Lia Thomas hit the water and won an NCAA swimming championship a little more than a year ago. Since then the world governing bodies for swimming and track and field have banned transgender women from competing.
In cycling, a group of Olympic-caliber athletes, flanked by professional transphobes, blocked participation of another trans woman — Emily Bridges — before she ever had the chance to perform in an elite women’s event.
We’ve seen anti-trans nonsense rear its head because a trans woman won a snooker tournament, and another put together a couple of wins in disc golf. We’ve seen high school hysteria that went as far as a high school team in a state tournament forfeiting because the other team had a trans girl on it.
Even with data that shows the hysteria about “trans domination” is a fallacy, you see governing bodies like World Athletics give in what I’ve called the “monster movie mentality”. The idea that a CeCé Telfer, for example, just might go Godzilla and reduce women’s track and field to rubble.
This mentality is harming sports at every level. This is a prime mover behind 18 states passing laws that would keep transgender kids off of their school teams that match their gender, a right of access and opportunity that should be open to every school student.
The real monster here is deeper perceptions of a cisgender populace that is largely uncomfortable with transgender people, and uncomfortable with them possibly winning in a sport.
Our Bodies, Our Selves
The first flashpoint is the cisgender fixation with bodies, especially in women’s sports. Some bodies are lionized as “normative”, others are demonized.
Ask Caster Semenya about that demonization. She’s a cisgender woman who has been treated much like a trans woman in international sport for nearly 15 years.
“Normatively bodied refers to women who appear to align with normative expectations of what the female body is and its constituent parts if you will,” 2008 Australian Olympian and noted consultant on these issue Dr. Madeleine Pape defined in a 2020 interview. “But that is a pretty slippery idea in how that line gets drawn sociologically. It's not a straightforward process. In fact, it's very messy and it intersects with idea about sexuality and ideas about race.”
In discussing trans athletes, the scrutiny is a telltale. Lia Thomas barely reached the podium after her 500-yard freestyle national championship, when the hearsay hit a lot of “tweet” and “send” buttons.
If it wasn’t about her height (she’s listed at 6’1” not 6’4” that certain outlets with certain agendas have reported), it was about things about her body that shouldn’t be discussed publicly at all.
How often in her travels to pitch for anti-trans legislation has Riley Gaines — rhe former University of Kentucky swimmer tied for a fifth-place finish in a separated event at the 2022 championships — referred to Lia Thomas as a “six-four, 22-year-old-male who was fully intact with male genitalia?”
Such libelous scrutiny hasn’t just affected sports, it has affected public policy involving transgender people.
“Safety” and “Fairness”
Those are two words you hear often in these discussion, and they mirror each other.
When World Rugby put forth their blanket ban in 2021, and when both the Rugby Football Union and Rugby League in England followed suit last summer, safety concerns was the prime reason. Those concerns were born of research that claimed that the chance of injury for cisgender women would increase by “20 to 30 percent” if trans women competed against them. Yet the research itself did not involve transgender women but used data from cisgender men to extrapolate.
That led one of only two transgender people involved in World Rugby’s working group — noted researcher Johanna Harper — to conclude, “I think they had their minds made up, before they called the meeting. It would have been nice to have seen a trans woman rugby player there, but I doubt it would have made any difference.”
One of those ignored in the process was Julie Anne Curtiss. She was one of three active trans women ruggers when England’s RFU announced their ban.
In response, she launched a lawsuit against the RFU. On the Trans Sporter Room podcast Thursday, she noted that the trans women were open to conversation and examination, the RFU wasn’t.
“There were three of us (trans women active in the RFU) playing and we made an appeal to the RFU,” Curtiss said. “There is only three of us, get us into your sports science center and put us through the paces. Bring us in assess us against the typical cisgender rugby player.”
The idea that a governing body would make a ruling without such data calls into question their concerns about fairness and the concept that restricting transgender women is necessary to “protect” cisgender women in sports.
When World Athletics announced their ban on trans women from competing in the female category, the governing body’s president, Lord Sebastian Coe, cited those concerns. Yet it begs the question of who is centered when we discuss what fairness and protection means.
I talked to Lex Horwitz about that earlier this week. As a squash student-athlete at Bowdoin College, they came out as trans non-binary. In their senior year they made a switch from the women’s squash team to compete with the men’s team, that they felt was more in line with where they were as a person and an athlete.
Since graduation they have worked as an LGBTQ educator and consultant on inclusion and diversity. Discomfort with transgender people in sports is point of emphasis in his work and he had a pointed contention about how “fairness” is weaponized.
“Cis people are beat by cis people all the time and they have no problem with that,” they said. “If you are a cis person and you have been consistently beat by another cis person and now you have an issue because a trans person is beating you, let’s acknowledge that this is not a new experience but that you are going to root onto someone’s identity as an excuse for the fact you just may not be as good as that person.
“Let’s look at why you are attacking trans people in sports and not simply accepting the fact that that person was better than you in this moment.”
Strong words given some of the traffic by certain cis women in sports who have made their view public recently. Consider disc golf pro Catrina Allen claiming that she can’t overcome “advantages” she believes that fellow tour pro Natalie Ryan has as a trans woman, yet Allen won five tournaments to Ryan’s two last season.
Also note Cyclocross athlete Hannah Arensman. She announced her retirement recently, citing finishing fourth at nationals behind a transgender woman, Austin Killups, as a reason why she’s leaving the sport.
However, at the nationals the year before, she also ran fourth while Killups was a distant tenth.
Her contentions were dripping with the transphobia Horwitz points out.
What needs to be done?
How do we engage in a conversation about sports, inclusion, regulations and the intersections therein?
I believe we have to start from the idea that there are conflicting views, and conflict in itself is not a bad thing. A good of friend of mine, Connecticut LGBTQ activist Kamora Herrington, put forward a theorem that “conflict and tension are gifts that allow us to grow together.”
We need to have discussions where human rights questions fundamentally start: from inclusion.
That must involve administrators in our governing bodies leagues and teams, athletic directors, coaches, athletes, the sporting press, and the fans. If you enjoy sports and respect humanity, there is a seat at this table for you.
Governing bodies have to set a clear tone that begins with not retreating from inclusive policy because a professional transphobe says “BOO.”
When Mid Vermont Christian School said they’d forfeit a state playoff basketball game because of their transphobia, the Vermont Principals Association countered that they have an equity policy and told MVCS to hit the bricks.
They suspended the school from all sanctioned sports, and I applaud them for doing it. They didn’t run from inclusion. The VPA decisively defended it.
They defended their policy the way the NCAA should have in regards to Thomas last year. They stood up the way the UCI should have for Bridges last year.
The work must be done sport-to-sport, team-to-team and person-to-person. Cisgender sports officials, athletes and fans talking and listen to their transgender counterparts. I’m always open for the discussion in good faith, especially if we are all coming from a place of respect for each other and a love for sports.
Most importantly we have to correctly identify the “both sides” in this. You have those who say that the “sides” are the “extremists.” I reject that out of hand.
You are either for inclusion or you aren’t. We may disagree with how we get there, but if you come from the direction of how we include and not exclude we’re on the same team.
I encourage cisgender people who love sports to engage in the process of becoming comfortable with unpacking the discomfort they may have. It’ll help us all grow together and the sports we love will grow along with us.