Transphobia’s New Target Is the World of Sports

There is a growing backlash developing against trans women competing in women’s sports. Last week, a column by tennis legend Martina Navratilova in the London Sunday Times argued that trans women be barred from competing in women’s sports—and the far right is taking her arguments and running with them. In South Dakota (much to Martina’s chagrin, it must be noted), Republican politicians recently used her column as justification for a proposed ban against trans athletes in high-school sports. It was the fourth time an anti-trans bill had been put forward in South Dakota so far during this legislative session. All four have been unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, two trans high-school athletes have ignited more controversy. Terry Miller and Andraya Yearwood finished in first and second place respectively at the state open indoor-track championships last month. Instead of celebrating one of the great moments of their lives, they were immediately put on the defensive about their right to compete in the first place.

The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s pet white-nationalist website, posted an article (forgive me for not linking to it) that crudely misgenders both Miller and Yearwood in its headline, “Male Runners Continue Dominating Girls’ High School Track In Connecticut.” It has been shared tens of thousands of times, helping to advance the idea that young trans-women—whom The Daily Caller identifies as “male”—are invading girls and womens sports. First it was bathrooms, now it’s athletics.

Yearwood told the Associated Press, “I have learned a lot about myself and about other people through this transition. I always try to focus most on all of the positive encouragement that I have received from family, friends and supporters. I use the negativity to fuel myself to run faster.”

I spoke to trans activist Chase Strangio from the ACLU, who told me, “Over the past few weeks we have seen an escalation in rhetoric surrounding trans athletes competing in sports consistent with their gender. The anger directed at these athletes—many of whom are children—is largely being driven by people who have never spent a day in their lives advocating for women’s sports now claiming that trans girls and women competing is violating the integrity of women’s sports. Others are athletes who, like Martina Navratilova, are responding out of fear and misinformation about what it means to be trans and how sexed bodies operate in the world. I urge people to exercise caution before attacking trans athletes as many people are being swept up in the polemics of those [like The Daily Caller’s] who would prefer that trans people not exist at all.”

I contacted Dr. Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport about the way ignorance fuels the fires against these athletes, who told me: “Unfortunately, the backlash surrounding both athletes is in part due to lack of education and factual knowledge about transgender individuals. Both girls are on hormone suppression, which negates any competitive advantage due to testosterone, but most people are unaware of this fact. There are many factors that go into athletic performance—for example, to name a few, physical training, conditioning, dedication, motivation, quality of coaching, nutrition, and psychological skills that get erased when the sole focus is on gender identity and hormones.”

Andraya Yearwood made a similar point to the Associated Press when she said that any “advantages” she may have are part of the lottery of advantages that every athlete attempts to leverage. “One high jumper could be taller and have longer legs than another, but the other could have perfect form, and then do better,” she said. “One sprinter could have parents who spend so much money on personal training for their child, which in turn, would cause that child to run faster.”

There is another argument against allowing trans athletes to compete with cis-gender athletes that suggests that their presence hurts cis-women and cis-girls. But this line of thought doesn’t acknowledge that trans women are in fact women. The fundamental argument of The Daily Caller and its ilk erases this reality in the ugliest possible fashion. Dr. Katrina Karkazis, co-author of the forthcoming book Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography, said to me, “Sport is one of the worst domains for institutionalized discrimination against trans people. Current conversations around ‘fairness’ in sport center on women’s sports only and are often steeped in paternalistic language around ‘protecting’ female athletes. These conversations are damaging because the underlying assumptions are inherently sexist—that female athletes are always inferior to male athletes so we must police women’s sports in order to protect women. This policing does nothing to protect women; it only serves to turn women against one another. Additionally, we continue to see an overemphasis on biology, and especially hormones, as the dominating factor in athleticism which we know is not the case.

It must be noted that there is zero evidence that trans athletes are arriving in droves in women’s sports or dominating when they do in fact compete. It also should be noted that arguments about who is really “female” have been used against women athletes for as long as women have played sports, with early sports commentators dismissing women athletes as “mannish,” “amazons,” or “hermaphrodites.” Martina Navratilova herself was castigated in a similar manner in the 1980s.

Black women in particular have been targeted for this kind of abuse over the decades, from officials in the International Olympic Committee arguing that black women should be banned from competition in the 1950s to sprinter Caster Semenya of South Africa’s fight against the International Association of Athletics Federations over her eligibility to compete as a woman athlete. And now, right-wing blogs are putting two black teenagers on blast for daring to play.

As Karzakis said, “There is space here for a nuanced conversation about how we understand fairness in sport ,but instead we’re seeing transphobia animated by erroneous beliefs about biology and gender. Far from centering inclusivity, these conversations promote deep misunderstanding about gender identity and will further discrimination towards trans athletes.”

A strategy to combat these attacks is being advanced by the ACLU and Strangio. He said to me: “We will stand by trans athletes in court, in state legislatures, before administrative bodies and wherever else we need to make clear that this is a human-rights issue, a basic-decency issue and a constitutional issue. Trans athletes do not find success because they are trans and do not cheat when they compete. They work hard, find themselves and a sense of community in sport like so many of us have and are met with hostility, discrimination, and threats by those who do not understand what it means to have to defend the truth of your existence every minute of every day.”

Katie Barnes, a writer and reporter for ESPNW who has written about Andraya Yearwood, said in an e-mail: “There are transgender kids competing in sports in across the country at every level. The CDC released a report last month that said that nearly 2% of teenagers identify within the transgender community, so it is incumbent upon all those who love sport to use this as an opportunity to reexamine these systems and consider evidence based policy instead of marginalizing young people who are just trying to play sports and live their lives. That same CDC study found that nearly 35% of students identifying as trans attempted suicide. For some, sports may just be about championships, but for transgender youth, acceptance is often a life or death issue.”

The fight for trans inclusivity in sports will no doubt heat up in the months ahead. It is critical that people approach these arguments with facts. The right wing will use ignorance to divide people who should stand shoulder to shoulder with trans athletes. We need to be able to argue patiently with those who are uninformed, and stand up to the bigots who are using the issue to further their own deeply transphobic, divisive, and dangerous agenda.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com