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The importance of including trans athletes

guest column

As a queer cis woman, I loved being a part of my high school’s varsity swim team. The pool was a place of acceptance, expressing my emotions productively, and discipline. I learned so much about confidence, teamwork, friendly competition, and myself. And the team… they were family. When I was struggling with depressive episodes and panic attacks, my team was there to support and encourage me. When I came out, my coach and teammates asked how they could be allies. Yet for far too many trans athletes across the country, sports are a place of feeling ostracized and unwelcome. I could not imagine the pain of even missing a year participating in the sport you love due to transphobia. 

Wednesday, January 20th, President Biden signed an executive order to enforce protections for gender identity. The executive order follows the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC & Stephens (2020) and advises that transgender athletes should be permitted to participate in sports according to their gender identity. However, many states have introduced anti-trans bills in their legislatures to reject this policy, including 24 states with pending anti-trans athlete bills. Bills such as these exclude transgender individuals from competing in sports. The bills require hormone therapy, legal changes of a person’s sex, extensive surgeries, and/or long waiting periods. According to the ACLU, some determine eligibility by sex assigned at birth, thereby excluding trans athletes altogether.

Even here at Duke, the Law School has sponsored a working group which proposed severe limitations on the participation of transgender individuals in sports. The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group does not include any trans individuals and even has used transmysoginistic terms such as “bio females” to describe trans men and boys and “trans” as a noun. 

Supporters of these anti-trans policies claim to ensure “fair participation” and ‘save women’s sports’, but what does that really mean and who does that affect?

The population of the transgender community is not small. The Williams Institute of UCLA reported approximately 1.4 million adults and 150,000 thirteen- to seventeen-year-olds who identified as transgender in 2019. The same year GLSEN reported that only 5.1% of trans nonbinary youth were able to participate in sports that match their gender identity. 

Perhaps the most widespread argument to exclude transgender individuals from sports is that transgender women have an innate advantage over cisgender women. Despite this concern, only one transgender person has made an Olympic Team since the inclusion of some trans individuals in 2004: Chris Mosier, a transgender man from the United States. None have medaled. In fact, there is no comprehensive study that demonstrates that transgender women are better at sports or more athletic than their cisgender counterparts. Furthermore, the implementation of fully inclusive trans policies for high school sports resulted in no change or increased participation of girls in sports!

I acknowledge that yes, there are average athletic differences between male and female sexes, however, sex does not account for all advantages in sports. Natural physiological traits make athletes predisposed to performing well in certain sports, such as height and hand size in basketball; flexibility in dance and gymnastics; large feet and webbed toes and fingers in swimming; long legs in cross country and track; and hand-eye coordination in many sports. Testosterone levels also vary wildly within a single sex, and physical traits of male and female sexes often greatly overlap (e.g. height). Should the WNBA exclude a cisgender woman if she falls outside the ‘normal’ range of female height and is on the higher end of women’s testosterone levels? 

The discourse of maintaining equality in sports confuses me because sports are anything but equal—and these natural inequalities make sports interesting! That is why Michael Phelps can sweep the 100 Fly in the Olympics, Serena Williams can destroy her opponents on the court, and Lebron James outperforms almost every other player in the NBA. 

Let us also remember that the restrictive policies of states pertain to young children, adolescents, and college students. The ‘more inclusive’ policies require consistent hormone therapy for one to two years before transgender girls can join high school girls’ sports teams—severely limiting their time to play on the team. Hormone therapy, also, is very expensive and some transgender individuals do not wish to undergo hormone therapy due to family resources and plans, lack of dysphoria, or other personal reasons. The more extreme policies require gender reaffirming surgery, according to the ACLU and Professor Erin Buzuvis of Western New England University of Law. These expensive surgeries, however, do not impact athletic ability at all and require long recovery periods. In addition, only in rare cases are individuals below the age of 18 allowed to undergo any gender reaffirming surgery. These strict policies deny transgender athletes’ access to sports teams. They may also force young trans and gender-non-conforming kids to pursue medical intervention that they are not ready for or do not want in the effort to simply participate in everyday life - exactly what these lawmakers fear the most. 

The harm of exclusion from sports reaches well beyond the world of competition. GLSEN found that 84.4% of transgender youth feel unsafe at school due to their gender identity. These youth reported higher levels of victimization, discipline measures, and changing schools due to fear of reaction to their gender identity than the whole LGBTQ community. The Trevor Project National Survey reported that more than 50% of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide and more than 6 in 10 practiced self-harm in 2020. 

Yet just like it was for me, sports can be a healthy coping mechanism and a place of acceptance. Participation of trans individuals in correctly gendered activity, such as sports, can validate their gender identity. Transgender boys and men specifically have reported the importance of validation through men’s sports. In study after study, participation in sports teams shows higher well-being and better mental health. In my case, sports helped me navigate the world and keep me grounded while struggling with mental health issues. The same is true for the transgender and nonbinary population: transgender and nonbinary youth and transgender college students who participate in sports report higher levels of psychological well-being (and grades!) than their counterparts not on an athletic team.

No person should be denied the ability to join a sports team because of their gender identity. We need to do better—even right here at Duke—to support our transgender youth and provide access to sports teams that align with a person’s gender. 

Grace O’Connor is a Trinity junior seeking a Program II degree in Child Rights, Policy and Development. She is the president of Blue Devils United.


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