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Replacing trans-athlete bans with policies focused on transition and participation

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If we’re going to end trans-athlete bans any time soon, a more likely solution includes some transition for competitive sports.

June Eastwood is a runner and transgender
Juniper Eastwood is a trans athlete who fairly and equally competed in the NCAA. She has joined the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group as a supporter and has joint-authored an article pushing against a trans-athlete ban in North Carolina.
University of Montana

Before you start reading the meat of this piece, I want to ask you two questions about trans athletes and any perceived “unfair advantages.”

The first question: Do you believe that an athlete who is 26 years old should be able to announce a transition from male to female on June 4 and compete in the women’s Olympic track and field trials on June 5?

I don’t. I think that a 26-year-old trans woman, having experienced many years of development, is going to have to take a period of time to transition before she can compete in Olympic-level women’s sports.

The second question: Do you think a 6-year-old transgender girl has a competitive advantage over cisgender girls, and for that reason needs to be banned from girls youth sports?

I don’t. At 6, many sports teams and leagues are gender-neutral anyway, because all that really matters at that age is participation, and the physiological differences between kids at that age are negligible at best.

If you said “yes” to either of these questions, this column just isn’t for you. You’re entrenched on one far side of the debate, and reading this would just be a waste of your time.

However, if you said “no” to both of those questions, you’re one of the majority of people truly open to this conversation about trans inclusion in girls and women’s sports. You are likely someone who agrees that physiological differences emerge depending on how people experience puberty.

You also understand that the younger the age, the less the differences. Plus, at a younger age, values like participation and learning are more important in sports than they are at the elite-competition level where winning is, quite literally, more valuable.

You agree that, at some level of sports, trans-inclusion policies should include some kind of transition for a trans woman to compete in women’s sports.

As I say near the end of this piece, there’s no “perfect” path forward. Yet after years of advocating for, and writing about, trans inclusion in sports, here’s the best I’ve got.

Our culture is stuck in a yelling match over trans athletes

Together, we’re unfortunately stuck between two very loud sides pointing fingers, calling names and yelling at not just each other, but yelling at all of us too.

One side wants to ban all trans women from women’s sports. The other wants immediate access to competitive sports for all trans girls and trans women, regardless of where they are in their transition. And neither side will budge.

To be clear, I’m not here to pick sides. I used to do that a lot when I was younger. Today I’m more about finding paths forward than fighting.

This also isn’t about a “middle ground” or “compromise.” This is about looking at all of the factors at play and finding the best way forward.

To be sure, I have a much bigger problem with the ban-all-trans-women perspective. Sports are the most powerful community-builder we have in our society. The power of sports to create bonds and build confidence cannot be overstated.

I want trans girls and trans women — people who far too often feel they are alone on the outskirts of our society — to have access to that space. They are not alone.

At the same time, I do understand that there are differences between, for example, elite-level male athletes and female athletes. Whether it’s high school, college, professional or Olympic sports, in all but a couple of sports (e.g., equestrian) male athletes perform at a higher level than female athletes.

The high school 100-meter-dash shows about a 10% difference between the male and female national records. The world high jump records show about a 15% difference. Every single track-and-field record for male athletes in high school, college and the world is faster, further or higher than for female athletes.

It’s the very reason we as a society have carved out sports as the incredibly rare place of sex “segregation” — to offer more opportunities for female athletes to compete and win. This is why women’s sports were created.

Every trans woman can be included in women’s sports

But here’s one of the keys to understanding the realities of this conversation: Differences can be mitigated.

The notion being pushed by anti-trans forces that a trans woman doesn’t lose strength, speed and other elements that lead to athletic success during a medical transition is absolutely false.

In all of my conversations with trans women in sports, it has likely been the only thing that is unanimous amongst them: Each one of them experienced changes to their bodies during transition that reduced their speed and strength. Every. Single One. Some talked about it being harder to reach higher levels of cardiovascular conditioning. For others, recovery times increased.

Full bans on trans women at any level of women’s sports — like the ones adopted by World Rugby or the State of Arkansas — are completely unnecessary because, in 2021, we can chart a path where they can be equally and fairly included in women’s sports as women.

When the category of women’s sports was created decades ago, no one was thinking about trans girls and women. Yet we have an opportunity today to affirm women’s sports and make sure that affirmation includes a group of women who are literally the most targeted, vilified and vulnerable population amongst us.

It’s a space where a newly announced group has focused its work. The Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, organized by Olympic champion and equality-in-sports advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar, among others, has been working for the last couple of years on finding a path forward.

Hogshead-Makar joins me on my latest episode of the Five Rings To Rule Them All podcast to talk about this very topic and the work she and others have put into it.

The question at hand: How do you create trans-inclusion policies we can agree on that 1) ensure every trans girl and woman has access to the affirmative power of sports, while 2) ensuring a fair competitive landscape for girls’ and women’s sports?

We can focus on values of inclusion and fairness, put the needs of all girls and women in sports at the forefront of our considerations, build a consensus and move forward together.

There are a couple key elements of the group’s work that are important to highlight.

Bans on trans athletes are unnecessary for fairness and equality

The first is that they firmly oppose banning trans women from women’s sports. It’s one of the tenets of their work.

Hogshead-Makar testified in South Carolina specifically in opposition to the state’s proposed (and ultimately tabled) ban. A recent article from the group — authored by Duke law professor Dorianne Coleman, former NCAA runner Juniper Eastwood (she is a trans athlete herself) and tennis legend Martina Navratilova — argued specifically against a North Carolina bill that would ban trans girls from girls sports.

When this group was announced a couple months ago, several LGBTQ people told me that Hogshead-Makar is “transphobic” and “a transphobe,” and that the group was secretly trying to ban all trans girls and women from sports.

These are patently false claims.

The group has not collectively been lobbying states like Connecticut — which allows trans girls to compete without any hormone therapy — to change their policies. But they have, as I said, focused on combating states trying to ban trans athletes.

Some point to language on the group’s website that they consider problematic. And I completely respect that. On my podcast episode I talk with Hogshead-Makar about it and challenge her and the group to make changes. There have been some changes, and there are more I’d like to see.

Every trans girl and woman should have a path to participation

The second aspect of this group’s work that has stood out to me is their embrace of a path to inclusion for every trans athlete. Once puberty hits, they ask for some transition period involving puberty blockers or hormone-replacement therapy if an athlete wants to compete in competitive (non-recreational) sports — high school, college, professional, Olympic.

Their competitive-sports request is a big sticking point for some people. Yet I don’t think requiring some kind of reasonable transition for trans athletes to win races and state championships, or set national records, is unfair. Of course, lawmakers need to ensure that these athletes have access to those medical treatments (Arkansas just banned them despite the governor’s veto).

Frankly, this position of the Working Group is secretly embraced by many trans and LGBTQ advocates who have confided in me about their position. This position is not “anti-inclusion.”

Many people who oppose hormones or puberty blockers for high school participation acknowledge that those are reasonable steps for college and pro athletes. It just seems odd that we’d be OK mandating it for a 15-year-old gymnast at the Olympics, but claim that some transition for an 18-year-old adult sprinter in high school is a violation of human rights.

Still, you won’t find me lobbying states like Connecticut to include this in their high school policies. However, I will absolutely help push states debating all-out bans on trans athletes to consider this path to inclusion instead.

Regardless, we have got to become OK with trans girls winning. As I’ve written multiple times, they actually usually don’t win. Headlines get made out of Terry Miller, Andraya Yearwood, CeCé Telfer and other trans girls when they win, yet the headlines largely ignore the races they lose. Fallon Fox lost. Laurel Hubbard lost. Renée Richards lost.

There are also suggestions about creating space for girls and women who choose to not medically transition. Include them in practices and other team events, and try to offer them some way to benefit from the camaraderie of sports.

Creating positive spaces for trans kids — regardless of the choices they and their family make about transitioning — is positive.

No such thing as a ‘perfect’ policy

I remember talking with Mianne Bagger about all of this last year. Bagger is a trans woman who competed in women’s professional golf years ago. She was the first, a trailblazer.

I asked her to give me a “perfect” trans-inclusion policy in sports.

Her response: “It’s impossible.”

And that’s where we’re at. The impossibility of creating these policies, as well as the allure of politics, have driven people to embrace dogma: You’re either for what one sides deems “inclusion” or your against it; You’re either for what one side deems “fairness” or you’re against it.

Those approaches have led to division, vilification and a widespread push to ban all trans girls from girls sports.

It’s defeating, girls and women are being hurt by it, and I’m looking to find another path.

I fully understand that women’s and girls’ sports were created at a time before we took trans women and girls into consideration. Yet here we are, with a two-sex system of sports that isn’t fundamentally changing anytime soon.

So we have to make what we built in the 1970s work for 2021. Women’s sports will continue to evolve. Sports will continue to evolve.

Some people on both sides of the conversation will try to dismiss my voice because I’m a man, who’s either “trying to destroy women’s sports,” or who is “trying to erase trans women.”

I’m also cisgender, though I’m proud to have seen various trans women tell me I’m one of the strongest cis supporters the trans-sports community has today.

People not entrenched on one “side” of a debate often get vilified as refusing to take a stand. Yet here’s my stand:

Policies that flat-out ban trans girls and women from girls’ and women’s sports are unnecessary and cruel. There is another way that affirms values of both inclusion and fairness, and that involves thoughtful transition and the elevation of human rights.

That’s a position I can stand behind.