Hohenstein: Youth trans athletes need encouragement, inclusion

I miss coaching. Of all the changes in my life since I decided to run for public office, saying goodbye to the teams I coached was the hardest. From 2000 through 2016 I coached soccer for NEO, first my children’s teams and then my nephew’s.

We won our share of championships. Newts field in Fishtown, was the site of two of our championship games. In the first one, our right-defender, Shay, came to the sideline, with her leg bleeding after a slide tackle. We got out a water bottle, washed it up. I told her she was a real Philly soccer player now because her blood had been spilled on the fabled cinders of Newts. I asked if she wanted to come out. “No, I’m good,” was the reply from this fierce 12-year-old. A few years later, we were back in Fishtown with my nephew’s team. The game went to penalties. My nephew was the goalie and he saved a couple of shots, but the key was when I told him he was taking one of our penalties. “Really?” The doubt was palpable in his voice. “I believe in you,” I told him. His shot hit the back of the net before the keeper even blinked. Newts has seen a lot of historic soccer, but for me, those two games are the most important. 

Belief in our kids is the point of playing youth sports. They learn lessons from coaches and from each other. Sometimes they teach us lessons. My younger child, Mars, taught me a lesson when they told me they didn’t want to play anymore. It was their choice, but they also knew my heart remained with coaching so they said, “Dad, stay on, the other kids need you.” The disappointment I felt, melted away as I recognized that I had raised a kid strong enough to tell me what they wanted – even if they knew it wasn’t what I wanted. In part, that strength was forged on the playing field. It has served Mars well over the years, not the least as they have transitioned from their gender assigned at birth to identifying as nonbinary. I am the proud parent of a trans person, who is walking in the world on their own terms.

Trans athletes also need to have a special form of bravery and strength. News reports of trans swimmers Lia Thomas and Iszac Henig competing in women’s swimming in the Ivy League have focused on perceptions of advantages based on their gender assigned at birth or hormone treatments. Lia Thomas is transitioning and has been receiving hormones for more than two years. Iszac Henig is transitioning from being a woman to a man. He has delayed transition hormones saying, “I value my contributions to the team and recognize that my boyhood doesn’t hinge on whether there’s more or less testosterone running through my veins. At least, that’s what I’ll try to remember when I put on the women’s swimsuit for competition and am reminded of a self I no longer feel attached to.” Thomas has been criticized because of the belief that her male gender assignment gave her an advantage, but in a swim meet recently, Henig beat Thomas in head-to-head competition.

Both of these athletes have to fit their desires to compete within a structure that often doesn’t recognize their humanity. That is unfair to them. For a trans athlete, the effort, the preparation, the drive to compete is the same as for any other athlete. Not recognizing a trans person also diminishes the rest of us. Youth trans athletes have the same motivations that kids have always had: to play, to be with friends, to be part of a team. Sports should be about seeing the kid sitting on the bench with you as a teammate above all else. My soccer teams welcomed kids from many ethnic and faith backgrounds, and gender identity would not have been any different.

There are bills in many states, including HB972 here in Pennsylvania, that would ban trans athletes from competing in K-12 school sports. This bill is cut from the same cloth as a recent directive from the Texas Attorney General and amplified by the Texas Governor that equates gender-affirming medical care with child abuse. The stated intent of HB972 is to ‘protect’ girls from having boys participate in their sports, but the reality is that this is a not a significant issue. These bills are nothing more than fear mongering and worse, bullying children who just want to play sports with their friends.  While I have always been willing -- and continue to be willing -- to have a discourse with those who disagree with me on all issues including this one, the legislation currently being presented appears solely intended to use bigotry to stoke the culture wars and divide us further. Current rules on taking transition hormones keep the playing field level and provide much needed opportunities for all children to participate in sports – opportunities to know that the adults around them believe in them.