How Many Trans Kids Will Die While We Await This Mythic Trans Sports Takeover?
Biden did not “erase” women but those who claim he did, are trying to erase trans people.
On this first day in office, President Biden signed an Executive Order promising to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination under federal law. As I have written elsewhere, though important and meaningful, the Order merely affirms what Congress and the Supreme Court have already said, that LGBTQ people are already protected under federal law, and directs the administration to enforce those laws and written — something his predecessor refused to do.
Within minutes of signing the Order, the hashtag “Biden Erases Women” was trending. The idea behind that hashtag, likely originating in the UK and spreading through the powerful network of anti-trans voices and organizations online, is that by protecting trans people — trans women in particular — the President is harming non-transgender women. Nothing about this is accurate — as a matter of law, science, or practical reality — but these voices who claim to be silenced are, in fact, very loud. We have reached a point where the anti-trans rhetoric about ‘transness as harm’ is so deeply aligned with state power that across the US and the UK courts and lawmakers are buying into the idea that transness is itself a threat that should be eradicated. A recent high court decision in the UK has lead to the forced removal of health care for youth across England and Wales. A dozen states in the US have already introduced bills attempting to criminalize health care for transgender youth and bar youth from athletics.
Biden didn’t “erase” women but those who claim he has certainly want to erase trans people.
Behind yesterday’s hashtag and the past two years of anti-trans rhetoric and policy in the United States is the false claim that women and girls who are transgender are a threat to the integrity of women’s sports. Women like former tennis champion Martina Navratilova and Duke Law Professor Doriane Coleman have joined forces with anti-trans groups like Alliance Defending Freedom to attack legal protections for trans people under a false narrative of “protecting” women. Though they can point to only a handful of trans athletes who have had any success in sport over the past four decades, they claim that trans dominance in sport is “just around the corner”. Notably, trans women have been competing in women’s events at the NCAA, the Olympics, and elite international competition without any dominance or even notable competitiveness. In fact, no trans woman athlete has even qualified for the Olympics let alone won a medal.
Trotting out charts about the biologically-based performance differences between non-transgender men and women, the claim is that women and girls who are trans are equivalent to cisgender boys and men and should be excluded from women’s sport. But there are a few serious problems with their rhetoric, science and strategy.
First, the rhetoric. The starting premise of this and all anti-trans arguments is that women and girls who are transgender are *really* male. Claiming that being assigned male at birth makes one constrained to the category of man and the so-called biology of maleness for their entire lives is tantamount to erasing the embodied and lived experience of trans people. A woman who is trans is a woman. That she, just like many cisgender women, may possess physiological characteristics that we associate with maleness does not negate her womanhood. The assumption behind the anti-trans rhetoric is that there is a single biological characteristic that one can locate and name that demarcates the so-called biological line between the binary of maleness and femaleness. But the reality, thankfully, is much more complex, varied and beautiful. Our physiological sex characteristics, just like our expressive ones, are many and all exist on a spectrum.
When anti-trans advocates claim that all trans women and girls are boys and must compete on boys teams, they are, in essence, asking the state to coerce people into being cisgender. That is to say, if you tell a young person that they cannot be who they are and in order to enjoy the benefits of their education they must exist in accordance with their assigned sex at birth, then you are instructing the state to engage in a process of coerced conversion therapy. And all the science we have demonstrates that not affirming trans and gender expansive kids in who they are results in catastrophic mental health consequences including devastating rates of suicidality.
That sounds more like a eugenics project than a civil rights one.
Second, the science. The animating claim behind attempts to ban trans women and girls from sports is that being assigned male at birth gives one a lifelong physiological advantage in sports over individuals assigned female. Most advocates claim that the source of this “advantage” is circulating testosterone but the policy that many are advancing is to ban *all* trans women and girls from sport regardless of their testosterone levels, age of transition, sport, or level of competition. As with many anti-trans political movements, the definitions of “sex”, of “threat”, of “maleness”, shift to adapt to the overarching political goal of trans exclusion.
But even taking the central premise of their argument that testosterone bestows a physiological advantages on trans women and girls athletes, there are some serious flaws. The first is that we have no data on young trans athletes. The anti-trans advocates show data of performance differences between cisgender boys and girls (post-puberty) and apply them to trans women and girls. But our hormones are dynamic and so are our bodies. A cisgender boy who is affirmed in their gender, not experiencing discrimination or trauma will have a different experience of his body than a trans girl will. Trans women and girls are tormented, harassed and brutalized. This affects their cortisol levels, their overall well-being and their hormones. Though one’s self-identification may not correlate to athletic performance (though it may), certainly one’s experience of being trans in the world dramatically impacts the body and in turn how the body engages in and experiences sport.
And the other reality is that trans people are able to medically transition at younger ages meaning many never go through their endogenous puberty and none of the data related to a pubertal influx of testosterone is relevant to this population of women and girls who are trans. The irony, of course, is that the same advocates who claim that going through endogenous puberty as an assigned male gives one a permanent advantage in sport also want to make it a crime to receive pubertal suppression and other gender-affirming treatment. It starts to look like the project is not about protecting women and girls in sport but rather stopping young people from being trans at all.
Again, that sounds more like a eugenics project than a civil rights one.
Third, the strategy. So much of what emerges in these efforts to ban trans youth from sport is an impulse to regulate and control the bodies of all athletes. Yesterday, a reporter asked me the precise testosterone levels and medical regimen of two young trans women. Advocates are scrutinizing the bodies of high school athletes in an effort to police youth out of the category of “girl”. This, of course, is inextricable from the many ways all women athletes have been policed and discriminated against in sport for decades. In response to efforts to include trans women and girls in athletics, anti-trans advocates will pull images of women (presumably trans) who are tall or strong or muscular. The implied message — “look at these ‘women’ aren’t they *really* men.” But, of course, so many cisgender women are tall and strong and muscular and they, too, have been called “men” and “manly” and told they aren’t feminine enough to be women. The strategy of looking at an athlete’s body and scrutinizing what makes it not woman enough is going to hurt all women. It is especially hurting young trans women and girls now — many of whom have given up on the sport they love, lost any joy they did experience, and just want to disappear from the public harassment.
One young athlete that I worked with who used to love sport wrote one day, “I feel so much pain that my heart is turning numb. I cry so much I have no tears left. I try to be [a] happy person, I have no happiness left in me.” Relentless scrutiny of trans youth is hurting them deeply. They participate in sports because they love them and want to find a place to connect, feel joy and experience embodiment. These hashtags are becoming laws very quickly and young kids are going to suffer deeply.
No one is protected when trans youth are demonized, when they are kicked off the sports teams they love and their health care is criminalized.
There is no trans takeover of sports waiting around the corner, but how many young people will cry out, “I have no happiness left in me” while we perpetuate this false claim?