March 25, 2021 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Continuing the Conversation on Transgender Student-Athletes

When Ryan Socolow decided he was ready to tell his Endicott Gulls women’s lacrosse teammates he was a transgender athlete, he decided to inform coaches and teammates at a team meeting in the Fall of 2013 — his senior year. The response was much different from the ones he’d received when he told his family and friends in high school that he was a lesbian.

“The very first, initial response was really just silence,” Socolow said. “So I had to sit with that for a little bit and understand that it wasn’t a rejection on their part. It was more than likely just they were blindsided. They had no idea how to respond or what the best response might be.”

“Again, this was in 2013. … This was before Caitlyn Jenner came out. There was only one other out Division I trans athlete at that time — and he was even a little bit older than I was. If you didn’t know about trans athletes before then, you probably had no idea what was going on. So I wasn’t upset with my teammates. I wasn’t trying to blame them, like ‘how dare you not be completely educated on this, kind of, niche topic. So yeah, it was just a lot of silence, and, after that initial coming out, a few teammates came up to me and had a couple more private conversations. That was all really supportive.”

transgenderFast forward to the present day and Socolow is impacting those who were in a similar position to him and his former teammates. Now a research assistant at Athlete Ally, Socolow helps the company in its mission to educate “athletic communities at all levels — sport governing bodies, teams, and individual athletes — to understand obstacles to inclusion for LGBTQ people in sports and how they can build inclusive communities on their teams or within their organizations.”

But while this conversation has come a long way, there is still a lot of room for growth — which is something Athlete Ally addresses in more ways than one, most recently addressing the United States Department of Education’s approach to LGBTQ athletes.

“Often when people think about Title IX, they think first about sexual assault and sexual harassment, which is certainly a major part of Title IX, but it’s also equality in sport, in terms of gender equity,” Athlete Ally’s Director of Research Anna Baeth said. “When it comes to how Title IX is administered, that really depends on whoever is in office. What we’ve seen with the [Donald] Trump administration and Betsy DeVos, in particular, has been a pretty serious disregard for the LGBTQ community. That is, in both athletics and when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault. And there are a lot of different ways that this is manifested in terms of the experiences of LGBTQ athletes and students.”

While handling the issue at a larger level like that warrants a lot of attention, Athlete Ally’s primary focus remains on educating individuals in the athletic community on the obstacles LGBTQ people face. A big part of that process is working with athletic directors who are trying to impact their schools and universities.

“The key is education,” Kathleen Litzau, University of Milwaukee senior associate athletic director, said. “To be open-minded and to reach out to areas of expertise to assist yourself along that path of education and understanding. I think those are key elements.

“I come from a background of wanting to be inclusive of all of our student-athletes. As the head volleyball coach (at Milwaukee) for many years, I absolutely had to educated myself. Our campus and LGBTQ+ resource center does a great job with it, as well. We want to be accepting of all of our student-athletes and the gender they identify with. We want to be respectful of the name they choose, the pronouns they ask us to use, and we want them to feel like they can be their authentic selves as a part of our program. But yes, I did have to educate myself on how we can do that in regards to transgender student-athletes.”

What are examples of the next step after education?

“Like everything in sports, practice helps make a better performance,” Socolow said. “For example, if you’re practicing trying to use someone’s new-to-you pronouns, doing so out of a conversation with that person is going to help you make sure that you’re saying the right things when you’re in front of that person. And that’s really when it counts.

“Also, I like to think of language that not only can help but that I can coach someone’s language by making sure that I’m saying the correct phrasing. If the other person is unsure of that language, they will eventually take my lead. If it’s something that’s just outrageously wrong or incorrect, then I’ll step in and be a little more upfront about the recommended language and phrasing.”

While the development of Athlete Ally and the education process are huge for the growth of the athletic community as a whole, there’s still work to be done when it comes to the inclusion of transgender athletes.

Baeth, who is also a college coach at Hamline University in Minnesota, has learned a lot from her student-athletes on other important subjects that have the attention of the nation, like social justice matters. That approach “really lends itself to productive conversations” on matters Baeth wants to educate herself more on. Those productive conversations then help lead to change, and ultimately a healthy environment for both transgender and cisgender athletes.

transgender“It’s really important to listen to trans athlete voices and understand that you might not have the same experience as them, but at least you can get a sense of what it’s like to be trans,“ Baeth said. “I am cisgender, I identify as a woman and I have no idea what it means to be trans. But when I talk to my trans and nonbinary athletes, or I talk to others who I don’t work with directly, I get a really strong sense of what it means and what it feels likes. The other thing is, you just can be afraid to talk about it. I know that’s kind of a bold statement because nobody wants to misspeak and we don’t want to be disrespectful.

“The bottom line is that because we have more athletes coming out as transgender and nonbinary, more families who are in support of those athletes and really more advocates like Athlete Ally, we’re really working to end disinformation about what’s happening at the youth level and the collegiate level.”

Athlete Ally also has a frequently asked question document available to the site for those looking for ways to learn more.