D3 LGBTQ OneTeam on Supporting Transgender Student-Athletes

A Conversation with Facilitators of the NCAA’s Division III LGBTQ OneTeam Program

Earlier this week, nearly 40 facilitators from the NCAA’s Division III LGBTQ OneTeam Program signed an open letter in support of transgender student-athletes. The facilitators of this program are comprised of coaches, administrative staff members, and faculty members from across the country, and they lead workshops on LGBTQ+ inclusion in athletics settings across NCAA Division III athletics.

We spoke with the three facilitators who drafted this letter—Dr. Dorian Rhea Debussy [formerly known as Timothy R. Bussey] (they/them); Kayla Hayes, M.Ed. (she/her) of Denison University; and Dr. Kyrstin Krist (she/her) of Methodist University. We asked them to share why supporting transgender student-athletes is so critical in this particular moment. Here’s what they had to share.

Dorian Rhea Debussy, Ph.D. (DRB): First of all, thank you to Athlete Ally for providing the space for us to share this conversation with the broader public. We are so appreciative of the work that they do to support LGBTQ+ student-athletes. We’re also hoping that this short conversation can help to show the importance of active allyship to transgender student-athletes, particularly given the legislative attacks that have been rising in the past several weeks. In my role at Kenyon College, I serve as the Associate Director for our Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and for this conversation, I’m specifically asking Kayla and Kyrstin to answer these questions, given their active roles in athletics programs at Denison University and Methodist University. And of course, I’m thankful for them lending their expertise to this conversation.

Kayla and Kyrstin, can you each share a brief introduction to your roles?

Kayla Hayes, M.Ed. (KH): I’m the Associate Head Women’s Basketball Coach at Denison University. I’m also the advisor for Denison’s Diversity and Inclusion Athletic Advisory Group, which is a student-led organization that highlights and works for inclusion and equity in athletics.

Kyrstin Krist, Ph.D. (KK): I’m an Associate Professor in Kinesiology and the Faculty Athletic Representative (FAR) at Methodist University. I also support work with our campus’ Multicultural Affairs Office and teach in our Women’s Studies Program. The focus of my research and instruction is the intersectionality of sport, including but not limited to race, class, sex, and gender.

And just to clarify, all of my answers in this conversation are not reflective of the climate at Methodist University, but they are overarching themes and generalizations of what I know will happen with the passage of this legislation across the country. 

DRB: Thank you both so much for sharing more about your specific campus roles. Over the past several weeks, more than 25 states have begun working on legislation that would ban transgender people from competing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. Some states, such as Arkansas, Tennessee, and others, have actually passed this dangerous legislation and signed it into law. Can you each share why this legislation is so dangerous to our transgender student-athletes?

KH: A ban on transgender people from competing on teams that align with their gender identity would be harmful to student-athletes on a number of levels. More specifically, these bans are not about supporting girls’ and women’s sports. Instead, they’re an excuse to exclude gender diverse individuals from their civil right to participate in athletics, and that causes direct harm to these students’ mental health, academic performance, and general sense of well-being on campus and beyond.

KK: There are multiple angles this question can be answered. I will address it from two—first from my education in both Sport Psychology and Exercise and Sport Science and then from my perspective as our campus’ FAR. 

From the standpoint of my profession and education, it is an assault on all dimensions of wellness. The legislation endorses that physical activity is not a place for our transgender friends, and the toll that it will have on lifelong health and wellness will be huge. These aren’t laws to just stop participation, these are laws to cease all access to sport for our transgender friends. We know there is a link between access to physical activity and positive mental health outcomes. Simply put, the domino effect will be monumental, if a young person is told they don’t belong and aren’t welcome, and it may lead to a dropout from all forms of physical activity. 

Through the lens of my campus’ FAR, it terrifies me to think of how some of our transgender friends will be treated when no one is looking. The entire campaign of “I’ll Go With You” wouldn’t exist, if it didn’t need to exist. The locker room can be one of the most horrifying places for someone who identifies as LGBTQIA+. The passage of this legislation has too many complexities to be contained in a simple short answer. The short version is that these bills delineate our transgender friends as “other” in the realm of sport, and this is a weight that most people on their team and in their athletic departments will have no conceptual understanding of. With these legislative attacks, our transgender friends will then be tragically stripped of the dream and possibility of becoming a college athlete. 

DRB: Thank you so much for sharing so many different perspectives there, particularly since there are so many ways that these bills harm our transgender student-athletes, and I appreciate you both sharing the multiple levels of harm that this legislation causes.

Kyrstin, I want to ask this next question of you, given your role as a faculty member at Methodist University. What impact do you think these legislative attacks will have on transgender student-athletes in terms of their academic performance? Additionally, what issues might this then create for colleges and universities across the country too?

KK: There are so many ways that this legislation will impact a student, who also happens to be a transgender person and an athlete. Speaking frankly, the impact will go way beyond the classroom. For instance, some people may be even less likely to acknowledge and respect their pronouns and name, which causes direct harm to those students’ mental health. National data also shows that this leads to lower grades and less academic aspirations for furthering one’s education.

Another huge hurdle is that coaches will no longer be able to recruit transgender student-athletes, which means the school will miss out on hosting another great mind on campus. Ultimately, the laws are established to dictate that they do not belong and that they are not welcome in this space. For transgender student-athletes, it will impact which school they want to attend—simply based upon whether or not they are allowed to compete against other schools in states with these laws. It’s naive to think that a student does not take into account the mission, practices, and courses offered at any level of schooling, and this is especially true in states where their very existence is under attack. Simply put, colleges and universities across the country will lose transgender applicants (both those who are student-athletes and those who are not) in states where there are laws enacted to exclude and not to protect.   

DRB: Thank you so much for sharing that important perspective, Kyrstin, and I definitely agree about the multiple levels of harm that these bills create for transgender students in terms of their academic performance. It’s also interesting to consider how these bills can create challenges for colleges and universities, when they’re trying to recruit students to their campus.  

Now that we’ve heard about some of the challenges these bills would create on that level, what do these attacks mean for transgender student-athletes in a more general sense, Kayla? For instance, what are the other impacts that these proposed laws are having?

KH: As Kyrstin mentioned, there’s a dangerous mental health impact that these proposed laws could have for transgender student-athletes, but they also have an impact on student-athletes overall. Many student-athletes identify their teammates as family members, and they often treat them as a source of support on the team, in the classroom, and in a more general sense. 

By taking away the opportunity to play on a team that aligns with someone’s gender identity, these bills remove that sense of self, community, and ultimately belonging. Essentially, this is really detrimental to the well-being of our transgender student-athletes, but it’s also going to have an impact on our cisgender student-athletes, who would lose valued members of their team and community. 

DRB: Thank you so much for sharing that, Kayla, and I’m really thankful that we had your coaching perspective, especially since many folks don’t recognize how this will impact the entire community.

Pivoting back to the letter that we drafted on behalf of the facilitators for the NCAA’s Division III LGBTQ OneTeam Program, why is a public statement like that so important in this particular moment, and specifically, why did you want to be involved in writing that letter?

KH: A public statement is key at this time, since it publicly shows that we are taking a stand against these exclusionary laws. I want to be a collegiate athletics representative who stands up against the transphobic lies that these laws are based upon. Athletics should be a safe haven and a positive outlet for student-athletes, rather than one of discrimination and exclusion. The OneTeam facilitators, as a unit, have a strong voice to represent the NCAA Division III by standing against this dangerous legislation. We need to act swiftly to fight against current laws and to push back on the current bills up in other states. If we help overturn or stop these bans, that’s a win for equity and for our transgender student-athletes.

KK: Honestly, I had zero hesitation of being involved with this conversation. Why would we not do this? If we don’t do it now and if we don’t do it loudly, then when is the right time to do it? It’s as simple as that. There’s no moment in time when transgender lives are not 100% under attack. We must stand with our transgender friends, especially those who want the opportunity to participate in sport. For many, their lives are threatened every single day, and if they can put all of their being on the line, then I should too. Our friends must know they are seen, heard, supported, and loved. I must use my privilege to aid with their journey.  

DRB: I really appreciate both of you sharing that, and I’m so honored to have drafted this letter with you all. I’m also thankful to all of our fellow OneTeam facilitators who lent their support to the public condemnation of these laws and bills. 

To wrap things up, what is something that allies to transgender student-athletes can do right now? Is there anything that you’d recommend, given that several states have already enacted these anti-trans policies into state law?

KH: Allies can take action right now. They can write letters, sign petitions, call their representatives, and act in a way that is supportive for transgender student-athletes. Allies need to not just say that they’re an ally and that they’re against these laws. Rather, they need to act. Intentions versus actions is key here, and this is particularly true, when we’re talking about inclusion and equity. 

KK: Allies need to be allies—not performative allies. Allies must work very hard to educate themselves, so they are better equipped to help educate others. Allies must use their voices and get involved in ways that will utilize their skill sets. Our job is to listen, hear, support, and act. Allies cannot simply hang out in the perimeter. If you are an ally, then be an ally. Don’t just be ally adjacent. 

DRB: I couldn’t agree more, and I’m really grateful for you all sending a clear message about the importance of action at this time, since our transgender student-athletes need support from so many areas of our community. And of course, thank you again to Kayla and Kyrstin for being in conversation about this important topic and for being such strong allies to the transgender and non-binary community. For those interested in supporting transgender student-athletes, please definitely check out the resources from organizations like Athlete Ally, the ACLU, GLSEN, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and other organizations who are working to support their rights across the country.