Transphobia Has No Place in Sports

| Reproaction

By: Shireen Shakouri

Think back, close your eyes if you need to: who was the coolest kid in your elementary school? Chances are, it was someone athletic. I’d bet money it was the fastest kid in the grade.

I’m unclear exactly why that is, why even as children we hold up athletic performance as a marker of social capital, but it nearly always is. As adults, we’ll pay top dollar to attend sports games, some traveling far and shelling out for season tickets to watch their favorite teams. Colleges disburse some of their most desirable scholarships to build top teams, and athletes often run the school from K-12, if not beyond.

Transgender athletes, even kids, unfortunately have experienced the opposite treatment in the public square, with bigotry replacing the accolades an athlete should be getting for high performance. Conservatives and transphobes are claiming it’s unfair for trans women and girls to compete against athletes of their gender, despite the fact that there is no science to support a competitive difference between cisgender and trans kids before puberty, and with adult trans athletes generally competing on par with cis counterparts at elite levels. [1]

In one study on adults, trans woman runners on average ranked at the same percentiles when moving from competing in the male and female running classes after transition with hormones. A trans woman runner placing in the top 15-20 percent of runners who competed in the male class would have a brief advantage during and after transition, and then even out to remain in the top 15-20 percent in the female running group. [1] Despite this, trans women athletes who may or may not have benefited in performance levels from experiencing testosterone spikes in puberty are being told they simply can’t compete with people of their gender, ever. This is exclusion and bigotry thinly shrouded as concern for women’s representation, from people who often sneer at the prospect of watching a woman’s sporting match to begin with – until a trans woman or girl wants to play.

If the concern among transphobes was genuinely about the supposed competitive advantage of trans women playing against women assigned female at birth, solutions proposed would more logically be geared towards modifying for competitive advantage, like wrestlers fighting only set weight classes. This would likely still result in harmful, unscientific, gender essentialist policies that harshly critique bodies and invade individual autonomy, as has been the case with the cruel treatment of elite runner Caster Semenya. [2, 3] Differences in sexual development are no more or less a competitive advantage than other bodily features that produce athletic results: Why aren’t they proposing permanently barring athletes who have used performance enhancing drugs from competition, or for that matter, athletes with innate biological advantages, like Michael Phelps, whose longer-than-average wingspan makes his body type ideal for competitive swimming at elite levels? [4] Part of having a body is that it’s not the same as other bodies, so why is the focus of exclusionary sports policies only on trans and intersex athletes? [3] This is because, of course, the issue is not about competitive advantage, it never was. They want to shout trans people down and erase gender diversity from public life. They want to make it unbearable to be out and trans, and they especially don’t want young people to have trans role models.

Beyond the coolest kid in class being the fastest, our earliest heroes were often top athletes, too. Even little nerds like childhood-me with no athletic prowess or aspirations looked up to sports stars! As a kid, I was dazzled by Kristi Yamaguchi swirling over the ice; I wanted to be just like her. Transphobes are afraid of young people looking up to trans heroes: they want children to hold the same bigotry they do, to stay in the closet, conform to strict gender norms, and ideally, grow up to produce babies that can also be controlled by conservative interests. As one lawmaker said, “We’re not talking about the life of the child, but we are talking about the potential to give life to another generation.” The preoccupation with kids’ future fertility is downright creepy.

Meanwhile, trans girls are being targeted with vicious attacks. In Kentucky, a law passed barring trans girls from playing on sports teams with other girls, overriding a veto by the state’s governor. This law was seemingly drafted all to prevent one twelve-year-old trans girl, Fisher Wells, from playing field hockey on the team she helped create. [5, 6]

“I’ve worked really hard to play this sport, I just hope you’ll let me play in 8th grade. I don’t really care if I play in high school, I just want to play,” said Wells, testifying to Kentucky lawmakers who ignored her pleas. [6] We must let these young athletes be heard, elevated, and celebrated. Let all girls play, and don’t let bigots get away with pretending to care about girls’ athletics when all they want to do is punish and control.



Photo Attribution: Martin Rulsch, Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 4.0

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