The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anti-trans groups hitch their cause to Title IX on 50th anniversary

Former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speaks at the “Our Bodies, Our Sports” rally in D.C. on Thursday. (Petula Dvorak/TWP)
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It feels all wrong to hear these words from such fierce women, on a day so auspicious.

“Males have an unfair advantage.”

“A biological man with a clear advantage won.”

“I was defeated before stepping onto the track.”

These were all female athletes, speaking at Freedom Plaza in D.C. on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, about the times they competed against transgender swimmers, runners and skateboarders.

But between those stories, we heard conservative activists and organizers rail against “woke ideologues” and “agendas,” drawing the battle lines in another culture war. They put a twist on traditional abortion rights and feminist slogans: “My body, my choice” and “Our bodies, ourselves” became “Our bodies! Our sports!” They urged America to “Save women’s sports!”

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Only about 32 trans athletes, according to Outsports, have competed at the college level in the past decade. But one of the speakers assembled at the small rally Thursday, organized by a raft of conservative groups, called their participation a “nail in the coffin of Title IX.” Tulsi Gabbard — the lieutenant colonel of political switchbacks — predicted even worse after President Biden proposed new protections for trans students under in the landmark legislation.

“The Biden administration’s actions today are seeking to erase the entire female sex,” said Gabbard, the former congresswoman. “At its core, it’s a hatred for women.”

Oh, please. This is the women’s rights version of “They’re taking away your guns.”

Title IX was hardly about sports to begin with when it was written in 1972 to make sure women had a fair shot at higher education. This was a time when universities worried they were wasting money educating women who were only at school to get their MRS degrees.

“Why are you here occupying a seat that could be held by a man?” Harvard Law School Dean Edwin Griswold famously asked Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she was a student there.

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That’s the ethos Title IX was created to quash, though it paved the way for women’s sports, too. And that’s the part that conservative, family values, evangelical and anti-LGBTQ folks have hijacked as a way to forward their queer-fearing agenda.

The rally was supported by groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Women’s Liberation Front. All loudly oppose transgender rights; most loudly oppose women’s reproductive rights. But the campaign they’ve launched in honor of Title IX sounds like a righteous one full of female empowerment lingo and equal rights gusto, so it was easy to be confused.

Still, it’s a sticky issue. These young women athletes could rightly feel undermined.

Riley Gaines Barker was ranked fourth in the nation in her event, the 200-yard freestyle, when she was preparing for a big competition last fall. She was behind swimmers she’d known for years, and one she’d never met.

“This was the first time I’d heard of Lia Thomas,” the University of Kentucky swimmer said at the D.C. rally, as a small band of trans activists blew whistles and banged pots and pans to try to distract her and drown her out.

This new swimmer that Barker was wondering about had raced for three years on the University of Pennsylvania men’s team. And, by that time, Thomas was the most famous trans athlete in this explosive debate.

Recent polling from The Post showed that a majority of Americans oppose allowing transgender female athletes to compete in women’s divisions. But it wouldn’t be right — or legal — to ban trans athletes from all sports. A ruling against a trans athlete can set a precedent turning all trans kids away from sports. And that’s the wrong message to send to a population with a 40 percent suicide attempt rate.

Plus, isn’t participation in sports not just about the medals but about the lessons in discipline, teamwork, grit and fortitude?

“Yeah, yeah — the humanity, the participation, inclusion. They all want to talk about that,” Idaho Rep. Barbara Ehardt (R), a former college basketball coach and player, snarled on Thursday. “But it’s really about winning.”

Ehardt is vehemently against trans athletes in women’s sports. She wrote a bill on it, the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which made Idaho the first state to ban trans athletes when it passed two years ago. And she now travels the country testifying before other state legislatures copycatting her bill and going further to curtail other rights for LGTBQ youth.

The international governing body for swimming recently made its own change, as debate swirled about Thomas. FINA is banning transgender athletes who did not make their transition before puberty, it said, and working to create an “open” division for such athletes. That’s a possible solution.

But there has to be a solution for these athletes that doesn’t underscore the differences between men and women so vociferously, as the activists at the rally were doing. It felt like a message twisted in the wrong direction.

Arguments about what women supposedly can’t do have been used against those who wanted to become firefighters, soldiers, welders, construction workers and police officers. But women use their strength and agility to save lives, build buildings and fight wars every day. Since the first women graduated from the U.S. Army Ranger School in 2015, 100 more have followed. It’s the same bloody, dangerous, demanding school that men endure — and often wash out of.

Women have been fighting long before they got to Ranger School

We don’t need to hear such arguments again.

The rally Thursday was expecting disturbances, so the speakers were surrounded by fencing, security guards and law enforcement officers. I strolled over to one of them, big shoulders and a Kevlar vest, strapped with guns.

“How do you feel about this?” I asked. All I got was a smirk.

“Am I wrong to wonder if this sounds like it questions what women are capable of?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “You are not.”