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Dear TERFs: A New Year’s message to transphobes from the managing editor

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Outsports Managing Editor Dawn Ennis offers this reasoned response to hateful messages targeting trans women athletes and all transgender people.

Dawn Ennis, Outsports Managing Editor

Dear TERFs, anti-trans activists and transphobes:

It’s a new year, and I’m using this occasion to address you directly.

I know, you’re not keen on being called “TERFs” or any of those other names, or “labels,” as you call them; Which is odd since you seem to have absolutely no problem labeling me and people like me “transgender,” “trans” and “biological male.”

For the record, the label I choose for myself is “woman.” No, I don’t think I’m the same kind of woman as someone who has lived their entire life as a female. I know I’m different. I am transgender, but that’s not even the fifth most interesting thing about me. By the way, “transgender” is a word derived from a Latin prefix, “trans,” meaning, “across from,” or different than. I accept it as a term that means I am indeed different from, well, cisgender people like you.

And I respect that this difference matters a lot more to you than it does to me.

So, as a gesture of goodwill, for the rest of this post, I will refrain from using words that might provoke further animosity. Provocation is not why I’m reaching out.

Let’s find a way forward

My intent in writing to you this New Year’s Day is not to enrage you, but to engage you. I’m all too aware what you think of me. You call me a man, you consider me a male, and you believe proponents of transgender inclusion in sports, like me, are “destroying women’s athletics,” “cheating” and “robbing women and girls of opportunities.”

But if you’ll indulge me, since you’re clearly willing to read this far, allow me to counter those beliefs with this: things change.

Jim Buzinski Cyd Zeigler Sydney Australia Gay Games 2002
Jim Buzinski and Cyd Zeigler at the Sydney Gay Games in 2002
Brent Mullins

Co-founders Jim Buzinski and Cyd Zeigler launched Outsports 20 years ago as a blog for gay sports fans, like themselves, and championed the idea that athletes should come out. Our motto is, “Courage is Contagious.” Outsports swiftly evolved, along with the gay rights movement, to include lesbians, bisexuals, and eventually, trans athletes and fans, plus other identities.

I can honestly say change has been good for Outsports and our readers. I’m proud to be part of that change.

You want more proof things change? How about Dick Cheney supporting marriage equality? How about three dozen Republicans signing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in July 2019, advocating in favor of legalizing discrimination protections for gays, lesbians and transgender Americans?

When it comes to women like me, we know all about change. A lot of people have the mistaken idea that trans people undergo a “sex change,” and tell us that, just like we cannot change our DNA, we also cannot change our sex.

It may surprise you to learn, I agree.

Let’s agree on some key concepts

The changes we undergo are a response to an especially deep understanding of who we really are. Many of us experience a mismatch between our bodies and what we know is our authentic gender, something doctors diagnose as gender dysphoria — but not all of us do. To address this incongruence, many of us seek medical intervention, sometimes leading to an operation called “gender confirmation surgery,” in order for our bodies to more closely match our self-image.

This is not, as some of you argue, about “feelings.” It’s about knowing who and what you are. Ask yourself: when did you realize who you are, whether it be male or female? As early as you can recall, right? It’s like a question we ask homophobes: “when did you choose to be straight?” You just knew, right? A new study shows trans children know who they are as early as non-trans kids, and believe it as strongly as their friends who aren’t transgender.

KHOST
Surgeon Dr. Josh Alley puts on a protective surgical mask as he prepares for his next surgery at Centra Lynchburg General Hospital on December 23, 2019 in Lynchburg, Va.
Photo by Emily Elconin for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Also, let’s be clear: The surgery options for trans people are not a “sex change,” nor, as many of you claim, “mutilation,” no more than a breast reduction or augmentation, or a nose job is; Even something serious, like an appendectomy or heart surgery, can hardly be called “mutilating.” All those operations are medical interventions aimed at improving a patient’s health and well-being, and that includes appearances. Why associate what we commonly call “top surgery” and “bottom surgery” with anything other than essential medical procedures? Medical professionals, healthcare providers and insurance companies nationwide certainly see them as such, which is why they’re performed, and covered. Studies show long-term quality of life improves following such surgery. I’m living proof of that.

And speaking of quality of life: discrimination has a direct effect on LGBTQ people, studies show. So, all the talk about trans people’s mental health should be taken with a huge chunk of salt. It’s the lack of acceptance and rejection that sets off depression and leads to suicides. Being trans is no longer considered a mental illness; the problem arises when we are mistreated or disrespected.

Examples of that would be tweeting at us, “You’re a man!” or quoting Austin Powers, “That’s a man, baby!” Another would be trying to argue that a transgender woman’s authentic gender identity does not matter because her “biological sex” is male. Oh, really? Have you considered that in doing so, you’re making assumptions about someone else’s identity without the benefit of being able to examine them? Worse, you’re contradicting their desire not to be labeled something they don’t want to be called, a complaint with which you’re very familiar, I should imagine? If your counter-argument is, because “sex is real,” as J.K. Rowling tweeted last month, I’d suggest you consult an expert on biology as it applies to sex, instead of an author of fantastic fictional tales.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following thread on Twitter — and its appearance in this op-ed— was called out by @intersexfacts for conflating people who are transgender and those with Differences of Sexual Development/Intersex, and for implying that someone with DSD might be more or less male or female, or non-binary, or on a spectrum of gender. While the thread by biologist and University of North Carolina assist. prof. Rebecca R. Helm is helpful, in dismissing the perception that human biology is simple and easy to comprehend, it does so in a problematic way. Outsports does not endorse any view that DSD/Intersex people are any less male or female than anyone else, and that DSD/Intersex is a condition, rather than a gender identity, like being trans.

What is also important to understand is that trans people are not a monolith. We don’t all seek surgery, or hormones, or live full-time as the gender with which we identify. More often that not, those who remain in the closet do so because of medical or financial reasons. Others, like me, transition because the alternative was to not live; trying to pretend to be someone I’m not was literally making me sick. Also, like all of you, we don’t all share the same political beliefs. Hard as it is for me to conceive, there are indeed trans Trump supporters, conservatives and Republicans. And just like most of you, many of us belong to a faith community of an organized religion, even though some religious institutions reject them because of who they are.

You will even find some among us who agree with you in opposing trans inclusion in sports. And that’s their right. You, too, have every right to your opinion about trans athletes.

But no one is entitled to their own facts, as the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, even in this era in which facts are in dispute.

Let’s agree we need more research

More conclusive studies must be done, in terms of trans athletes’ performance, endurance, agility, health and competitiveness. The research already out there, if we’re going to be honest with one another, leaves much to be desired. We’re at a point where supporters argue not enough hard evidence exists to justify excluding trans women athletes from women’s sports, and most sports organizations agree. Opponents of trans inclusion argue that it must be stopped based on the evidence so far accumulated, as well as their own perceptions of what a woman should look like, and their memories of lessons from high school biology class.

Can we agree on these points?

  • Trans athletes do not win every contest they enter. Most coverage of their victories inflate their success and ignore their many losses and failed attempts to outperform athletes who are not trans. The truth is, no trans athlete has ever dominated any sport. Winning a title, a race or a contest, even setting a record, is not domination.
  • No trans athlete has ever qualified, let alone competed, in the Olympics in all the years since they’ve been able to try. There are hopes, and on your side, worries, this will be the year that changes. Let’s wait and see; Until then, this is nothing short of fear-mongering.
  • Individuality must be a consideration. There are trans women who are shorter than 5’6” and there are women who are not trans who exceed 6-feet in height. People come in all sizes, no matter what gender they were presumed to be when they were born. If it’s deemed fair for Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt to compete against men who do not come close to their incredible physique or abilities in their sports, how is it unfair that a trans woman can compete among other women?

Your answer is, no doubt, “because trans women are men.” Then here is where I must draw the line.

Where Outsports stands

At Outsports, we believe trans men are men and trans women are women. We don’t say they’re exactly like every man or woman, because no two people are alike. Some men have urinary, testicular and sexual performance issues that seriously impact their lives, but they’re still men. Trans men are just another kind of men. What business is it of anyone’s what’s in their pants?

Note that my drivers license says “SEX: F”, for Female.

Women who don’t menstruate, cannot conceive or breastfeed are still women. Trans women are another kind of women. If this were not true, medical institutions, universities, state and federal governments would never allow trans people to change their gender markers on their IDs, as I have, from “M” to “F” or vice versa.

If you really must know, most sexual partners, even gynecologists (at first glance) can’t detect the difference between a post-op trans woman and a woman who’s been female all her life. That’s not meant to condone non-disclosure; The vast majority of trans people are proud to say who we are and how we’ve improved our lives for the better by transitioning.

We understand, of course, people are curious, but when someone asks me about whether I’ve had “the surgery,” I turn the tables on them: “First, tell me about your latest proctology exam/pap smear.” They usually get the point, right away, that my body is nobody’s business but my own. Also, to my knowledge, there is no sport on earth in which having a penis, testicles or a vagina play a role in terms of athletic performance. Can’t we agree on that?

At Outsports, we believe trans athletes have the right to compete according to their gender identity. There are ongoing arguments, even within the trans community, about whether medical intervention is an appropriate requirement for qualifying, or should be challenged. At present, a debate among advisers to the International Olympic Committee concerning testosterone levels, and whether they should be further minimized, reportedly has been tabled. The current standard is not expected to be changed before the Summer Games in Tokyo.

This is important because an average women’s testosterone levels tend to range between 0.12 and 1.79 nmol/l, while an average man’s levels are typically between 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/l.

Some argue that these “average” levels are irrelevant, since elite athletes’ levels can vary widely from regular folks. Others argue that trans female athletes who take testosterone-suppressing medications already have lower T-levels in the normal female range. That was my experience.

At Outsports, we stand against discrimination of any kind, and for that reason I oppose the idea of forcing trans athletes to compete against other trans athletes in a trans-only league, effectively banning them from competing with non-trans athletes. If it was wrong for Major League Baseball to keep Negro League players from playing side by side with white baseball pros — until Jackie Robinson smashed what was called “the color barrier” — then it’s wrong to bar trans athletes from competing as their true selves. It’s been asked, what if transgender athletes start their own trans-only league? I myself don’t see it happening, mostly because there are too few trans athletes who could participate. I also believe a “league of their own” would rob trans athletes of that famous Wide World of Sports mantra: “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat,” because most trans athletes would be competing against themselves and no one else. How is that a “level playing field”? And more to the point: Where’s the fun in that?

Let’s stop the personal attacks

I am sure by now you’re tired of me going over these points of contention, and I’m admittedly exhausted from having to make this case, over and over again, while countering daily attacks on me, my identity and my good name.

After many months of contemplating writing this letter to you, I finally felt compelled because of this week’s attacks targeting CeCé Telfer, the NCAA Division II 400m track and field champion we named our “Female Athlete of the Year.” You also attacked Outsports for doing so, and me... for being me.

First off, Telfer is not a man. I’ve had the good fortune to meet her in person, to talk with her and get to know her. She’s a young woman, just out of college, with big ambitions. She has a smile and a laugh that is infectious, and she is so much stronger than the hate that consumes so many of her critics. I encourage you to find a trans person and get to know them, talk with them, try to better understand them.

CeCé Telfer marches
CeCê Telfer, center, with Andraya Yearwood, right, at L.A. Pride in June 2019.
Haley Videckis

Telfer’s identity is female, and unless you’re either looking to date her or become her doctor, her body and her gender are none of your business, or anyone’s. On that day in May 2019 when she won the 400m hurdles, a young woman from another school was too ill to compete and dropped out of the event; Telfer’s coach told Outsports he expected CeCé to lose, even if the other girl had not scratched. Telfer did lose that day, in the 100m. And her national championship trophy is for that event, the 400m in Division II; Not for all track and field events across the NCAA. From the headlines alone, you’d think she was crowned The Fastest Woman Alive. In fact, she didn’t even break the record in the 400m that day, set by a woman who’s not trans.

We named her Female Athlete of the Year because of the adversity she faced and overcame to win. Outsports has chosen trans athletes before Telfer for our awards. If anything, tweeted co-founder Cyd Zeigler, it was your hounding of this young woman that pushed him to vote for her. By the way, when we’re finished here I strongly recommend you read Cyd’s very fair-minded op-eds regarding trans athletes, by clicking here.

Let’s consider that there may be more to this than you’ll admit

When opponents argue athletes like Telfer steal victories from “real” girls, or that two trans student athletes in Connecticut, Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, robbed girls of their scholarships and other opportunities, the coaches themselves will tell you: scouts look at an athlete’s individual best times, not who placed first, second or third.

Would you make that same argument if the point of contention was about race instead of gender identity? Could any of you honestly be so emboldened as to say, “that black girl stole the victory that white girls should have won!” I bring this up because in the case of Telfer, Yearwood and Miller, the racial component is often overlooked or brushed aside. All three are young women of color; their critics are almost exclusively white.

Maybe race has nothing to do with it; Maybe it does. I do know this: hate crimes in the U.S. are at a 16-year-high, especially in terms of racial bias. Anti-LGBTQ hate crimes have spiked, too. In fact, 2019 saw at least 22 trans people murdered, almost all of them trans women of color. The Justice Department notes that when someone harbors animosity toward one marginalized group, say, for racial differences, that they are also motivated toward other discriminatory behavior. Hate is intersectional, and so I ask that you consider: is there more to your opposition than gender identity?

Of course, trans women of all backgrounds and races have been targeted as well. Dr. Veronica Ivy is a white champion cyclist from Canada who changed her name because of systemic and rampant transphobia.

As for me, I’ve been targeted so many times over the 6 12 years since I came out that I barely even notice, and when I do, it’s unpleasant but it doesn’t really phase me. Mock my hair, my face, my writing, accuse me of what you will; go ahead, that’s your prerogative. Unfortunately, Twitter is hit or miss when it comes to enforcing its own Terms of Service, which clearly indicate it’s a violation of the rules to tweet anything that “directs hate against a protected category (e.g., race, religion, gender, orientation, disability).”

Trans inclusion opponents Ani O’Brien, left, and Jill Gardner.
Twitter

Me? I’d prefer dialogue instead of debate. I spent time this week tweeting with trans inclusion opponents, two of whom enjoy a large following: Ani O’Brien and Jill Gardner. Frankly, I’m disappointed that they blocked me after I challenged their talking points, and encouraged others to engage with them and report them. But since I myself block trolls for self-care, I understand why they did it. Neither one of us was going to convince the other to change our minds. But even so, I had hoped I might raise even a little awareness.

My conversation with Gardner took an unexpected turn: she revealed she is mother to a trans man, someone she repeatedly called her daughter and female. She also revealed they had made the decision to “remain safe/free of medical intervention.” The choice, of course, is theirs, and not knowing anything about them or how old this person is, I won’t presume to guess what’s right for them, or anyone else.

It just saddens me, one mom to another, that a parent could invalidate the gender of their child who identifies as a trans man. I pray there’s more to their story than can be explained in a tweet, and that Jill does support her child and their transition. One can only hope her trans child’s coming out offers her an opportunity to grow, maybe even change.

Trans men are men.

A lot of trans people, me included, can tell the tale of what their transition cost them: the love of their parents, their spouse, their children, their jobs, careers and even their homes. When trans athletes compete as their true selves, what they’re really doing is showing the world that we will not surrender, we will not be silenced and we will not go away.

Even if all of you do everything in your power to discriminate against us, we start 2020 fresh, and ready to win. And win we shall.

Trans women are women.

To all, I wish you a happy and healthy new year!

Sincerely,

Dawn Ennis

Managing Editor, outsports.com

@lifeafterdawn