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Understanding trans inclusion in women’s sports takes more than 280 characters

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The debate about trans women in sports involves science, morality, ethics and human rights. We will explore them all.

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Thai Transgender Kick Boxer Fights For Identity
Rose is a transgender Muay Thai fighter in Thailand.
Photo by Taylor Weidman/Getty Images

Recently my Twitter feed has been bombarded by people criticizing me for various positions I’ve taken — and some I haven’t taken — on the inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s sports. Yet it was one tweet in particular this week that got me thinking.

This particular tweeter took issue with the fact that I wouldn’t lay out my full position on trans athletes in a couple tweets. I told him the issue was far more complex than that, and he scoffed.

Trans inclusion in sports — and in particular women’s sports — is in fact far more complicated than 280 (or 560) characters. A fair conversation mandates consideration of science, morality, ethics, and a host of other values and topics.

I’ve written a lot about trans inclusion in sports, most notably in my brilliantly written (and still completely relevant) book, Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place In Sports. Yet even in that chapter I just grazed the surface.

The ultimate “answer” (if one even exists) to the question about trans inclusion in women’s sports is likely a lot more grey than black-and-white.

Some people call on scientific studies to help draw a roadmap forward. Others point to the right of all athletes to participate in sports. Various courts have validated this claim to a right. Despite many people claiming there is no right to participate at the highest levels of sports, the Olympic Charter itself says otherwise.

“The practice of sport is a human right,” the Olympic Charter reads. “Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

That one statement of principle is packed with many of the values tossed around in this latest debate. Human rights. Discrimination. Spirit. Mutual understanding. Friendship. Solidarity. Fair play.

And yes, science.

Like so many debates in our culture today, it seems there are two sides whose main interest is to scream at each other, call each other names and test the limits of decency.

Yet in the middle of all of that is the quiet majority, the people with intellectual curiosity who realize they don’t know enough to form an educated opinion and who want to live in peace in the middle of this latest culture war.

Very few people are talking to those people who just want to do the right thing.

While Twitter is no place for a smart, civil debate, I’ve had a number of people reach out with honest questions about all of the issues surrounding the participation of transgender people in women’s sports.

Over the next 10 months I hope to shed light on this conversation, and explore the issue of trans athletes in women’s sports with an honest curiosity and a series of articles that will educate people truly interested in learning.

I’ll be honest, writing this op-ed in early March I really don’t have “the answer” to the question I keep being asked: What is the “right” policy regarding transgender women in women’s sports?

At the end of the year, I hope to have come to a personal understanding of all of the dynamics of the myriad issues surrounding this important question. While the number of transgender athletes in sports is very small (estimates say less than 1% of the population is transgender), these issues have the possibility of impacting every single person associated with sports, and women’s sports in particular.

If this heated international debate over the last couple of months has been any indication, over the course of this series of columns I will no doubt be bombarded with emails, DMs and messages across social media accusing me of hating somebody... or everybody. There are plenty of people on every side of this debate who are more interested in bludgeoning anyone who says something they don’t like, than getting at the truth.

This series won’t be speaking to those people. It will be for those with open minds, looking to learn about this issue, along with me.

This conversation can’t be summed up in a couple of tweets. Fleshing out any one person’s educated perspective on the issue can’t be shared in a few hundred letters and numbers. It shouldn’t be.

The health and well-being of one of our culture’s most disenfranchised communities, along with the values of our culture’s most powerful institution — sports — are at stake. And that mandates a bit more than 280 characters.