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Women’s Sports Policy Working Group seeks to straddle both sides of the trans athletes issue

In response to President Biden’s executive order, this organization of former athletes pleads with The White House to adopt a ‘science-based’ approach to trans inclusion in sports.

2019 NCAA Division II Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championships
CeCé Telfer of Franklin Pierce wins the 400 meter hurdles during the Division II Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championships held at Javelina Stadium on May 25, 2019 in Kingsville, Texas.
Photo by Rudy Gonzalez/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s recent executive order directing federal agencies to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2020 anti-LGBTQ ruling was good news for trans athletes looking to compete according to their gender identity.

Specifically, the order instructed federal agencies across the federal government to review existing regulations and policies that outlaw sex discrimination, and to revise them, to clarify that “sex” includes sexual orientation and gender identity. “Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports,” the order stated.

In the wake of that momentous declaration, several prominent athletes and women’s sports leaders launched a new initiative called the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group. Yesterday, the WSPWG issued a mission statement and held its first news conference.

Said statement attempted to straddle the line of the transgender athletes “debate.” On the one hand, it declared that “one side insists that transgender girls are ‘boys’ and seeks to ban them without regard to their physical sex-linked traits.”

Conversely, “the other side insists that transgender girls are ‘girls, period’ and seeks their full and unconditional inclusion, again without regard to their physical sex-linked traits.” As with many cases of bothsidesism, this particular side is usually known as “reality.”

30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards
As a general rule, if you’re on the same side as Chris Mosier, that’s a good sign.
Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images

The WSPWG release further insisted that “both are unnecessarily discriminatory” and concluded, “We ask the Biden Administration and Congress to reject ‘either/or’ positions and instead to adopt an ethical, science-based approach to the protection of girls’ and women’s sport.”

Despite the alarm bells that justifiably go off around the phrase “protection of women’s sport,” the WSPWG also took pains to note its desire to “accommodate transgender athletes.”

With that declaration in mind, the WSPWG attempted to avoid aligning themselves with the usual, “Won’t SOMEBODY PLEASE think of the cis women athletes” group of demagogues and reactionaries. So, while it’s justifiable to be wary, we’re hopefully not dealing with demands for separate-but-equal conditions, without even a hint of understanding base-level irony.

And in the political environment of 2021, the words “science-based approach” sounded positively heaven-sent. But that’s also where the group’s request became problematic, because as we at Outsports have repeated time and again: while there has been research into how trans women fare athletically during hormone therapy, there are no scientific studies that specifically compare elite trans women athletes with elite cis women athletes. Not yet anyway.

Because of this, any “science-based approach” is utilizing a hypothesis instead of a published and peer-reviewed study. So, any policy that would exclude trans athletes or separate them from cis athletes is based purely on a guess. And if that’s the definition of “science-based,” I’m looking forward to going to Wrigley Field again this summer so I can science-base that day’s attendance.

In the absence of a verifiable scientific consensus on the issue of trans athletes, Outsports will be advocating on the side of inclusion. Always.

Complicating matters further, the most prominent name on the WSPWG roster is Martina Navratilova. Given her history of fighting against transgender inclusion in athletics, the WSPWG will have to go above and beyond to convince pro-inclusion advocates that they’re truly interested in accommodating trans athletes.

30th Annual Chris Evert Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic
So far, Martina has stopped short of advocating for dogs on the tennis court before trans athletes can compete in their authentic gender.
Photo by Jason Koerner/Getty Images

As part of the group’s unveiling, Navratilova pleaded with USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan, “Now with transgender athletes, the rules are not clear. We need some clarity, we need some unity. We want to stay civil in the conversation and move the ball forward.”

Hmm... a plea for civility and unity... where have we heard that before? It’s interesting how often that translates to “It would be most uncivil indeed for you to point out how wrong I was.”

The group’s press release also includes a list of 18 “champion athletes, sports leaders, and organizations supporting the initiative.” Unfortunately, for a think tank designed to determine a policy on trans athletes for the entire country, only two people on this list are trans.

And one of them is Dr. Renee Richards, who infamously proclaimed in 2019 that “The notion that one can take hormones and be considered a woman without sex reassignment surgery is nuts in my opinion.” This was presumably not the diagnosis that earned her a medical degree.

Thankfully, the other trans voice backing the initiative is Joanna Harper, a runner and researcher who has previously stood up for inclusion and spoken out against World Rugby’s proposed trans ban. Seeing her name provides some hope that the group’s intentions are better than we otherwise might fear.

However, hope is all we have to go on at this point. There are also some significant warning signs, and it’s fair to conclude that trans inclusion advocates will need to monitor the WSPWG’s activities going forward.

Our hope is that this truly is a step forward, for everyone.