Why Can’t We Play?

3 Ways Exclusionary Transphobic Laws are Hurting Children (and How We Can Help)

Lately, there has been controversy regarding numerous exclusionary and transphobic laws being passed in various states. These laws may include reducing or denying access to gender affirming medical care, banning information and reading material relating to queerness and LQBTQ+ acceptance, as well as attempting to decide which activities transgender individuals should or should not be allowed to participate in. Most recently, this has been taking place in the arena of sports. Sports can be an important aspect of social and emotional development for children of all ages. However, transphobic politicians have recently been using the term “competitive advantage,” most usually associated with professional athletes and performance-enhancing drugs, to separate and stigmatize transgender individuals from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. One can see how this can serve as a dog whistle for politicians to use certain rhetoric to further separate and stigmatize transgender individuals within their schools and among their friends. The prejudiced rationale behind this line of thinking centers around transgender woman having a competitive advantage due to being born male. But are sports, specifically through middle school and high school, simply about who’s the best? Are there not social and, indeed, developmentally important aspects of being a part of a team? Should conversations concerning children, especially those whose social situations may already put them at high risk, really be exclusionary to the extent they are unable to participate in sports? Some of these questions, specifically at higher levels of competition, can be difficult to answer. However, the clearest and most obvious piece that many legislators seem to miss is this: these kids just want to play sports with their friends, enjoy the thrill of winning and learn from losses as their peers do. They are not defined by what sport they play, just as they are not defined by their gender identity. Lost in the conversation is the simple fact that these children only want to belong, and in a world that still harshly seeks to separate, find comfort with those who do not judge or attempt to humiliate them.

Turning our attention from the political to the psychological, exclusion and the denial of a sense of belonging can be detrimental to all children, transgender or not. The following article will examine the harmful effects of denying children access to peer activities, and how we can help our children should the spreading of transphobic rhetoric continue:

  1. Thwarted sense of belonging – A thwarted sense of belonging refers to the psychological state in which the human need to belong is not being met. In a particularly upsetting research study completed by Horton et al. in 2016, it was determined that thwarted belongingness is a core risk factor in suicidality. In other words, when children feel as though they don’t belong, or cannot find a place to belong, they can become isolated. Within this isolation, among other factors, the child becomes a significantly higher risk for suicide attempts.
  2. Perceived burdensomeness – Similar to a thwarted sense of belonging, perceived burdensomeness refers to the perception that one is a burden to all others in their life.

The combination of these two factors is especially of note, as the experience of one alone is sufficient cause for passive suicidal ideation while the simultaneous experience of both states is suggested to result in active suicidal ideation (Gorse, 2020). Thwarted sense of belonging and perceived burdensomeness are only two of many variables that factor into the troubling statistic that LGBTQ youth were 3.5 times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.

3. Fear of discrimination – Sadly, fear of discrimination has become a part of life for LGBTQ+ individuals, especially students. In a qualitative study examining the experiences and perceptions of harassment and discrimination of LGBTQ youth in South Carolina high schools, researchers documented a wide range of homophobic experiences while attending high school. Over 78% refused to participate in school events or were kept out of activities because they could make others nervous or cause more problems (Myers, 2022). One student described their experience as feeling “more like the [coach/teacher/authority figure] just didn’t want to deal with me.” Sadly, the overall message that LGBTQ graduates received was that some school events are distinctly non-LGBTQ, discouraging them from fully engaging in the school culture.

Photo Credit: Kevin Sullivan

As one can see, the potential negative effects on LGBTQ+ children, with these laws, are immense and harmful. Thankfully, five types of coping mechanisms have been categorized as successful within the LGBTQ+ community – situation selection, situation modification, attention deployment, cognitive change, and response modulation (Hill & Gunderson, 2015). To close our article, we will describe these coping skills that children can employ to combat discrimination:

  1. Situation selection – Situation selection essentially boils down to seeking emotional and material support from family, friends, the internet, or organizations. While not always an option, placing oneself in situations in which a trusted source is available can help immensely in the search for belonging. Examples of situation selection include beginning to view supportive friends as family, obtaining support and information via the Internet, and setting boundaries within one’s current relationships.
  2. Situation modification -This coping skill entails anticipating the emotional experiences that will likely occur in response to an anticipated situation. The individual can then take steps to enter or create the situation that produces the desired emotions and avoids experiencing the undesirable emotions. Examples include avoiding potentially harmful social situations, such as a family reunion with non-accepting family members. As one participant put it, “I don’t share my happiness with others who may be judgmental”  (Hill & Gunderson, 2015).
  3. Attention deployment – This coping skill describes diverting attention away from the encounter or experience that produces undesirable emotions. In other words, distracting oneself with hobbies or thoughts within a trustworthy environment can help LGBTQ+ individuals feel more safe in their surroundings. For example, one may utilize attention deployment by looking to supportive friends when feeling attacked or discriminated against, focusing attention away from the distressful situation.
  4. Cognitive change – This coping skill describes the process of altering the way a situation is viewed in order to increase the production of desirable emotions and decrease the production of undesirable ones. In other words, cognitive change involves attempting to comprehend a situation in such a way that negative emotions are minimized. For example, LGBTQ+ children and parents can focus on the authors of banned books and their fight to create change, as opposed to solely focusing on the failure of their school system to provide supportive reading material.
  5. Response modulation – This coping skill can be utilized after a negative emotional response has been elicited. This strategy involves attempting to alter the experiential and physiological consequences of the elicited negative emotions. Examples can include reducing anxiety and stress levels through physical exercise or deep breathing relaxation techniques.

Lastly, we would like to include seeking professional treatment as a way to combat negative psychological consequences of discrimination. The importance of seeking professional help can never be understated. We at STEPS provide trauma-specific therapy to LGBTQ+  individuals, families and couples in order to help identify and implement the tools we’ve described above. If any piece of this article seems uncomfortable or confusing, speaking and working specifically with a trauma-informed specialist can help demystify and apply these tools in a way that best fits your personal perspective and lifestyle. Our team at STEPS are always available to help, please contact us at 631-301-4888 for more information, or visit our website at traumaprofessionals.com.

Photo/Design Credit: Julia Feliz


Gorse, M. (2020). Risk and protective factors to lgbtq+ youth suicide: A review of theliterature. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 

Hill, C. A., & Gunderson, C. J. (2015). Resilience of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals in relation to social environment, personal characteristics, and emotion regulation strategies. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 2(3), 232-252.

Horton, S. E., Hughes, J. L., King, J. D., Kennard, B. D., Westers, N. J., Mayes, T. L., & Stewart, S. M. (2016). Preliminary examination of the interpersonal psychological theory of suicide in an adolescent clinical sample. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 44(6), 1133-1144.

Myers, M. L. (2022). The experiences and perceptions of harassment and discrimination of LGBTQ youth in south carolina high schools. Gardner-Webb University.

Author: Dr. Ryan Daniels

Dr. Ryan Daniels earned his Master’s Degree at the Derner Institute for Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University, Garden City, NY, and his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, FL. Dr. Daniels has written articles and served on the board of numerous mental health organizations, such as the Florida chapter of Active Minds—an organization dedicated to reducing mental health stigma among teens and young adults.

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