The Fight Against Modern Day Transphobia in Athletics
By Ella Olson
2020 broke many records, most notably a world-wide pandemic that many never expected to experience. It failed to out-do 2021 at one record though — transphobia. Only six months into the year, 2021 is about to break the record for most anti-LGBTQ+ legislation passed. Currently, this title is held by 2015, when 15 discriminatory bills were signed into law. As of April, only a third of the way through the year, eight bills have already been passed, and more than ten are currently making their way to state governors. A majority of this legislation has been against transgender women, who have transitioned from male to female, and this discrimination is becoming increasingly apparent in bills targeted towards athletes.
The main problem government officials have with transgender athletes is specifically towards female athletes. Is it fair for a biological male to compete against a biological female? Generally, male athletes are stronger, faster and able to build muscle easier than a female athlete. The idea is that these traits make it an unfair competition and give transgender females an advantage. From this notion, a variety of bills have been written that would, in theory, “save women’s sports”.
MO HB1184 is a bill from Missouri that “prohibits state funding of any elementary or secondary school or any institution of higher education that allows biological males to participate in sports organized for biological females”. This is wildly unjust. It means schools have to prohibit transgender girls from participating in sports or else lose what little funding they already get. Restrictions like this can have immense psychological effects on youth. Additionally, this bill talks about an age where sports are played for fun, not at collegiate or professional levels. There should be no concern over advantages certain athletes might have at this age. It also only mentions biological males in this legislation. There are no concerns with biological females competing against biological males in men’s sports. This bill showcases both sexism and transphobia, and was still in committee as of May 14th.
Another bill from Missouri is MO HB33, which “prohibits medical providers from administering any medical or surgical treatment for the purpose of gender reassignment for anyone under the age of eighteen”. This includes hormones and puberty blockers for transgender youth, as well as any genital reassignment procedures. Without testosterone and puberty blockers, especially for transgender girls, it would be impossible to ever ‘level the playing field’. There would be no way for them to fairly compete, from the viewpoint of these legislators, without these avenues of treatment. Legislators don’t care about protecting women’s sports. If they did, then they would work on ways for transgender athletes to compete fairly from a biological standpoint. Instead, this is just blatant transphobia. Additionally, these reversible medications don’t only regulate hormones. They help to ensure that transgender people feel comfortable in their body and are able to look and feel the way they want to. Without these treatments, gender dysphoria and other mental health problems can occur. As with the previous bill, this one is also still in committee, last updated on February 18th.
A similar bill is in committee in Maine. ME LD926 bans biological males from competing in women’s sports. The bill states that a person could only be exempt from this if a doctor determines that “the student’s internal and external reproductive anatomy and naturally occurring levels of testosterone” are that of a biological female. Without testosterone or puberty blockers, there would be no way for transgender females to reach the necessary levels of testosterone, and without genital reassignment surgery, they wouldn’t have the appropriate reproductive organs. These bills make it impossible for female athletes that are transgender to ever compete, no matter their hormone levels or reproductive organs. Which also begs the question, why are genitals involved in this debate? Why does the American government care so much about children’s reproductive organs? They offer no advantage in the way that hormones do, so there’s no reason they need to be regulated. This bill’s status was last updated on March 10th, and it’s still in committee.
There are a variety of other bills in other states that embody these same principles and work to deny transgender females the right to compete on athletic teams. Very few have been passed into legislation as of yet, but only a handful have failed as well. Many are still in committee, either waiting to die or be signed into a law. There does not seem to be much action on the federal scale, though, only a state-by-state basis. These bills and legislation push a harmful narrative against transgender people, and further justify widescale transphobia in America.
Saving Women’s Sports
A majority of bills present in America revolve around women’s sports, such as the examples above, and countless more. Many are given descriptions like “save women’s sports” and “creating fairness in women’s sports”, which falsely gives the impression that America now cares about female athletes. Government officials claim to create a fairer playing field for women’s sports by banning biologically male athletes, but when there’s so many other avenues to create fair play, these tactics are just transphobia. Furthermore, these government officials are aware of this widespread transphobia, so much so that it’s hidden within these bills. Bills with lengthy descriptions, a lack of titles, and those that threaten the funding of schools are transphobic and meant to confuse people into supporting them.
It’s important to address these bills in their own category because they take away transgender youths’ childhood. So many kids grow up playing sports and making friends through them. If transgender girls and women are banned from competing with the gender they identify with, then it might discourage them from competing in any sport at all. Sports are a way for kids to learn all sorts of life skills. They meet friends, develop a passion for something, learn commitment and discipline, and make sure they’re active. Taking these away from kids is harmful, and can affect their adult life. Additionally, such regulations can isolate trasngender athletes from connecting with other teammates. For most people, after they transition, they want to leave that part of their life behind them. Similar to deadnames, forcing transgender athletes to compete with their biological sex is harmful and can create a lot of dysphoria and opportunities for harassment and bullying from other athletes. Think of sports that are generally dominated by females. Cheerleading or dance are decent examples. Male cheerleaders aren’t as common as female cheerleaders, and it can lead to them experiencing harassment. Our society tends to classify males who are more feminine, or those who participate in more “feminine” activities, as “gay”. Have you ever heard teenagers argue over which sport is the “gayest”? Participation for certain athletes is already scrutinized, and when classifications like “gay” are used as insults, it adds even more separation for trasngender athletes. This only serves to ostracize transgender youth and can force some to deny their identity. It’s not fair to athletes’ emotional or mental health.
Additionally, so many aspects of sports and talent can be determined by biological factors. Basketball players who are over six foot will probably be more coveted than one who is five foot. Linebackers and defensive players in football are generally built bigger than other athletes. Swimmers with long wingspans and bodies, like Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky, have an advantage over those without. Phelp’s body also produces less lactic acid than most people, resulting in him feeling less fatigue after intense workouts. These factors aren’t regulated like transgender athletes are, which is especially absurd when testosterone blockers and puberty blockers exist. If Phelps doesn’t have to be regulated, why do athletes like Caster Semenya, who has higher levels of testosterone naturally, have to take medication in order to compete? Additionally, for high level competitions, like the Olympics, biological males who transition to females have to have testosterone levels under a certain amount for at least a year prior to competing, and they have to stay that way. In younger athletes, especially those who transition before puberty, the possibility of them having an biological advantage is even lower. With this information, there’s no reason why testosterone or puberty blockers shouldn’t be an effective way to let transgender athletes compete.
Put simply, bills and laws that prohibit transgender females from competing show ignorance and provide a vessel for transphobia. Not enough is known about testosterone within the body in order to bar transgender athletes from competing. And, these levels can be regulated. Even if it isn’t the ideal option, it is an option that transphobic legislators love to overlook. Nothing about what they do “saves women’s sports”. Rather, it excludes many powerful female athletes and creates a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination.
What Can be Done
Republican politicians, state representatives and governors make up the majority support for these bills, but many celebrities and public figures have stepped up to voice their opinion. In March, hundreds joined advocacy groups, openly supporting transgender rights. These included Gloria Steinman, Selena Gomez, Regina King and others who spoke out in support of transgender girls and women. The letter addressing anti-transgender legislation and its supporters was sent through the advocacy group GLAAD. Hundreds of public figures signed and contributed to the letter, and the effect this can have on the government is huge. Celebrities carry large social platforms, and one of the most powerful things they can do is use those platforms to stand up for what they believe in. This allows them to get information and ways to help a cause out to their supporters, and it can increase the motion behind a movement. In this case, this issue needs a lot of awareness and support to be raised, in order to reverse the momentum. To help, support celebrities who speak out against these issues, and reach out to others who use their platform for good. While they may never see a message, celebrities can still be held accountable for speaking out about important issues. The power of the people is not to be overlooked. Educate yourself and others through social media and other platforms, and make sure that you’re getting all the information available to have an informed opinion. Moreover, be sure to know what news sources you are getting information from. Places like Fox News and CNN aren’t reputable in their reporting because of a political bias. Check fact checkers to see how reputable a news source is, and read the bills themselves if you’re interested. Learn the legislative terms and broaden your vocabulary in order to better understand what these lawmakers are doing to stop the passing of these discriminatory bills.
Another way to promote change is to reach out to local government officials. Email your governor and state representatives, for as a constituent, they are more likely to listen to you and your communities about these issues. Sometimes these efforts can seem futile, but officials up for reelection will want to vote in the way their community urges them to. Write letters or emails to them, or advocacy groups like GLAAD voicing support. Sign petitions and continue to raise awareness and spread information about these topics. Most importantly, support transgender voices. Uplift those who are being directly affected by this legislation and spread their stories. It may not be easy, but transgender children, teens and adults in America deserve better than what they’re getting.
Ella Olson is a rising high school senior from Sumner, Washington and a blog writer for Youth Upholding Democracy. The views reflected in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Youth Upholding Democracy.