The Mental Health Toll of Including—and Excluding—Trans People From Sports
A Q&A with athlete-activist Chris Mosier.
To close out Mental Health Awareness Month and gear up for Pride Month, we talked to triathlete and long-time LGBTQ+ activist Chris Mosier about his mental health journey as a competitor and the mental health consequences of anti-trans attacks in and through sports. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
The Inclusion Playbook: Can you start by first sharing how you got involved in sports?
Chris Mosier: When I was a kid I played tee ball, softball, volleyball, and then basketball when I was in high school. I loved being part of a team, because as a young person, playing sports was the equalizer for me. I was a gender nonconforming kid who didn’t really fit in with my peers in the classroom or the neighborhood. When I was playing sports, everybody loved me, appreciated me, valued and welcomed me, because I was a great athlete, leader, and teammate. Sport really gave me a place where I could just be myself and be accepted like my peers.
IP: What ultimately drew you to running?
CM: I wanted to play college basketball. That was right around the time that I started to have internal awareness that I didn’t want to be on a team where a coach would say, “Hey, ladies!” or “Let’s go, girls!” Even though I didn’t know I was trans at that time, I was starting to have this awareness of my own discomfort in being identified in that way. I came to running because I chose not to play college basketball and I missed being an athlete and challenging myself. Running was something I could do anywhere; I didn’t have to go into a locker room and into a gendered space, and I didn’t have to be in a women’s competition. I could be physically active and not have to put myself in those situations that felt increasingly more dangerous to me as time went on.
IP: What mental health benefits do you get from running?
CM: I love the benefits of both running and working out at the gym. In that time period just after college, as I was starting to understand my identity, they felt like ways to center myself, to feel more aligned with my body. As I worked out, my body changed and that felt good. It was a way to recapture that childlike joy—the positive parts of my experiences as a kid and how they connected to sport.
IP: Would you say that sports in general supported your mental health?
CM: Sport as a kid was as life-saving as it was fun. I truly believe it was a place where all of the angst or discomfort I felt being in social situations—being identified a certain way [and] feeling like I didn’t belong—all of that went away when I was playing sports. Sport became a safe place for me, even though I was harassed sometimes about my identity.
IP: It’s interesting that your mental health was in a good place despite harassment.
CM: I wasn’t out as trans [and] I wasn’t out as queer, but the language people used when they were targeting me was often anti-trans or homophobic. Other competitors would question my gender while I was playing sports on a girls’ team or they would call me homophobic slurs. That was a little bit of a taste, but being able to channel all of my energy into becoming better at something was really healthy for me. It provided a positive outlet.
IP: When you were in those situations, did you have anyone to help you navigate them?
CM: I heard [homophobic and gendered] language from my coach, even though we heard “Everybody is welcome here. Everybody belongs.” When I heard that, I didn’t hear me—that I would be protected or safe. Largely, the homophobic and transphobic language came from competitors. While teammates didn’t actively harass me, they didn’t actively stand up for me either. I felt very much alone when those situations would happen.
IP: How long had you been running when you came out as trans?
CM: I started running around 2002-2003 as a way to stay fit. I missed the spirit and camaraderie that come with being part of a competition. I started competing around 2006 and transitioned in 2010. I had been trying to establish myself in the sport and was working my way up the ranks as a female athlete, and I realized when I won my first triathlon that I was too embarrassed to tell people that I’d won because it was in the women’s category. That was a real moment of clarity for me. Here was something that I did to feel like I belong and to have fun, and it was becoming less and less fun. It became more of a space where the discomfort I was feeling in my life was highlighted.
IP: Did you find triathlons to be as gendered as the team sports you played early on?
CM: At that time, most triathlons were separated by gender at the start. Women wore a pink swim cap and men wore a blue swim cap. It didn’t align for me. That inability to share my accomplishments because of the category was a real point that forced me to look at my life and how I wanted to show up, and [to] start making some decisions about transitioning.
IP: Do you feel that being out while competing was beneficial to your mental health? Was it noticeably different from before?
CM: I was very, very worried about transitioning because I had not seen any men transition and continue to play sports with men. But when I did finally come out as trans and make the decision to transition [running] categories, I felt more comfortable and self-assured. It was all out there. I stopped hiding things. I was previously showing up to the starting line so overly concerned about what other people might be thinking or saying about me that it would take me out of my game. I spent so much energy and focus on other people and projecting my fears onto them that I didn’t focus as much on my racing, nutrition plan, and mental strategy. When I came out, I was able to take all of that energy that I’d been wasting and channel that into my sport and my own performance. That really helped me excel.
IP: Your motto is: “Be who I needed when I was younger.” What has the response been from the young trans people you’re advocating for?
CM: I’ve been out since 2010. I’ve been very public since that time, with a real spike in my public platform in 2015, when I made Team USA (the first trans man to make a national team). In 2016, I was sponsored by Nike and had a global campaign. Since then, I’ve received messages from young people who were thinking about transitioning or are transitioning, as well as parents and family members, just saying how much it means to have somebody to look up to. I can’t even imagine how different my life would’ve been, had I seen somebody like me participating in sports. I would’ve known and believed that it could happen. I had to force myself to believe.
IP: Do you hear other common messages and themes from young people?
CM: I’ve been mentoring trans youth in sports at the high school and college levels for over a decade. The messages I’m hearing now are so much more concerning than they were in the early part of the 2010s. Now, trans people are unsure of where they belong or where they are able to participate. I think each of these young people know where they want to be, but the messages they’re receiving from social media, the media at large, and lawmakers have put doubt in their minds that they'll be safe or accepted in those spaces. The most upsetting thing that I’ve seen is young people leaving their sport because it doesn’t feel like they will be physically or emotionally safe in those spaces.
IP: Studies show that LGBTQ+ youth who participate in organized sports report lower rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. In the conversations with young people who don’t feel emotionally or physically safe, are those mental health challenges coming up explicitly?
(Credit: Ted Eytan)
CM: Explicitly, I'm hearing young people say that they’re feeling hopeless. They’re feeling like there’s not a future for them, and that’s a really troubling thing to hear. If a young person can’t see a future for themselves, then I believe they’re at a higher risk of these negative outcomes. We know that participating in sports combats all of that, whether a person is LGBTQ+ or not. A healthy outlet for mitigating harms against a young person is being taken away from trans and nonbinary youth—the people who need it the most. There are more states now that ban trans youth than there are trans youth playing in sports.
IP: Can you describe the toll that these anti-trans bills have on your personal mental health?
CM: There are some days that are much more difficult than others. It does feel like trans athletes have had a target on our backs. It’s not enough to just allow us to participate. We know that any time a trans athlete does well in an event, the mental health tolls that come after are severe: targeting, harassment, discrimination, horrendous comments online. It is an attack on people’s personal safety and well-being to be out as a trans athlete right now.
IP: What do you do to keep pushing on those bad days?
CM: I’m an adult with a huge tool belt of ways to cope and deal with the discrimination and harassment that we experience. Also, I’m a white trans man. I experience discrimination in a very different, and probably lesser, way than trans women in sports—particularly trans women of color. But there are some very difficult days. Despite scientific evidence saying there is no reason to ban trans youth, despite people showing up at state capitols en masse fighting against these bills, people are still passing [laws] without reason.
IP: Are there consequences in places that haven’t passed restrictive laws?
(Credit: Flickr / Phil Roeder)
CM: I think for myself and for all trans and nonbinary people, specifically for youth, there’s a real impact of just having these conversations. Having trans athletes framed as a “debate” has been incredibly damaging. Whether these bills pass or not, having our identity framed as a debate creates a narrative that influences the way that people think, talk about, and treat trans people—especially in sport. Given that many people may not have met a trans person in real life, and may not have ever talked to a trans person who plays sports, people are largely relying on what they’re hearing on social media or on the news. It’s largely stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions being spun, targeting the trans community for political gain.
IP: You mentioned having a tool belt for navigating harassment and discrimination. What do you do to maintain your mental health as these laws and bills proliferate?
CM: I still lean on sport as my outlet for mental health. I’ve worked through so many challenging days and tough situations through playing sports and training. Physical activity helps me become more present and centered in myself. Having that moment of joy in my day is really important. Additionally, I use tools like meditation, mindfulness, leaning heavily on my allies. Just knowing that people are there and staying in community has been something that’s kept me afloat over the last several years.
IP: What are some steps that allies—especially teammates and coaches—can take right now to support the mental health of their trans peers?
CM: The first thing we need to remember is that trans people are people. The way that people can show up for trans people at this time is the same as you would show up for anybody experiencing discrimination or harassment. I advise any ally to do their own research and not rely on the person who is being negatively impacted to help you with your education. There are so many great resources—places like the Inclusion Playbook, my website transathlete.com, and Athlete Ally—to get understanding. Think about the humanity of the individuals and then really take a more active role.
Allyship is active. It’s not just about putting a rainbow logo on a uniform or social media profile. That’s one step of visibly showing allyship, but there must be action behind it. That means intervening if you hear anti-trans language or comments being made, [and] making sure that the person who is being harassed or targeted doesn’t need to be the only person defending themselves. Amplifying trans and nonbinary voices is incredibly important.
IP: Any final thoughts?
CM: At the end of the day, remember the reason why we come to sport. For young people, it's fun. It’s about skill-building and learning about themselves and learning to interact with other people in the world. There are wide-ranging mental, physical, and social benefits for young people to play sports and every young person deserves that opportunity.