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  • Writer's pictureAlina Stehle

Discrimination in Sport Faced by Trans* Teenagers in the Netherlands


Basketball court in Groningen © Alina Stehle

Trans* teenagers struggle to pursue sports because of discrimination and social exclusion.


A recent Jama Network study on sports participation and transgender youth has shown how important sports are for trans* teenagers in high school.


 

What does the asterisk in 'trans*' stand for?


The asterisk serves as a placeholder to add a wide variety of endings so that as many people as possible can identify themselves with the term.

 

According to the findings, it affects mental and physical health, self-esteem and the way trans* teenagers integrate into the social environment at school.


Beyond this urge for physical activity, the reality of trans* people in sport is often different. Discrimination, harassment and social exclusion are experienced by many trans* people who participate in sport. This is particularly relevant because it often leads to trans* youth quitting sport.


Sports as a burden for trans* teenagers


For Jayme, high school and especially high school sports, constantly emphasised the distinction between boys and girls. Teachers even facilitated this by making it more explicit and always dividing groups by gender.


Sports were very difficult for Jayme. In her daily life she was wearing women's underwear under her clothes to give herself a sense of femininity. This coping mechanism didn't work for sports. She needed to wear boxer shorts for her sports classes because she didn’t out herself as transgender yet. “I wasn’t feeling like myself,” she says. All of this hiding affected her enjoyment of sport.


Experiences of discrimination in sport


Someone who has experienced discrimination and harassment himself is Niels. He wishes to remain anonymous because of his successful role in swimming and the very personal and traumatic details he shared with The Groninger.


Niels swam for more than 10 years and spent 20 to 30 hours a week improving his skills in the pool. Swimming was such an important part of his identity. He sacrificed school, free time and social life for his passion but it paid off and he became national champion in 2018 and 2019.


After his big success he came out to the members of his team and his coach. They became distant and started ignoring him and making jokes about his gender. The harassment intensified over time.


“One of my teammates told me ‘If my child was like you, I would slit my throat.”

The team coach didn’t react when Niels told him about the bullying from his teammates. He was even told by the coach that he wasn't allowed to use the changing rooms, so he had to change in a dark corner, using his torch to be able to see. After his transition, the coach also refused to sign him up for new competitions.


“The coach always emphasized I should straighten my back and show what I have. He also refused to use my name and started calling me ‘it’ or ‘thing’,” Niels recalls.


The moment he realised he had to leave the team was at a competition in Nijmegen: “The coach told me I am fucking off my life and I am mentally retarded.”


After that, Niels moved to the other side of the country and stopped swimming for a while. He still feels that his free time is not filled with the passion and success he had before. I still feel like I need to prove myself that I am men enough,” he tells The Groninger.


Visibility of the trans* community in Groningen © Alina Stehle

The discussion about the unfairness of trans* women in competitive sports isn’t relevant, according to Niels. Only a few trans* people think that there's no advantage for trans women to compete in the men's field. He believes that the discussion in the media should focus less on fairness and more on safety and how to create a respectful environment for trans* people.

One person who also criticises the public discussion about trans* people is 19-year-old Jayme. She explains the majority of citizens in the Netherlands don't understand the energy and social isolation it takes to come out as trans*. "The whole bathroom and locker room debate is fucking bullshit.” Jayme doesn't think anyone would consider coming out just to ogle at somebody, so it’s an irrational fear.


Discrimination against trans* people is "an oppression that can be compared to Apartheid,” she says. Being excluded from parts of society and not being able to live her gender openly is terrible for Jayme: "I don't want to be seen as different, I just want to be seen as a person."

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