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Trans student golfer is suing Tennessee for the right to play his sport


In 10 states, trans student athletes have a choice, live authentically or play on their school sports teams. Tennessee is one of those states. Earlier this year, Governor Bill Lee signed a law banning trans athletes from competing on school teams that align with their gender. Luc Esquivel is a high school freshman. And I asked him about a sport he really loves.

Golfing can be such a frustrating sport. Like, everybody I talk to that plays it is, like, furious all the time. But then they say they love it. I'm like, how do you exist that way? How do you love something that makes you so mad?

LUC ESQUIVEL: I think people say that because - yeah, I agree. It's frustrating. It's so angering when you do it wrong. But there's always that one shot that you do perfectly. And then you're so happy. And you really, really, really want to do it again.

MARTÍNEZ: For Luc, golf is all about the camaraderie of being on a team. And for a little while in middle school, he had that.

L ESQUIVEL: I loved being on a team. I liked it. But I didn't fit in with the team. I just didn't fit in emotionally and clothes wise and just talking to them.

SHELLEY ESQUIVEL: I just want to clarify, he's talking when he played on the girls team.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Luc's mom, Shelley Esquivel.

So when you're playing with the guys, you would feel more at ease? That wouldn't be something you think about? You can just focus on the game and your swing and playing golf?

L ESQUIVEL: Exactly. Exactly. It's because I fit in with the guys - just talking to them and when playing and not having to worry about how I'm wearing something different than all the other girls. I don't have to worry about any of that.

MARTÍNEZ: But the state of Tennessee says Luc cannot play on his high school boys golf team. He wasn't even allowed to try out because he is trans. So Luc, along with the ACLU and Lambda Legal are suing the state, saying the law is discriminatory. I spoke with Luc and his mom, Shelley, about how it felt for them knowing he couldn't play the sport he loves on a team.

L ESQUIVEL: I emotionally was really, really sad about the whole thing, about myself and even more sadder when I think about other trans kids not being able to play.

MARTÍNEZ: What made it sad? I mean, you're a golfer. You want to play golf. And you can't play golf on the team that you want to play on. I mean, is that at the core just not being able to be yourself in high school, the part that's the most important here, the most important message?

L ESQUIVEL: I think it's also the social part, where you get to, like, be social comfortably. At least that's how I feel whenever I'm talking comparing guys to girls on teams.

MARTÍNEZ: When you realized that this was on the books and that you weren't going to be allowed to be on the team you wanted to be on, I mean, what did you think? What did that make you feel?

L ESQUIVEL: It made me really angry and sad. But it made me determined because I really, really, really wanted to fight for the right to be able to play on the team that I wanted, the guys' team.

MARTÍNEZ: Shelley, what about you? When this was something that became real, what did you think?

S ESQUIVEL: I personally felt like our family was discriminated against. It was just a push to make trans kids feel like they're not worthy, that they're not allowed to have the same opportunities as other kids. And it really made me very angry. And it still does because it was not that there was this big problem of trans kids trying to exploit athletics and trying to get all the scholarships or being dangerous. It just is really about them wanting to push their agenda and their views on what they believe transgender people are like.

MARTÍNEZ: So Shelley, what made you and your family decide to sue the state over this student sports law?

S ESQUIVEL: I saw how sad it made my son. I mean, I know that he really wanted to be on the team. And there's no reason why he shouldn't be allowed to play on the boys' team.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Shelley, when I see these stories - you know, and a lot of times, they become national stories. And there is a sense sometimes that they become part of the so-called culture wars that our country seems to be having. Do you feel that you're part of this culture war now?

S ESQUIVEL: I guess in a way I do because right now, it seems that the culture has been to oppress LGBTQ youth in particular with all the laws that are passing across the country in various states. It's not anything that I would have imagined that I would be. But because my kid is affected, I feel this strong mama bear urge to do what I can to make changes for him and for other kids.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Luc, what about you? There's all kinds of bigger ramifications that are coming because of this. I mean, how do you feel when you're faced with that reality, that this is something bigger than just playing golf for your high school sometimes? I mean, it stinks. But that's - you know, that's the world we live in.

L ESQUIVEL: Thinking about it now, I can see why it's a big thing. And it makes me really nervous. But I think it's something that really needs to change. And if me being on the boys' golf team or standing up to that will help, I am all for it because I just want this problem to be stopped (laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: What makes you the most nervous about all of this? What is the one thing maybe you worry about the most?

L ESQUIVEL: That we fail, and that I'm not going to be able to be on the golf team - and same with other people who are also trans and love to play sports, whether it's not golf and other sports that are team-based or alone. I just want to make other trans people proud.

MARTÍNEZ: That was Luc Esquivel along with his mom, Shelley Esquivel. Luc is suing the state of Tennessee over its ban on trans student athletes from playing on sports teams that align with their gender. We reached out to Governor Lee's office. And they said they were unable to comment on pending litigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASTAIRE'S "CLOUDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.