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Trans athletes belong in sports, and here’s why

Robyn Exton

Jan 17, 2023

Trans athletes belong in sports, and here’s why

Chris Mosier, Andraya Yearwood, and Schuyler Bailar, what do these names have in common? They are the names of high-profile athletes – who also happen to be transgender. 

With the World Cup closing out and Argentina reigning supreme, heated discussions surround the host country, Qatar, and its abysmal record of violating LGBTQ+ and human rights. But, in general, the complex debates around sports and the queer community don’t end there. 

The discussion of transgender athletes in sports has been a hot topic for a while, and it gets people heated

Here’s the dilemma: Sports bring people together, and hate tears people apart. And both are things that people feel strongly about. But why? 

Whether it’s the argument that “biological men” have an advantage over women or just plain hatred, we are here to break it down and tell you why keeping trans people out of sports does more harm than good. 

It starts with the damage excluding transgender people from sports can do to their mental health, and goes all the way to how exclusion can actually harm cisgender women – and particularly women of color.  And if you consider yourself feminists, as we unapologetically do, we have to remember that our feminism should include all women. 

Why trans athletes are a hot topic, and why you should care

It seems that the topic of transgender men in men’s sports, transgender women in women’s sports, or transgender people in sports, in general, has boomed in the public town square in recent years.

Common arguments made against trans athletes is that there are fundamental biological differences between biological sexes, or that there will suddenly be an influx of transgender women who transition just to win and have an advantage over ciswomen.

Lately, it’s been politicians using fear-mongering over “woke” ideologies to pass more and more anti-LGBT legislation across the United States and the United Kingdom that restrict young people from engaging in a proven teamsmanship-building part of life: sport. To be clear, our community and advocates want our youth to have equal access to these formative coming-of-age experiences, it’s not about “woke” ideology as some news pundits and politicians would have you think.

There are also trans-exclusionary radical feminists (or TERFs) believing that transgender women should not be allowed to participate in sports designated for what they consider to be biological women. They also have an underlying belief that transgender women are violent men who want to take space away from ciswomen, essentially arguing that transgender women are inherently violent offenders. These are bad faith arguments that neglect transgender women their humanity – they are people with stories and personalities and likes and dislikes. When we discuss sports, we shouldn’t speak about athletes, trans or not, like all they have to offer are their skills.

The argument usually comes down to the supposed unfair advantage that transgender women were assigned male at birth and may have higher levels of testosterone and this gives them an edge in sports.

Olympic swimmer Schuyler Bailar has been outspoken about transgender people in sports, often citing that it’s not some wave of transgender people transitioning to get a competitive advantage, as if it’s so easy to transition in the first place. 

Often these debates take center stage on an Olympic level and occasionally have the run–of–the–mill high schooler thrown into the mix (and under the bus, as if high schoolers don’t have enough to deal with!). These discussions talk about sports as if the integrity of the Olympics is at stake in every situation.

But Earth to… everybody! Not everyone is going to be an Olympic champion. And not every athlete is trying to be. Team sports bring people together, create bonds between people, and are especially important for younger people to build social connections and help with mental health. When there is already so much restriction around transgender youth’s access to expression, exclusion from sports is just another way to police their lives

The “Science” behind the debate of transgender people in sports

Set the scene: Politicians and internet pundits put on their science hats and play biologists every time a transgender athlete enters the town square. They see someone like Selina Soule thriving, go through their virtual thirty-year-old fifth-grade human biology textbooks, point their fingers, and say, “this person can’t participate in sports because there are only XX and XY chromosomes and no other possibility!”

These arguments for transgender people having an unfair advantage in sports are just not supported by scientific evidence. Research has consistently shown that hormones and genetics are just some factors contributing to athletic performance. There is no evidence to suggest that transgender women have any inherent physical advantage in sports. 

Chris Mosier is a transgender triathlete. He has advocated for the inclusion for transgender people in sports for many years. He is seen here at the Collision 2018 conference at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans on 2 May 2018 in New Orleans.

Chris Mosier (born 1980) is an American transgender advocate and triathlete. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Collision via Sportsfile

Transphobia Kills

Transgender people face significant barriers and discrimination in many areas of life, including sports. This has caused an unprecedented, and completely preventable, mental health crisis among transgender youth.

When LGBTQ youth, particularly transgender youth, are not taken seriously by doctors who are not up-to-date on transgender healthcare, nor by the transphobic people around them – the effects of this are dangerous. This leads to unusually high rates of suicide and mental health issues among trans youth. 

Sport is a social gathering among people, it has triumphs and defeats, and it allows people to connect. This is what teenagers and youth need the most and why school and extracurriculars are so important for building a sense of self. 

Excluding trans people in sports is a way of denying the dignity and worth of transgender people and sending a message that transgender people should not be treated with respect and kindness. 

Excluding transgender people in sports hurts ALL athletes

Besides not contributing to the further exclusion of trans folks in public life – which, as we’ve outlined, can have devastating outcomes for the trans people involved and their families – excluding transgender people from sports begs the question: where does the limit end? 

As we mentioned about the pseudoscience behind some nonexistent advantage transgender women have over women, this “science” can also have detrimental effects on cisgender women. The ruthless witch hunt for transgender causes widespread collateral damage.

Cisgender athletes like Serena Williams and Casper Semenya have had their womanhood questioned for years. Semenya has been in the spotlight for being a woman with higher-than-usual testosterone levels.

In response to the increasing scrutiny over her natural abilities, she said in a statement:  “Excluding female athletes or endangering our health solely because of our natural abilities puts World Athletics on the wrong side of history.”

If you’re a feminist, championing all women in sports, regardless of their testosterone levels, physical differences or natural abilities, will help everyone. We don’t say Michael Phelps isn’t a man, just because his wingspan is far outside the average for most men. We celebrate exceptional athletes, and it’s time to include transgender athletes in that celebration.

Schuyler Bailar is a transgender American swimmer. As a transgender rights advocate, he specializes in educating the masses on the misconceptions people may have about transgender people in sports. 

Schuyler Miwon Hong Bailar is an American swimmer, and the first openly transgender NCAA Division I swimmer. Source: PinkMantaray

Educate yourself and others about the lived experience of transgender people

Let’s destigmatize the debate around trans athletes together!

Who doesn’t love to learn? When we lead with empathy and a lending ear, we can learn a lot about the experiences and challenges faced by transgender people in sports can help to build understanding and compassion. 

If you’re looking for entertainment, I can recommend award-winning shows like “Pose” on FX, or one of my favorite books about transgender identity in visual culture, “Trap Door.”

Support transgender athletes 

Working to change policies that discriminate against or exclude transgender people from participating in sports can help to remove the stigma and create more inclusive environments in sports and beyond.

Remember: we’re not talking about Olympic-level stakes here. That transgender child still needs access to sports for their mental health as much as the next kid. Though, if you’re looking to support some high-level athletes right now, you should definitely check out the work of Andraya Yearwood, Chris Mosier, Selina Soule, and more from Schuyler Bailar.

Overall, it is crucial to recognize that transgender people have the right to participate in sports just like anyone else, on any level, Olympic or not. Working towards creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for them will ensure that they have access to the mental strength-building activity that is sports. 

We’ve outlined some ways you and the people around you can continue to champion transgender people in sports in your life and beyond. We hope they’ve helped!

Next up, let’s put the debate to rest about who has a “biological advantage”: Who wants to see USA Women’s Soccer vs. Argentina, World Champions? We do!

Robyn Exton

Robyn is the CEO & Founder of HER. Find her on Twitter.

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