Who can win in women's track and field and not be labeled a "cheater"? The debate rages on after Aayden Gallagher's Oregon state title. | Gabi Moisa / Shutterstock

Aayden Gallagher is a transgender athlete who won an Oregon girls high school state championship in track and field this weekend. She grabbed gold in the 200-meter and silver in the 400-meter.

As news of her success spread across the media and social media, one word from people against trans athletes took center stage: Cheater.

It’s a common refrain from the anti-trans crowd every time a trans woman finds success in women’s sports. Because she won, she automatically “cheated.”

No, Aayden Gallagher did not “cheat.”

The Oregon School Activities Association — the state’s high school athletics governing body — has adopted a policy that allows student-athletes to declare their gender and compete in that category. Various states have different policies about this issue, and Oregon has one of the most trans-inclusive policies in the country, along with other states like Connecticut and California.

Gallagher didn’t make the rules. But she’s following them.

A ‘cheater’ breaks the rules. Aayden Gallagher did not.

The definition of cheater is pretty simple: “one who violates rules dishonestly.”

She isn’t violating the rules.

She is also not being dishonest, living her life openly as a trans girl.

It’s entirely fair to question the rules and hold the rules makers accountable. 

Calling Gallagher a “cheater” — a teenager trying to find her way through life — is cruel at best.

I disagree with the declaration-only qualifications that the OSAA has put forward regarding transgender athletes. I don’t think varsity high school athletes should simply be able to declare their gender and compete in that category.

For years I’ve said there should be a path to participation for all trans athletes. But that doesn’t mean a simple declaration should be enough. While recreational leagues are another matter, in varsity high school, college and pro sports, that path to participation for trans girls in girls sports should include some medical transition, including a reasonable period of hormone replacement. 

I don’t know Gallagher’s medical history. A year ago, she talked publicly about the desire to start hormone replacement therapy. Did she start down that road? I don’t know.

But that really doesn’t matter in this case. In Oregon, she doesn’t need any medical transition to legally qualify for competition.

Bring it up with the Oregon rules makers

If you have a problem with the rules that allowed Gallagher to compete in the female category, question the OSAA, not this trans athlete.

Someone who once understood all of this was Riley Gaines. When the athlete-turned-anti-trans-activist tied in a race with trans swimmer Lia Thomas at the NCAA Swimming National Championships in 2022, she said at the time her criticism was directed not at Thomas herself, but at the NCAA rules makers who created the trans-inclusion policy.

Since then she has sadly trained her ire on the trans athletes specifically, continually misrepresenting them as “cheaters.”

While the label is a lie, it is an effective rallying cry. Across American culture — including sports and politics — labeling people we don’t like a “cheater” has become increasingly popular.

I encourage a continuing robust conversation about trans-inclusion policies in sports. A lot of these policies have been written listening to one side or the other. It’s not surprising that “the other side” now wants to tear it all down. 

Transgender athletes absolutely need to be part of this conversation. Their voices, experiences and priorities cannot be ignored. 

Too many governing bodies seem to rely too heavily on one side or the other. 

Calling Gallagher and other trans athletes “cheaters” is lazy and rude. It holds no room for the necessary nuance this subject demands. It derails any conversation to the detriment of those most affected by the issues – both transgender and cisgender athletes.

I’m still hopeful that a fair meeting of the minds on different sides can yield success in sports. Yet labels like “cheater” derail that. It’s likely futile, but I hope that stops.