Talking With Students About Transgender Athletes

As lawmakers across the country continue to restrict the rights of trans people—particularly trans students—educators can take this moment to start a conversation about transgender identity, justice and ways to take action.
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Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in April 2021.

Currently, there are over 80 anti-transgender bills that are being proposed across the United States. These bills target trans youth participation in sports and their access to gender-affirming health care. They reinforce stereotypes around transgender athletes, including student athletes, painting their gender identity as “other” or something that needs to be contained.

Even before these anti-trans bills, trans youth were under attack. According to the ACLU, when their school community recognized them as trans, more than 2 in 10 girls with trans experience were harassed and bullied to the point that they had to leave school. Another 1 in 10 was actually kicked out of school. More than half of transgender and gender non-conforming youth have considered suicide, according to the Trevor Project, and 40% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported being physically threatened.

Our trans youth are being threatened on a daily basis—and now, they are being threatened by state lawmakers. By discussing and celebrating trans athletes in our classrooms, we can begin to dispel these stereotypes and myths around transgender folx.

These conversations don’t happen in schools as often as they should, in part because we have placed stereotypes around the LGBTQ+ community that specifically stigmatize being transgender. Our queer identities are often seen as wrong, and discussions about them considered “more appropriate for older students.”

These stigmas and stereotypes around LGBTQ+ identities often imply that when we talk about gender, we are talking about sex. This is obviously not true! However, it is true that most children begin exploring their gender identity by the age of 3 or 4. Talking about LGBTQ+ identities means talking about what makes human beings diverse and unique individuals and what makes us who we are!

Here are some ways to begin discussions around gender identity and bring transgender representation, specifically around transgender athletes, into your classroom. 

Beginning the Conversation

Before going deeper, it is important to note what language we use. You may hear different people use different terms to describe their identities. Some people may say they are a trans man or woman, or a transgender man or woman. Others may say they are a man or woman of transgender experience or trans experience.

The most important thing is to refer to folx based on the language they use and think about the messages your word choice sends. We’re often told that transgender identities aren’t important or that they are somehow not “real.” The language we use can push back against that.

For example, while the terms “trans man,” “transgender man” and “man of trans experience” are different, they all acknowledge the fact that trans women are women and trans men are men. That’s why, when we speak of a person’s gender identity, we say, “they are transgender,” instead of “they identify as transgender.” Saying “they are” makes space and validates, rather than making gender identity an optional piece of who someone is.


If you aren’t sure where to start, begin the conversation by discussing diversity. In This Book is Anti-Racist, Tiffany Jewell defines diversity as “people with different or the same opinions,  backgrounds, beliefs, gender, and/or life experience.”

Ask the questions, “What makes us the same? What makes us different?”

This can lead into discussions of the different genders as many students will bring up their own genders. As a facilitator, you can insert your own identity or the identities of those you love—“and I am nonbinary,” or “I have a friend who is intersex”—or even discuss athletes, celebrities or singers that the kids know who are out. This can expand their understanding of gender and lead into conversations around gender identity.

Gender Identity

Discussions of gender identity should recognize that we are either assigned female at birth or male at birth, based on the genitals and chromosomes we are born with. Students should understand that gender has nothing to do with our biological reproductive systems and everything to do with our own understanding of ourselves.

Students should know that gender identity is our experience and understanding of our own gender. It can correspond or differ from the sex we were assigned to at birth. And while we’re often assigned male or female at birth, other gender identities exist, including nonbinary, agender or genderqueer.

Here is one way I introduce gender identity with my upper elementary students: 

“When we are born, sometimes doctors and caregivers assume that we are one of two genders: a boy or a girl. However, sometimes they get it wrong.

“Gender identity is based on how someone feels inside. It is not based on what they wear, how they present themselves or how others see them.”

To continue this discussion, I recommend looking up some amazing books like It Feels Good to Be Yourself, by Theresa Thorn, or videos like Gender Identity by AMAZE.

Introducing Transgender Identities and Experiences

It is vital that we normalize including not only transgender identities but also trans people and trans rights in our curriculum. Given the spate of legislation targeting them, now is an especially important time to lift up trans athletes.

Defining Transgender

When bringing in the topic of transgender rights, I start with equality. I begin by asking my learners to consider what equality looks like, what it sounds like and where we do not see equality. 

This grounding can move into a question about equality and gender identity, both historically and today. I ask: “When people keep others from doing things they love because of their gender identity, is that equal? Why or why not?” 

This discussion opens space for learners to talk about ways that people have been kept from doing things because of their gender (for example, women in science). 

In our next discussion, I define “transgender.”

Working with my learners, I may say something like this:

“When we are born, we are assigned a gender at birth by the doctors and our caregivers. Sometimes, though, they may get it wrong. Someone who is told that they are a boy or they are a girl may realize they don’t feel like a boy or a girl. Transgender is a term that they might use to describe themselves. It means that their gender identity is different from the one they were told when they were born. They may not feel OK in their own body. They may want to change their body to fit how they feel on the inside.”

With this foundation, we often read together. I recommend When Aidan Became a Brother, by Kyle Lukoff; Phoenix Goes to School, by Michelle Finch and Phoenix Finch; and It Feels Good to Be Yourself, by Theresa Thorn.

I end our reading with two questions for my learners: What challenged or changed your thinking? What affirmed you?

Introducing Transgender Athletes

After this discussion, you can start introducing some phenomenal trans athletes. When you share, it is important that you not only focus on their identity but also on their abilities in the sports!

Here is a list of folx you can start with: 

As you continue the learning, you can include trans representation beyond trans athletes by including trans people from all professions. You can also introduce pronouns, gender identity beyond being a woman, man or transgender, and work with your learners to break down gender stereotypes.

Taking Action

Even as we bring this content into our classrooms, we must also focus on taking action to support trans students and adults in our broader communities.

Please take a moment and take these steps to push back on the anti-trans bills currently moving through state legislatures across the United States.

  1. Check out the ACLU for updates on legislation by state
  2. Look up your state legislators and contact them! 
  3. Find organizations that are working toward long-term protection for trans folx and support them such as inTRANSitive or The Knights and Orchids Society.

Let’s continue to support and protect our trans youth—in and out of our classrooms.

Author’s Note: Folx spelled with an ‘x’ at the end has become a gender-neutral term that shows a text or space is intentionally inclusive to multiple communities, including the transgender community.

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