A Briefing On the Controversy Over Transgender Athletes — and Why They Deserve Your Full Support

In the wake of concerning state legislation and as we approach the Tokyo Olympics, it's worth taking a look at why transgender athletes of all ages deserve access to gender-affirming participation in sports.

With an increasing number of public places refurbishing their bathroom doors with "All Genders Welcome" signs, Pose getting two Golden Globe nominations, and Laverne Cox and Elliot Page solidifying their places as household names, it's true that, in many places, societal views around gender are (finally) evolving, and becoming increasingly accepting of transgender individuals.

But transgender athletes who are on the court, in the pool, and at the mound are experiencing a very different situation in the world of sport.

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"In dozens of states across the country, there has been a concentrated effort to ban transgender athletes from participating in school sports on the teams that are consistent with who they are," explains Casey Pick senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth. At the most basic level, that means that transgender girls in those states are legally disallowed from participating in sports withother girls, and transgender boys cannot participate in sports with transgender boys. But dig deeper, and you'll realize that these bans have far more implications than just varsity rosters.

Read on to better understand why these bans are being enacted now, what they mean for transgender athletes, as well as why the facade of "fairness" that surrounds these bans isn't what it seems.

Why We're Talking About Transgender Athletes Now

The bodies of gender minorities (girls, women, non-binary folks) have long been a source of speculation and discrimination in sports. Just look at everything that happened with Caster Semenya, two-time Olympic track athlete. Semenya was subjected to extreme body surveillance since 2009 after she crushed the 800-meter run at the world championships in Berlin, Germany. She was found to have hyperandrogenism, which means her testosterone levels are naturally higher than "the standard female range." Since then, she's been through a series of intense fights with the International Association of Athletics Federations to defend her titles and right to race in the women's division moving forward.

However, the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and the recent news surrounding transgender runner CeCé Telfer have put the nuances and challenges of regulating transgender sports into the spotlight yet again. Telfer will not be allowed to compete in the U.S. Olympic trials for the women's 400-meter hurdles because she did not meet the eligibility requirements set by World Athletics, the international governing body for running sports, according to the Associated Press. The eligibility requirements — which were released in 2019 and include, for example, that testosterone levels need to be below 5 nanomoles per liter for a span of 12 months — closed off international women's events between 400 meters and a mile to athletes who did not meet them. Despite the setback, Telfer seems she's taking the ruling in stride. In an Instagram post shortly after the news broke, Telfer wrote, "Can't stop won't stop🙏🏾. Nothing's gonna hold these 🦵🏾 down. I'm a worrier of God and a soldier too. I do it for my people and I do it for you ❤️🌈💜💛."

Then, on July 2, two more athletes were ruled ineligible to compete in certain women's track events at the upcoming Games due to their testosterone levels, despite being cisgender; Namibia athletes Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, both 18 years old, were forced to withdraw from the 400-meter event after tests revealed their testosterone levels were too high, according to a statement released by the Namibia National Olympic Committee. Their test results showed that both athletes have naturally high testosterone levels which disqualify them from events between 400 and 1600 meters, according to the World Athletics rule; however, they'll still be able to compete in the 100-meter and 200-meter races in Tokyo.

Namibia's government responded with a statement supporting the athletes, saying, "The Ministry calls upon Athletics Namibia and the Namibia National Olympics committee to engage both the International Association of Athletics Federations (now known as World Athletics) and International Olympics Committee to seek ways that would not exclude any athlete because of natural conditions that are not of their own making," according to Reuters.

But the upcoming Olympics is far from the only reason transgender athletes are making headlines, though; several states have recently taken actions that keep transgender students out of sports. Since the start of 2021, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida have all enacted restrictions that keep transgender students from participating on their rightful gender's team in public schools. Florida is the latest state to do so, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signing a bill deceptively dubbed, "Fairness in Women's Sports Act" on June 1 of this year (which, yes, happens to be the first day of Pride Month). Dozens of other states (North Carolina, Texas, Michigan, and Oklahoma to name just a few) are currently trying to pass similar legislation.

Much of the noise surrounding these bills has led the public to believe that smaller, transphobic grassroots organizations are fueling this transphobic fire — but this is not the case. Rather, "this is being coordinated by national anti-LGBTQ organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, whose main objective is not to protect women and girls in sports, but rather to marginalize transgender and non-binary youth," says Pick. These groupsare using transgender youth's rights and bodies to fight back against the increasing acceptance and respect that the LGBTQ community has won in recent years. "This is purely about politics, exclusion, and is done so in a way that harms the mental health and well-being of transgender young people in the country," she says.

To clarify: These bills specifically target school-aged children in public schools. The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the International Olympic Committee are not directly implicated here; these governing bodies will continue to make their own rules.

Many of These Bills Divide Teams By 'Biological Sex'

The exact language of the bills varies slightly, but most say that students must compete with teams based on their biological sex, which the Florida bill defines as the sex marked on the students' birth certificate at time of birth: M (for male) or F (for female).

While commonly used to divide and organize society, the concept of biological sex is greatly misunderstood. Typically, people think biological sex is a measure of "what's between your legs," the two options being 'male' (has a penis) or 'female' (has a vagina). Not just reductive, this understanding is unscientific. Biological sex is not binaristic — it exists on a spectrum. Many people have trait combinations (hormonal levels, genital configuration, reproductive organs, hair growth patterns, etc.) that don't neatly fit into the boxes 'male' and 'female'.

Terry Miller, transgender runner, in a statement for the ACLU

I am a girl and I am a runner. I participate in athletics just like my peers to excel, find community, and meaning in my life. It is both unfair and painful that my victories have to be attacked and my hard work ignored.

— Terry Miller, transgender runner, in a statement for the ACLU

The problem with dividing students using this method is two-fold. First, it reinforces a biological binary that does not exist. Second, it removes gender from the equation entirely. (See: What People Get Wrong About the Trans Community, According to a Trans Sex Educator)

Gender is different from sex, and it refers to the set of behaviors, characteristics, and tastes that are thought to accompany men, women, non-binary folks, bigender individuals, and everyone else who lives across the gender spectrum. A simplistic way of thinking about it is that sex is what you've got going on physically, while gender is what you've got going on in your heart, mind, and soul.

For some individuals, their sex and gender align, which is known as being cisgender. But for other individuals, sex and gender do not align, which is known as being transgender. The bills in question majorly impact the latter. (More here: LGBTQ+ Glossary of Gender and Sexuality Definitions Allies Should Know)

The Big Claim: Transgender Girls Have An "Unfair Advantage"

These bills don't target just transgender girls, but as the name's of these bills suggest — in Idaho and Florida it's the "Fairness in Women's Sports Act" while in Mississippi it's the "Mississippi Fairness Act" — the big claim by those in favor of them is that transgender girls have an inherent unfair advantage compared to cisgender girls.

But there is no scientific evidence that says transgender women should not be allowed to play with other girls, says pediatrician and geneticist Eric Vilain, M.D., an advisor to both the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA, who spoke to NPR.

Proponents of these bills point toward previous research which has suggested that, compared to cisgender women, cisgender men have about a 10 to 12 percent athletic advantage, which has been attributed in some part to higher levels of the hormone testosterone, which is responsible for increased muscle mass and strength. But (and this is important!) transgender women are women, not cisgender men! So these findings cannot be used to claim that transgender girls or women have an unfair advantage over cisgender girls. (See: How Does Transitioning Affect a Transgender Athlete's Sports Performance?)

Further, "transgender students undergoing hormone therapy are doing so as medical treatment under the supervision of a physician, so they should be allowed to participate in sports just like any other student who has prescribed medicine by their doctor," says Pick.

Supporters of these bills also point again and again to track stars Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood in Connecticut (a state that allows athletes to compete in sports according to their gender identity) who frequently win races and happen to be transgender. (To learn more about these runners, check out Nancy Podcast episode 43: "When They Win.")

Here's the thing: There are more than 56.4 million studentsin the United States, between pre-kindergarten and 12th grade, including both public and private schools. Estimates suggest that nearly 2 percent of these students are transgender, meaning there are about one million transgender students in the U.S. And many of those one million students participate in sports. "Yet, [proponents of the bill] have to keep calling out the same one or two names because transgender athletes are simply not dominating sports," says Pick. "So whatever effect testosterone has, we know that it is not causing any domination." In summary: The so-called unfair advantage has no basis in fact.

The true unfairness is the discrimination these young transgender athletes are facing. As Miller, one of the transgender track stars in Connecticut, said in a statement for the ACLU: "I have faced discrimination in every aspect of my life [...]. I am a girl and I am a runner. I participate in athletics just like my peers to excel, find community, and meaning in my life. It is both unfair and painful that my victories have to be attacked and my hard work ignored."

What These Bills Mean for Transgender Athletes

With the passing of these bills, transgender students will not be able to compete on teams with other folks in their gender categories. But it also means that likely, these transgender students won't be able to be on any sports team at all. While legislators say these transgender girls can compete on the boys' teams and transgender boys can compete on the girls' teams, it can be incredibly mentally and emotionally damaging to play on a team that is not aligned with your gender.

"Forcing a transgender person to pretend they are not transgender or putting them with the gender they do not align with causes self-harm and suicide rates to skyrocket," says mental health professional Kryss Shane, M.S., L.M.S.W., author of The Educator's Guide to LGBT Inclusion. It also puts them at risk for harassment. "The risk of bullying is high," she says. Should the student choose not to play, "they are denied access to belonging, teamwork, physical exercise, self-confidence, and all of the other things that any youth gets from participating in school sports," says Pick.

Pick notes that currently about half of transgender students report being affirmed for who they are at school. If/when passed, "these bills would legally require schools that are accepting to behave in a way that's discriminatory against these youths," she says. You end up with a situation where, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. an individual's gender is being acknowledged and affirmed, and then during sports practice, it's not, says Pick. "That completely undermines the standards of practice for mental health care, negates the school's work to treat the kids with equality, and it functionally doesn't work. These are girls; they don't want to be placed on the boys teams." (Related: Nicole Maines and Isis King Shared Their Advice for Young Transgender Women)

How Cisgender Allies Can Show Their Support

It starts with the bare minimum: Respecting trans folks, calling them by their correct name, and using their pronouns. As small as it sounds, this majorly benefits trans folks' mental well-being. "Having just one accepting adult in an LGBTQ youth's life can reduce suicide attempts by up to 40 percent," says Pick.

Second, "don't allow yourself to be caught up in the misinformation out there," says Pick. "There is a concerted effort [from conservative groups] to demonize the kids who just want to be kids." So make sure you're getting your information from research-backed, data-proven, queer-inclusive sources like Them, NewNowNext, Autostraddle, GLAAD, and The Trevor Project. This will be especially important this summer when New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will compete as the first-ever transgender athlete at the Olympics. (ICYWW: Yes, she has met all of the requirements of the International Olympic Committee's regulations and guidelines for trans athletes).

As for how to fight back against these transphobic bills? Much of this legislation is being done in the name of women and girls, explains Pick. "So this is a time where I call out to my fellow women and girls and say 'Not in our name.'" Call your local legislators, post your view on social media, support local sports teams, be loud with your support for transgender youth, she says.

If you really want to help women and girls in sports, the solution is not to keep transgender girls from having access to them. But instead to make sure that transgender girls have equal access and opportunities to all sports. "We can protect and value women and girls' sports at the same time as respecting the gender identity of transgender and non-binary youth," says Pick "This is not a zero-sum game."

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