Take Action Now to Oppose Transgender Sports Bans
All people should be able to take part in school sports without discrimination. Youth who participate in sports develop self-esteem, goal setting, and leadership skills. Sports opportunities also foster a greater sense of community, which is particularly beneficial to transgender and nonbinary (TNB) youth who often face discrimination. Unfortunately, over 25 anti-transgender sports bills have been introduced this year in states across the country, including in Illinois. These bills would prohibit transgender girls from taking part in sports programs, and some require invasive gender verification exams. While much of the focus has been on school sports, there has been a troubling rise in transgender exclusion in elite sports as well. Despite decades of regulations and eligibility requirements for transgender athletes in most elite sports, the international rugby, cycling and swimming associations each just released strict policies that exclude trans women, encourage policing of bodies, and challenge the International Olympic Committee’s Inclusion Policy. These anti-trans sports bans are unscientific, discriminatory, and a threat to an already vulnerable community.
Trans sports bans do not improve “fairness”
Proponents of trans sports bans often cite the need to protect the integrity of women’s sports—as women may be forced to “compete with physically superior” athletes. These bans are often based on assumptions that trans women have biological advantages in sports due to elevated testosterone levels. However, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that a high testosterone level is a significant determinant of performance in women’s sports.
Proponents of trans sports bans also argue that the bans are necessary to prevent trans women from “unfairly” dominating women’s sports and taking scholarships away from cisgender athletes. However, trans athletes have already been allowed to participate in high level athletics for many years now and this has not happened. Transgender participation and inclusion policies have been in place in the Olympics since 2004 and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) since 2010. Even with these policies and eligibility standards in place, few TNB people even have the opportunity to compete. To this day, no trans woman has ever received an athletic scholarship in the NCAA and only one trans woman has competed in the Olympics. Trans athletes are vastly underrepresented by population, and they have not had disproportionate success or scholarship funding compared to cisgender athletes.
Furthermore, biological diversity exists for all athletes, not just trans athletes, but trans sports bans only target TNB athletes. For example, record-breaking Olympian Michael Phelps has several biological advantages—long wingspan and hyper-flexible joints—that can benefit him in the pool. While biological diversity is often celebrated in men’s sports, biological diversity in women’s sports is often policed and punished. South African Olympian Caster Semenya has endured intense scrutiny and discrimination just to participate in her sport due to having naturally elevated testosterone levels. Biological differences and advantages exist for all athletes. Trying to regulate biological diversity only in women’s sports, and particularly only for trans and intersex athletes, is discriminatory.
Overall, sports performance is determined by many factors beyond sex at birth and biology, but anti-trans sports bills do not address other factors that could help to improve fairness in sports. Socio-economic status can especially impede fairness in sports, as youth from historically under-served communities may not have the same opportunities as others from more affluent areas to access equipment, coaching, and facilities. A 2020 survey showed that of children aged 13-17, only 28% of youth from low-income homes participated in sports regularly, compared to nearly 50% of their peers from high-income homes. Rather than focusing on these large and well-documented barriers to fair participation in sports, anti-trans sport bans instead single out and harm trans youth under the guise of “fairness.”
From the wave of transphobic medical bans to the banning of LGBTQ+ inclusive health education in schools – societal transphobia is enmeshed within our legislative system, and it is causing harm to TNB people’s mental and physical health, right to privacy, safety from harassment, and educational achievement. A 2021 poll by the Trevor Project showed that TNB youth experience negative mental health symptoms, including an increase in suicide attempts, due to discriminatory anti-trans policies in their community. Another study showed that outreach to Mental Health Crisis supports peaked on days when anti-LGBTQ legislation had been proposed or passed. This further compounds the already high levels of depression, suicidal ideation, harassment, peer rejection, and violence that TNB people experience.
Anti-trans sports bills pose unique risks to the trans community. GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey found that queer students who were discouraged from sports participation reported lower self-esteem, and higher rates of depression and absenteeism. Some states proposed bills that penalize TNB people with criminal misdemeanors for participating on teams aligned with their gender identity. Additionally, some sports bans threaten to expose youth to traumatizing and humiliating gender verification procedures. These procedures may consist of a physical examination of the internal and external reproductive anatomy, and lab tests to determine chromosomal makeup and testosterone levels. Gender verification tests are not supported by the medical community and there is no record of a test ever identifying a boy pretending to be a girl.
Anti-trans sports bans do not promote fairness. Instead, they only harm an already stigmatized community and exasperate existing disparities in health outcomes and access to services. For more information on advocacy organizations combatting trans sports bans, check out:
- Gender Cool’s Play It Out Campaign which aims to help people understand the facts and dismantle the myths about the place of TNB youth in school sports.
- Athlete Ally, an organization whose policy work has empowered many athletic organizations to adopt LGBTQI+ affirming policies and protections.
- If you want to keep track of anti-trans legislation, check out: Freedom for All’s Youth Sports Ban Tracker or visit transathlete.com/take-action