All eyes of all ages are on Rio de Janeiro as it hosts the Summer Games, but some children watching at home might have trouble seeing themselves in the competitors: In many states, restrictive school policies prevent transgender kids from playing on sports teams that match their gender identities.
Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes think the Olympics might support their cause. On the heels of a landmark rule change by the International Olympics Committee, a groundbreaking Nike ad and departure from the oppressive conditions documented in Sochi in 2014, the games in Rio have been among the most LGBT-friendly Olympics yet. And just maybe those factors will be able to open up opportunities for more transgender youth to play school sports in the United States.
"A large discussion is going on around the world ... around transgender athletes," said Helen Carroll, the sports project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a nonprofit based in San Francisco. "Ninety percent of that conversation is very positive."
There are about 50 openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or intersex athletes at the Rio Olympics, an increase from the 23 who competed at the last Summer Games in London, according to Outsports. None of the Rio competitors have publicly come out as transgender, though Rolling Stone reported that internal IOC records indicate two trans athletes are there. The Opening Ceremony also featured a transgender model, Lea T.
These conditions are welcome to gay rights advocates after the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, where "nontraditional" sexuality and teaching kids under 18 about homosexuality were outlawed the year before. But perhaps most important for transgender athletes was an Olympic action that took place way before the Rio games got underway.
In January, the IOC relaxed a 12-year-old rule that formerly mandated that athletes had to have gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy to compete on a team aligning with their chosen gender. The committee changed its policy to allow female-to-male athletes to compete as men without restriction and male-to-female athletes to compete once they've proven their testosterone levels have dropped below a certain level.
"So, though I don't know of a transgender athlete competing in this particular Olympics, it certainly will be happening in the future," Carroll said.
Transgender youth could see positive effects even sooner. Carroll said that in loosening its restrictions, the IOC set a precedent — one schools across the country may look to as they develop their own rules.
As it stands, every state sets its own policy for transgender students' participation in sports. Fourteen states, like California or Florida, have inclusive policies that allow students to play on teams consistent with their identities regardless of what their birth certificate says. But seven, including Georgia and North Carolina, require a student to have changed his or her birth certificate — something that in some areas can only be done after a person has surgery or therapy. Eleven states don't have rules in place at all.
"It's a complete mixed bag," said Pat Griffin, a professor emerita of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the former director of LGBT sports group It Takes a Team. "Your access to sports as a transgender K-12 student depends on where you live."
But now, as schools are weighing their options, they can look to the IOC. Or the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which in 2011 changed its policy to allow female-to-male students in hormone therapy to play on men's teams and male-to-female students to play on women's teams after at least one year of testosterone suppression treatment.
Another Olympics-related point for transgender youth comes in the form of Chris Mosier, the first out transgender man athlete to make a U.S. national team.
Mosier, in addition to founding transathlete.com, has repped Team USA in the sprint duathlon and made the 2016 U.S. national team for long course duathlon. He's also the subject of Nike's first commercial featuring a trans athlete, which has been playing on TV during primetime Olympics coverage.
"That, in itself, is a tipping point in the Olympics," Carroll said. "For younger transgender kids, their parents are either seeing it and saying, 'Watch this, Susan,' or 'Watch this, Johnny,' or they're online and seeing it on YouTube."
She's right: The YouTube video of the 41-second commercial, titled "Unlimited Courage," has been viewed more than 2.5 million times and counting.
Mosier himself said he wants to be the role model he didn't have growing up. "When I was younger and thinking about transitioning, I didn't see any trans men competing against men," he told IBTimes. "We have a tendency to base our limits on what we see — if we see it, we can be it. I hope young people will see my Nike ad and feel they have someone to look to as an example."
Though there's a long way to go to make sure sports are totally inclusive, Mosier said he thinks the IOC policy change could have "a trickle-down effect." The duathlete and triathlete added that visibility can influence social change.
Chloe Psyche Anderson, who transitioned after high school, has similarly high hopes. The 24-year-old transgender woman is headed to play on the volleyball team at the University of California Santa Cruz this fall and said she believes the IOC rules and others will eventually offer trans athletes more opportunities to feel safe in sports. Then transgender kids will have their pick of Olympic idols, too.
"Cisgender children don't have to think much about it," Anderson said, using the term for people whose gender identities align with their biological sex. "They always have role models — they're everywhere — but trans athletes don't really get that luxury."