Sports saved my life. Transgender athletes should be able to have that experience too


Muay Thai saved my life. It buoyed me when I was deeply depressed, helped me recover from addiction and lifted me up through the death of a close friend and a painful divorce. As a young queer child, martial arts helped me to feel safe and powerful in a world that constantly told me I was different and didn’t belong. Sports are lifesaving for kids. I  — and countless others in this country — am living proof of that. 

Now, it’s my turn to create safe and welcoming spaces for all athletes. On the mat, I’m still an active fighter and a coach and a national champion in three different weight classes. Off the mat, I’m the Director of Policy and Programs at Athlete Ally, a nonprofit working every single day to make sure that everyone has equal opportunity and experience in sport, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Thursday, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) — which Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group — filed a lawsuit on behalf of three girls, alleging that Connecticut’s transgender-inclusive sports policy violates Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools, including in athletics. The overwhelming majority of courts have held that discrimination against transgender students in schools is prohibited under Title IX. And yet this lawsuit specifically targets two young black transgender girls, Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, who have trained incredibly hard for the success they’ve seen on their high school track teams and simply want to participate in the sport they love. 

The position outlined in the ADF suit is entirely unsupported in the text of Title IX and, in fact, will turn Title IX on its head and threaten all students. ADF is not trying to protect young women and girls in sport; it is simply continuing its crusade to dehumanize transgender people. Except now, the unmistakable target is transgender youth.

In a moment when black transgender women and girls are more likely to be killed simply for who they are, when trans youth are being denied life-saving health care and when LGBTQ+ people still aren’t protected at the federal level against discrimination — the reality is that this is not about access to scholarships or “competitive advantage.” Rather, this is about targeting an already vulnerable population. Transgender youth should be celebrated for living as their true selves, rather than becoming the target for further discrimination through legislation that attempts to violently erase them as human beings. 

There are many athletes and parents concerned about fairness and inclusion for women in girls in sports. I am as well. I’m concerned that boys receive 1.13 million more high school sports opportunities than girls, and that the gap between high school boys’ and girls’ participation in sport has not been significantly reduced in the past two decades. I’m concerned that there isn’t more of a national commitment to making sure all schools are compliant with Title IX, so all students can have equitable opportunities in sports. I believe we can tackle these inequalities without excluding transgender athletes in the process. 

ADF wants us to believe that we have to choose between supporting cisgender girls or supporting transgender girls. We don’t. We can, and should, be opening the door for all girls to have the lifesaving experience I did. We can, and should, be opening the door for every young girl who finds Muay Thai, or running, or soccer, or any other sport, and knows that from that moment on, her life will never be the same.

Anne Lieberman is the Director of Policy & Programs at Athlete Ally.