By Gio Santiago
To start it off simply, since I was 5 years old, I have loved everything about sports. I can’t imagine my life without the lessons sports have taught me, and the teammates who became my community along the way. As a lifelong Ohioan, it breaks my heart to think that transgender youth in my home state won’t have those same experiences.
Growing up in an urban area outside of Cleveland in 1991, I was female identified and there weren’t many places for girls to play sports. I was lucky that my mom worked at the local YMCA, which had a pool, a recreation room, and a gym. There, and at home watching Michael Jordan and the Bulls play, is where I also discovered my love for basketball.
As I got older and my love for sports grew, my parents were finding that there still were not many places for little girls to join teams, especially basketball. Around that same time, the YMCA had started a youth basketball league for 5th and 6th graders, but it was boys only.
My parents pushed for me to be able to join the team, I was really good, and already knew most of the boys on the team. The coaches decided to let me play. I’m glad they did. My gender didn’t matter, because I just wanted to play, move my body, and be part of a team with friends.
As I grew up and headed to junior high and into high school, being able to be on the volleyball, basketball, and track teams helped me keep focus and excel at school over the years. When I graduated, I left Ohio and joined the United States Air Force, but I never left sports.
I played on my base basketball team and on every recreation team I could find. Again, I just wanted to play sports, and be a part of a team the same way I valued being a part of my air force squadron and contributing to something bigger than myself.
Military service, like my love for sports, taught me discipline, teamwork, and the importance of valuing people for their contributions, no matter their background. After my military service, I returned to Ohio and decided that I wanted to coach sports. I got a coaching job at a local youth sports league. I started coaching on the weekends, and soon started coaching 5 days a week all across Northeast Ohio.
At the same time, I was also beginning to understand that I am a transgender man. Sport always made me feel embodied and present. Coaching as who I truly am was critical for me to be the best person and coach I could be.
I came out to my co-coaches, and they worked to support me through my transition.
They created a community and a safe space for me to be who I am today. There were LGBTQ+ students who were even more motivated to play and achieve their goals when they could see a coach who was similar to them.
In 2020, my focus as a coach took on an even deeper meaning. It was then that I saw so much hate and dehumanization of transgender youth start to take form here in Ohio. And why? Why can’t we just love these kids and just let them play?
LGBTQ+ youth, and especially those who are transgender, are being pushed out of team sports.
Some will say, “No, they aren’t trying out, or we don’t have any of those kids here, or they just weren’t that good,” and I tell you this, none of that is true.
In 2021, I created an LGBTQ+ Youth Sports League, because I want transgender youth who are also Ohioians to have the ability to play sports the same way I did.
Bills like House Bill 6, which is currently pending in the Ohio Statehouse, are so harmful to transgender youth, their families, and sports overall.
Legislators pushing forward these bills aren’t saving women’s sports by intentionally excluding transgender girls and young women.
If leaders really cared about fairness in sports, they would focus on securing equal funding and opportunities for girls’ sports teams and making sure families with low incomes can still enroll their kids in sports teams, classes, and camps so they can play.
Attacking, bullying, dehumanizing, and siloing our transgender and intersex youth from sports looks awful for Ohio.
We are struggling to keep people in the state, and passing laws that actively target our most vulnerable youth not only detracts people with inclusive values, but is also in direct opposition to those values that make Ohio great.
I am a transgender man who is a lifelong athlete, a coach, a mentor, a parent to a beautiful little girl, and a lover of all things sport. I’m an Ohioan through and through.
What I know from spending my life here is this: All kids in Ohio deserve a fair chance to grow up loving their state and their community.
Sports are a huge part of that, and everyone, no matter their gender, deserves a chance to play.
Gio Santiago is an athlete, coach and Senior Field Organizer at Athlete Ally.
This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.