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Transgender teen Luc Esquivel is suing Tennessee so he can play golf

Tennessee is one of 17 states that bar transgender students from participating on school sports teams that align with their gender identity.
NBC News; Shawn Poynter / ACLU

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Luc Esquivel, a 14-year-old rising sophomore who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, just wants to play golf, but he’s banned from competing on the boys’ golf team at his high school.

In March 2021, Gov. Bill Lee signed legislation, which took effect immediately, that requires student athletes to prove the sex they were assigned at birth, either by providing an “original” birth certificate or another form of evidence if the birth certificate is not available. 

As a result, it bars transgender students like Esquivel from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity. Sixteen other states have passed similar measures, most in the last few years.

In November, Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Tennessee filed a suit on behalf of Esquivel, arguing that the law is discriminatory and unconstitutional. 

Esquivel, who has been playing golf since he was 11, said that when he first heard about the proposal he became “very angry.”  

“All I wanted to do is play with some other guys as a team to get better at the sport,” he said. “That’s a big thing — I just want to get better at it. It’s always more fun once you know how to play the game.”

He said he loves how golf requires precision, and each game can be a little bit different. One of his favorite parts of the game is putting, which entails hitting the ball softly to roll it into or near the hole. 

Esquivel said he knows he would enjoy competing on a team, because he competed on the girls’ golf team in middle school.

“I liked how people could rely on each other, and it’s not all up to you,” he said. 

He also likes playing “best ball” in which golfers compete on small teams against one another.

Sasha Buchert, a senior attorney for Lambda Legal who is working on Esquivel’s case, said the legal team is in the process of discovery, which means they’re requesting documents from the state and Knox County, where Esquivel’s high school is located. 

They hope that by the fall, Esquivel will be allowed to try out for the boys’ golf team. Buchert said the law is “absolutely unfair and mean-spirited,” and that it’s “robbing” Esquivel of the chance to take part in something he’s passionate about.

“This is not about a trophy,” Buchert said. “This is about having the opportunity to bond with your peers and to have the same experience that other kids are able to have.”

Buchert said similar lawsuits have succeeded. Last July a federal judge blocked a similar law in West Virginia that kept transgender women and girls from playing on female sports teams at school. This victory followed a similar federal ruling in Idaho in August 2020 that would have prohibited transgender women and girls from participating on sports teams.

Neither the Tennessee governor’s office nor the state attorney general’s office have responded to requests for comment. 

Earlier this year, Lee said he supported the bill because transgender girls “will destroy women’s sports.” He said that allowing trans girls to compete in girls’ sports “will ruin the opportunity for girls to earn scholarships,” though advocates have said there are no examples of that actually happening. 

Unable to play on his school’s boys' golf team, Esquivel has been practicing on the weekends with his dad, Mario.  

In his free time, Esquivel enjoys puzzles and playing games like Minecraft with friends. His family, which includes his dad, his mom, Shelley, and his twin sister, also likes attending concerts together. Esquivel said they all recently saw the Dave Matthews Band.

He said he decided to pursue the lawsuit — even though it’s not something most teenagers have to take on — for himself and others. 

His message to other trans athletes who are seeing states across the country try to restrict their participation in sports is to “just keep fighting.”

“You’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t fight,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing this.”

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