Jazz Jennings recalls being 'devastated' by transgender soccer ban at age 8

Elise Solé
·5-min read

Jazz Jennings was banned from playing girls' soccer as a child, and she doesn't want other transgender children to suffer the same fate. 

"When I was 8 years old, I was banned from my playing girls' soccer for over two years. The ban made me feel excluded, had no merit and negatively affected me and my family," the 20-year-old activist captioned a post on Instagram Monday. "Today, many states, including Florida, are trying to take away sports from many transgender youth. Go to the link in my bio to take action and combat these bills before they pass."  

The post showed emotional footage of Jennings's parents, Greg and Jeanette, reacting to the ban by Florida league officials, who argued that their daughter's biological sex gave her an unfair advantage in the sport, a common argument that's been challenged by medical researchers. A 2017 review of eight research articles and 31 athletic policies published in the journal Sports Medicine found the majority were written without evidence-based guidance and that "there is no direct or consistent research" to suggest that transgender females have an athletic advantage "at any stage of their transition."

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At age 5, Jennings openly identified as a girl, with the support of her parents, who felt their daughter had gender dysphoria — "the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics," per the Mayo Clinic.

"It was horrible. I was told I could compete in games with the boys' team, or practice with the girls and sit on the bench for the girls’ games," Jennings told the online newspaper MinnPost in 2014. "These were very difficult times. I tried playing with the boys, but it was a disaster. It made me feel depressed, and I couldn’t enjoy the game I love. I didn’t want to quit soccer, so for the next year, I decided to practice with the girls and face the injustice of being forced to sit out the games. I felt like I was being bullied. It was terrible and painful."

Backed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), Jennings and her family challenged the soccer ban and, three years later, the U.S. Soccer Federation created policies inclusive of transgender players.

Shannon Minter, the legal director of the NCLR, tells Yahoo Life that he helped Jennings and her family draft letters to the federation, which did not have anti-transgender policies at the time but subsequently adopted those that banned discrimination based on gender identity. "It took a long time, but it was definitely because of Jazz," he says. "I give her parents credit as they stood by her and without many resources available for them at the time."

The federation was "very happy" to work with Jennings to put the policy together, a spokesperson tells Yahoo Life.  

Jennings's win was just a small portion of a larger and ongoing battle — according to the Human Rights Campaign, 22 bills in 17 different states, including Montana, South Dakota and Kansas, call for the restriction of transgender youth from playing on athletic teams. In fact, the LGBTQ advocacy group noted 82 anti-transgender bills have been introduced in 2021 state legislative sessions as of March 13, "surpassing the 2020 total of 79 and marking the highest number of anti-transgender bills in history."

For example, this week alone, three states passed anti-transgender athletic policies. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill that states "a student's gender for purposes of participation in a public middle school or high school interscholastic athletic activity or event be determined by the student's sex at the time of the student's birth, as indicated on the student's original birth certificate." Lee explained in a tweet that it will "preserve women's athletics and ensure fair competition." 

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson defended a similar state law, telling ABC News, "This law simply says that female athletes should not have to compete in a sport against a student of the male sex when the sport is designed for women’s competition. … This will help promote and maintain fairness in women’s sporting events.” Meanwhile, the "Mississippi Fairness Act," tweeted Gov. Tate Reeves, will "protect young girls from being forced to compete with biological males for athletic opportunities." 

However, this month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, when asked about state legislation that limits transgender youth in sports participation and health care, that President Biden "believes that trans rights are human rights and that no one should be discriminated on the basis of sex." 

In October, Jennings spoke to Yahoo Life about her 2014 autobiographical children's picture book, I Am Jazz, landing on the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom's 100 most banned or challenged books of the decade, which she called "both disappointing and honorable." (The title of the book also inspired her TLC reality show.)

"In one way, it’s upsetting to know that there is still is so much stigma and controversy about a subject that has been prevalent within our society, but at the same time there is some pride in knowing that the book is out there and still making waves," she said. "It’s another stepping-stone towards creating equality and ensuring that all people are respected and treated as equals, even those who are different."

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