBYD). SBYD incorporates the best practices in positive youth development into coaching so that coaches know how to address issues like bullying, racism, homophobia and sexual harassment among their teams.

The results of this recent study remind me of an SBYD training conducted by Up2Us Sports in Los Angeles that involved more than 100 coaches, many of them from urban minority communities. The training provided coaches with resources and methodologies for designing practices that engage all youth; promote social interaction across race, gender, and sexual orientation; address issues of trauma; inspire health and wellness; and maximize the sports experience as one of growth, learning and fun. Upon the completion of the training, one of the coaches stood up and shared his story of being a gay man in an inner-city community in which his family, his church, and his sports team disowned him. He described a journey of feeling so isolated that he nearly dropped out of school and got involved in violence and other negative behaviors just to cover up his identity and his lack of acceptance. He concluded that it was his love of sports that eventually motivated him to turn his life around and become a coach. While he stated that he did not intend to "come out" at the training, the training enabled him to understand that his plight was shared by millions of children in this country whose silence in sports was reinforced by coaches who were never trained to speak out about prejudice and bullying. He said that only now did he realize the influence that a coach could have in making a child believe that he belonged.

It's important now more than ever that we train our coaches to step up to the plate and be the role models that their positions require. This is not a gay issue, it's a youth development issue. Sport is the level playing field that has historically been the platform for ending prejudice and discrimination. It is important that one day when LGBTQ youth say "I do," it's because they grew up just like any other youth who said "I can."

"I can play basketball."

"I can play soccer."

"I can play sports."


In 2013, Up2Us Sports and the Ben Cohen StandUP Foundation partnered to increase awareness of bullying in youth sports by creating an anti-bullying curriculum and toolkit for programs and coaches. The toolkit is built to ensure that all coaches have the awareness, knowledge, and strategies to make safe sports environments a reality. Click here learn more about the training and to access the toolkit.