“Debate” about Trans Girls and Women in School Sports Spreads Transphobia and Bigotry Through the False Lens of “Fairness”

As of the end of April, fifteen states have passed laws banning transgender women and girls from participating in sports, teams7[CW1]. Supporters of these bills claim that it is about protecting the sanctity and fairness of women’s sports, and wrongly assert that trans women are infringing on the rights of women, instead of acknowledging that trans women are women and deserve the same rights as cisgender women. However, the mention of women’s rights in regard to this issue is where the argument loses any validity. It is simply dehumanizing and sexist to assume that because a person is AMAB* they must have some sort of athletic advantage over cisgender women. More importantly, transgender students have a right to participate in athletic programs at educational institutions that receive federal funds: a federal civil rights law, Title IX, guarantees that participation. The attempt to villainize transgender women and girls through false claims and punishing legislation is being made by conservative lawmakers in more than a dozen state legislatures and in GOP election campaigns across the country. Their hateful words and actions can have disastrous effects for the safety of trans youth everywhere. [CW2] [MK3] 

The hate campaign against trans women and girls participating on school sports teams claim ‘unfairness’, asserting that trans girls and women would create an uneven playing field. Rather than focusing on what this standard of ‘fairness’ might be, primary focus should be placed on the countless factors that can affect an individual’s performance in competitive sports. Socioeconomic disparities, racism, and even genetic and biological factors all play a role in this arena3[MK4] . And yet, there is no mention of these disparities when arguing that trans girls and women shouldn’t participate on teams that align with their gender identity. Sports depend on biological diversity. If it weren’t for these diverse characteristics, then competitive sports wouldn’t exist. It seems like this diversity is only a problem when women athletes, especially women of color and/or trans women are excelling in their respective sports. So how is this debate about ‘fairness’? [MK5] 

Although in many states transphobia is directed towards young trans girls competing on K-12 varsity teams, it is important to note that the transphobia and hypocrisy spreads all the way through college and elite athletics. Athletes like Michael Phelps, Lebron James, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal have genuine biological and genetic advantages6[CW6] [MK7]  that allow them to excel in their respective sports. Michael Phelps has many genetic advantages. He has a disproportionately long wingspan, a higher lung capacity than most, and most importantly, he produces about half the lactic acid of other athletes6[CW8] , which prevents him from becoming as fatigued as his teammates. Despite this, he is hailed as a legend in swimming, simply unbeatable.[CW9]  He weighed in on trans women and girls participating in teams that align with their gender identities, stating, “I can talk from a standpoint of doping. I don’t think I’ve competed in a clean field in my entire career,” the Olympic legend said. “But I think sports should all be played on an even playing field.7[MK10]  It is concerning that he does not acknowledge his own biological advantages when commenting on this topic, likening trans women participating in women’s sports to cheating with performance enhancing drugs. It is arguments such as this one that perpetuate transphobia for athletes at all levels. [MK11] 

The running theme here is based on the assumption that people who are AMAB* will, by nature, be better at sports than cisgender women. This is flatly incorrect and sexist. Trans women have been able to compete in the Olympics since 200410[CW12] , and since then, not a single trans woman has medaled in any event. This assumption even spreads to cisgender women in sports, from Simone Biles to Serena Williams. Both Olympic legends have been constantly harassed, accused of not being women, and of somehow cheating their way to the top. But just like any cisgender or [CW13] transgender athlete, they have simply dedicated years of hard work into the sport that they love. This backlash is laced with racism and misogyny, highlighting the intersectional oppression that Black women face in every aspect of their lives. Furthermore, banning trans women from participating in sports teams that align with their gender identity only fuels transphobic attitudes and harmful legislation that we are fighting so hard to stop.[MK14] 

With the rising backlash towards trans competitors in recent times, many trans athletes have commented on the fact that this is a non-issue. High school track stars Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood have faced adversity in their Connecticut community for participating in the girl’s track team at their school. Interviewers have asked how they would feel if another trans athlete began doing significantly better than them on their track team. In one reported interview, Mille answered matter-of-factly, visibly confused by the question, stating that it “would just push [her] to run faster”, she continued to say that she wouldn’t discourage other trans athletes from participating in teams that align with their gender identity because they are brave for doing so. Yearwood added, “I’d be happy for them, because they get to do what they feel comfortable with. They’re happy. So that in turn should make me happy”.

Lia Thomas, who recently won the 500-yard freestyle National Championship, said it best in an exclusive interview with SwimSwam News in December 2021. As she put it, “Being in a swimsuit 20 hours a week has helped me with accepting my body.” When asked to weigh in, she stated, “The very simple answer is that I’m not a man. I’m a woman, so I belong on the women’s team.”

It really should be as simple as that. We must continue to address the inherent transphobia, misogyny, and racism that affect young trans athletes every day, and demand that transgender individuals be treated fairly in professional sports. [CW15] [MK16] 

*Assigned Male at Birth

By Angie Veliz, Digital Media Intern

Sources:

Cole, D., 2022. South Dakota bans trans women and girls from same-gender school sports teams. [online] CNN. Available at: <https://www.cnn.com/2022/02/04/politics/transgender-sports-ban-south-dakota/index.html> [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Glasspiegel, Ryan. “Michael Phelps: NCAA’s Lia Thomas Issue Shows Need for Level Playing Field.” New York Post, New York Post, 20 Jan. 2022, nypost.com/2022/01/17/michael-phelps-ncaas-lia-thomas-controversy-very-complicated/.

Gruber-Miller, S. and Richardson, I., 2022. [online] Desmoinesregister.com. Available at: <https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2022/03/03/trans-transgender-girls-banned-womens-sports-kim-reynolds-lgbtq-iowa-signs-bill/9349887002/> [Accessed 7 April 2022].

Hesse, Monica. “Perspective | We Celebrated Michael Phelps’s Genetic Differences. Why Punish Caster Semenya for Hers?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 May 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/we-celebrated-michael-phelpss-genetic-differences-why-punish-caster-semenya-for-hers/2019/05/02/93d08c8c-6c2b-11e9-be3a-33217240a539_story.html.

Jones, Bethany Alice et al. “Sport and Transgender People: A Systematic Review of the Literature Relating to Sport Participation and Competitive Sport Policies.” Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.) vol. 47,4 (2017): 701-716. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0621-y

Morgan, Piers. “Trans Athletes like Lia Thomas Are Destroying Women’s Sports in Way as Unfair as Doping Cheats – STOP THIS WOKE INSANITY NOW!” New York Post, New York Post, 26 Jan. 2022, nypost.com/2022/01/26/trans-athletes-like-lia-thomas-are-destroying-womens-sports/

Movement Advancement Project. “Equality Maps: Bans on Transgender Youth Participation in Sports.” https://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/_participation_bans. Accessed 04/29/2022.sports

Padgett, Donald. “Michael Phelps Weighs in on Lia Thomas Controversy.” Out, 19 Jan. 2022, www.out.com/sports/2022/1/19/michael-phelps-weighs-in-transgender-swimmer-lia-thomas-u-penn-controversy.

Pinkmantaray. “The Inclusion of Transgender Athletes.” Schuylerbailar – Pinkmantaray, 1 Apr. 2022, pinkmantaray.com/transathlete.

Sykes, Heather. ” Transsexual and Transgender Policies in Sport”. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal 15.1 (2006): 3-13. < https://doi.org/10.1123/wspaj.15.1.3>. Web. 7 Apr. 2022.

Warren, Ty. “Issue around Trans Athletes ‘Not about Fairness’.” Guard, Register-Guard, 27 Feb. 2022, www.registerguard.com/story/opinion/columns/2022/02/27/guest-opinion-issue-around-trans-athletes-not-about-fairness/64040860007/.


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