HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Creating an LGBT Inclusive School Athletic Program: From Intention to Action
A day school teacher shared with us how troubled he was when he heard another teacher scold a boy on the playground, “Come on, stop throwing like a girl!” From hearing “girl” as a pejorative, it is easy for other boys to make the short leap to denigrating one another as “gay.” In conversations with other teachers and students, we see how this seemingly benign comment is damaging to all kids and adults. We see how sexism and homophobia make a particularly insidious combination in the context of sports and athletics.
Jewish values such as kavod, respect, and Ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha, Love your neighbor as yourself, are foundational tenets in every Jewish school. What would our schools look like if we applied these values to issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion?
School athletic and intramural programs are a central part of school culture. Sports programs provide students with opportunities to be part of a team, learn sports skills and improve physical fitness. Spectators at school sports events enjoy a sense of community and belonging as they cheer for friends and enjoy the benefits of athletics as a social event. These benefits should be available to all students, but recent research by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) indicates that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students do not always view school sports programs as welcoming.
The 2013 GLSEN School Climate survey (available at glsen.org) indicates that LGBT students view locker rooms, bathrooms, gymnasiums and playing fields as the least safe places in schools. LGBT students describe these areas as places where they are most likely to experience bullying or harassment from other students, or even teachers or coaches. As a result, the GLSEN study indicates that LGBT students are half as likely as other students to participate in school athletics.
LGBT students in the survey also indicate that, of all the adults who work in schools, they were least likely to feel comfortable talking to physical education teachers and sports coaches. These results should raise concern in schools that take seriously the goal of creating and maintaining a respectful and inclusive climate for all students, including those who want to play on sports or intramural teams. If school sports are enriching activities that are integral to school programming, they should be available to all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
How Can Schools Create a Safe and Inclusive Climate in Athletics?
Policy development, education and action together form the foundation for the maintenance of inclusive and respectful school athletic climate. A policy that sits on the shelf and is unknown to those who are responsible for carrying it out is not helpful. Education not informed by policy is missing an essential piece. Action without knowledge of policy or without the benefit of education can do the most damage of all to creating an inclusive school athletic and physical education climate. If school sports and physical education are to be open and welcoming to all students, they must reflect this value at all levels, from overall school policy to the individual actions of everyone associated with athletics and physical education.
All schools should have a non-discrimination policy and an anti-bullying policy that specifically includes sexual orientation and gender identity/expression along with other characteristics such as gender, religion, race, ability or economic status. When non-discrimination and anti-bullying policies do not specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity/expression or talk about “respect for all” without specifying particular groups, members of a school community do not assume that LGBT people are included. In some schools, sexual orientation and gender identity/expression are explicitly excluded to avoid controversy. If a school is serious about creating a climate in which LGBT students can thrive, sexual orientation and gender identity/expression must be enumerated as part of these policies. Such enumerated policies form the baseline for expectations for student access and treatment in all school-sponsored programs.
The athletic program in schools should also have a non-discrimination and anti-bullying policy that reflect the overall school policy. Unfortunately, name-calling, hazing and taunting have long been accepted as a part of sports culture. Coaches sometimes engage in these negative practices as a way to motivate players to perform better without thinking about the messages they are sending when they equate poor performance in sports with girls, gay men or people with developmental disabilities. These policies should also apply to spectators at school sports events.
Because sports participation in most schools is divided into girls’ and boys’ teams, it is particularly important that school athletic programs have in place a policy that enables transgender students to participate on sports teams and use locker rooms and bathrooms according to their gender identity. These policies ideally need to be developed and adopted before a transgender student indicates their intention to try out for a sports team. When athletic program leaders are unprepared and without a policy in place when a transgender student makes their interest in sports participation known, it places an undue burden on the student and their family to act as trailblazers. In addition, reactive policies are often not well thought out and may be based on misperceptions about transgender identity and preconceived notions of problems created by including a transgender student on a sports team.
Education is the second component of a foundation for creating safe and inclusive school sports teams. Well thought out policy that reflects a commitment to inclusion, safety and respect is useless if no one knows about it. Athletic administrators, coaches, parents and athletes should all know their school’s and athletic program’s non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies as well as their particular responsibilities for making sure the policies are carried out as needed. Athletic directors need to educate coaches, especially part-time coaches, who may not be familiar with these policies. In orientation programs with parents of athletes, new coaches and athletes at the beginning of the school year, athletic directors can communicate expectations for all of these participants in school sports.
These education programs are particularly important for preparing coaches for the possibility of having a transgender student on a team. Many coaches do not have a lot of information about transgender students. Knowing what name and pronouns to use in reference to a transgender student, ensuring the student’s access to locker rooms and bathrooms at home and away games, and making sure that the student is treated with respect by teammates and opponents are all part of a coach’s responsibility in ensuring an inclusive and respectful athletic climate.
The third aspect of creating an inclusive and respectful athletic climate for LGBT students is action. Action encompasses the ways that everyone affiliated with the school athletic program acts to translate policy into day to day practice. Action includes the words and deeds of athletic directors, coaches, physical education teachers, parents and athletes as they act as role models for the inclusion of LGBT students. Coaches need to set standards for how athletes interact with each other just as they set standards for athletic and academic performance. Making it clear to athletes and parents that name-calling is not acceptable and then following this up by intervening when it does occur is part of taking action. Setting an example of positive interaction in how coaches motivate athletes or criticize poor performance is an important action.
Coaches can also enlist the leadership of team captains to encourage team members to treat each other and others in the school community with respect. Setting a tone of excellence in competition and at the same time emphasizing the importance of respect in interactions with others are complementary goals. Enacting a commitment to both goals recognizes the true value of athletic participation in preparing young people for success in a world that is increasingly diverse.
Two easily accessible resources that assist schools in their efforts to create respectful and inclusive athletic programs for LGBT students are Changing the Game: The GLSEN Sports Project (sports.glsen.org) and Trans* Athlete (transathlete.com). Both websites provide a variety of information that can guide school leaders in the development of policy, educational programs and best practices.
Jewish schools can draw from the deep well of Jewish values that promote respect, openness and equality. Placing Keshet’s poster “Seven Jewish Values for Inclusive Jewish Community” on locker room or gym walls send a vital message that an inclusive Jewish community is an authentic Jewish community.
Former tennis champion, Martina Navratilova, once said, “When the score is tied and there are two seconds left in the game, you don’t care if your teammate is black or white, gay or straight, Christian or Jew. You just want her to make the shot.” To reach this day when athletes are evaluated solely on their athletic ability and individual character, it will take the efforts of everyone who cares about school sports and physical education to develop inclusive policies and educate the community about these policies. School leaders must set a personal example of action rooted in respect and inclusion for physical education teachers, coaches and the students in their programs, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
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This issue presents a wealth of guidance and examples for day schools to stay on top of their game. Articles discuss how schools ensure that athletics stay informed by a school's mission, by embodying Jewish values and embracing inclusivity; how they can use sports as a vehicle for teaching about and fostering love for Israel; how a wide range of sports can bring out the best in students and faculty; and how schools can more broadly employ movement and teach healthy living.
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