Take that

Shooting hoops kept me alive. Don’t take that comfort away from trans kids.

On a windy weekday afternoon in June 2019, I found myself sharing a beer with a friend in the backyard of RIPCORD, a gay bar in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. It was my first time here. But it wasn’t the bar like it would be on a Saturday night. Other than a few people smoking at nearby tables, talking lazily about the weather, the courtyard was empty – though that didn’t calm my nerves. I felt both out of place and eager to be there, even though I would never have gone alone. The friend had insisted on taking me out, and I was grateful to him for his insistence. He was teaching me a lesson about the importance of building community — a lesson particularly relevant to today’s debates about trans kids and sports.

I had lived in Montrose for three years. In 2016, I moved to a ground floor apartment in the neighborhood and started my PhD at the University of Houston. When I arrived in Houston, I hadn’t yet come out non-binary, even though I knew in my heart that I was trans. Most people assumed that I was cisgender, meaning that my sex matched what I was assigned at birth, and, not yet ready to come out, I didn’t. I have never disabused anyone of this presumption. I would often walk past queer bars, wishing I had the courage to enter.

The friend understood the difficulty of integrating a new community. He invited me over as an unofficial guide, hoping to acclimate me to the local gay bars. After RIPCORD, we went to JR and complained about coming out. He had been out for a while and time had turned his story into something contained and knowable. I was an open wound, irritable and embarrassed, bitten by the reactions of the people closest to me. Our stories were very different on the surface, but we shared something vital and affirming.

My friend came out because he was tired of wanting to die. In the weeks leading up to my coming out, I spent my nights driving for miles through Westheimer, wondering if I should swerve in traffic.

I am extremely lucky for many reasons. Mainly, the difficulties I encountered as a trans person never exceeded the pain I felt hiding from my loved ones. And my loved ones and family supported my gender identity. Trans people regularly face increased occupational, medical and housing discrimination. For this reason, finding and building community outside of mainstream institutions, whether with other queer people or allies, is vital.

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For me, sport has served as a place of community since I was a child. I played football, baseball, and basketball all through high school; on rare occasions, I even played goalie for my friends who loved soccer. In Houston, I regularly spent entire Saturday afternoons playing basketball in the college gymnasium, often against athletes much younger and stronger than me. In these games, I formed a community with other people I might never have met otherwise, but who became important to me, especially when I first moved to town. I’ve played against new parents and medical students and ex-college basketball players and engineering freshmen, men, women, and sometimes real kids. It was an easy way for me to reach longtime Houstonians and other transplants. In the last few months before I came out, as I grew more and more depressed, I found solace in those hours spent running and jumping, often with strangers, because there were rare times when I didn’t think about how I could break the news to my partner or tell my parents that I was trans.

Playing sports probably kept me alive. It gave me something to look forward to when the rest of my life seemed overwhelming.

Trans kids currently excluded from their college sports teams face a very different scenario than I faced. I hadn’t publicly come out when I played – even though I started wearing nail polish my last few months in Houston. Also, while we always kept score, the basketball I played was about having fun and staying in shape, not about competing for championships or state records. But we have something in common: for all of us, sport can be a way to learn to love our bodies, build friendships and create a common language with people we might not otherwise know.

Many opponents of trans children participating in youth sports according to their gender identity argue that their presence is unfair to cisgender athletes. But there’s not enough evidence to suggest that trans athletes hold a competitive edge over their peers. Science is complicated.

A March study published in the journal Sports Medicine concluded that “even the most evidence-based policies are not likely to eliminate all performance differences between cisgender women with and without [differences of sex development] and transwomen athletes. According to the study, any benefits remaining after hormonal suppression “could be considered part of the athlete’s unique makeup.” I’m no scientist, but neither are Texas legislators who pander to small groups of voters. It is clear that they do not base their laws on evidence.

In amateur and youth sports, the emphasis should be on building camaraderie and self-esteem in children. Enabling trans kids to play youth sports therefore means enabling trans kids to deepen their connections with their peers and form communities outside of school and their families. Even though college championships and scholarships are a priority, the fact is that no examples of injustice involving transgender student-athletes in Texas have been cited by lawmakers.

Trans people already face so much discrimination, especially in Texas, which, due to its size, has one of the highest populations of trans people in the United States – the state has also reported the largest number of murders of trans people so far in 2021. If Texans want to protect kids, their goal shouldn’t be to stop trans kids from playing sports. They should aim to give all children, of all genders, the freedom to make friends and play without fear of the kind of discrimination that many older trans people face on a daily basis.

Governor Greg Abbott is preparing to enact a bill that will only further discriminate against trans people. House Bill 25 requires that public school sports teams be divided by the genders listed on students’ birth certificates. Currently, University Interscholastic League rules state that a trans girl, for example, can play women’s sports if she receives a court order allowing her to change the gender on her birth certificate. But the new law will undermine UIL’s rule and force many trans kids out of their current sports teams.

House Bill 25 not only robs these children of their ability to play, it robs them of a hobby that has been shown to improve their mental health and social well-being. And that seems to be exactly the point. In claiming to attempt to protect the integrity of women’s sports and the safety of female athletes, this cruel bill and others like it are based on the false premise that trans athletes are not female athletes. The integrity of sport does not require their exclusion; it requires their participation.

The rhetoric of protecting women is not new to anti-trans legislation. This language drove much of the bathroom bills that swept across the United States in the mid-2010s. Many of these bills were eventually struck down thanks to the tireless work of trans activists, whose efforts pushed people like former Texas Republican House Speaker Joe Straus to oppose his party to stop the toilet bill moving forward. And, in due course, bills preventing trans kids from playing sports will likely seem as misguided, discriminatory, and archaic as those toilet bills.

During our last beer at JR, my friend prepared me for the future. I had to leave Houston at the end of the month and he made me promise to find a queer community in my next city. “I’m normally cynical about everything,” he told me, “but not about building community.” He insisted that I would need it, that he needed it. Two years later, I’m blessed with a strong and supportive group of trans and queer friends in Brooklyn, where I now live. We go out for a drink, a meal, a movie, and the occasional plan a shooting session at the nearest outdoor basketball court. My heart breaks for the children whose opportunities to do the same may be limited during most crucial moment in their lives.

Alex McElroy is a writer whose novel “The atmospherics” is a New York Times Editors Choice.