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Parents who fear transgender kids in youth sports have lost the plot

If you’re talking about pelvic exams for young athletes, you’ve forgotten everything worthwhile about youth sports

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Before we go any further, I hope we can all agree, emphatically and wholeheartedly, that any lawmaker whose idea of fairness in youth sports requires giving gynecological exams to children has completely lost the plot.

This is where we are with an amendment to a new bill that passed in the Ohio House of Representatives earlier this month (the Senate president has said the Senate is likely to hold hearings on related bills this fall). The House bill would require children of “disputed” sex to provide a physician’s statement categorizing them as male or female. The doctor’s examination would evaluate “the participant’s internal and external anatomy,” the bill says, as well as “the participant’s normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone” and “an analysis of the participant’s genetic makeup.”

“Internal and external anatomy” is a phrase that sounds both clinical and benign, so it’s worth spelling out that the evaluated anatomy wouldn’t be a nose or a foot; it would be genitalia. I called the American Academy of Pediatrics to see how they were reading the bill’s language. Melissa Arnold, chief executive of AAP’s Ohio Chapter, told me, “It’s our interpretation that you would have to actually see the genitalia and, for a female, do a full gynecological exam.” She added that this would be traumatic for children, and that the AAP opposed the bill.

I contacted the amendment’s original sponsor, Rep. Jena Powell, to see if she had a different explanation for how an exam would be carried out, one that wouldn’t involve putting 14-year-olds in stirrups. Her office emailed back a statement reading, in part, “Parents should have the peace of mind that their daughters will always face an equal playing field in our state.” She did not answer my question.

Another thing that’s worth spelling out is that the bill doesn’t use the word “transgender” or “intersex” — only “disputed.” Meaning that, presumably, if your daughter creamed my daughter in the 300-meter hurdles, I could cry foul and demand an internal and external investigation. That’s how the AAP read it, too, Arnold said.

The point of this column isn’t merely to lambaste this bill, though it deserves it. The point is to suggest that in discussions related to transgender children participating in sports, some of us have gotten so wrapped up in discussions of testosterone, genetics and genitalia that we have completely, completely lost the plot.

Perspective: Republicans thought defining ‘woman’ was easy. Then they tried.

Generally, people who oppose transgender kids playing sports with cisgender teammates do so using one of two bad arguments. One: That transgender girls sharing softball fields or buses with cisgender girls is unnatural and weird, and that it puts those girls at risk of physical harm. Two: That transgender girls have an unfair biological advantage. Cisgender girls can’t win against them, the argument goes, so the playing field can never be equal.

Many decent people might recognize the former argument as discriminatory and bigoted, but I’ve known several decent people who are swayed by the latter, due to the “feminism” it’s frequently cloaked in — the idea that cisgender women must be protected not because they are fragile but because we want them to be strong. Their biological makeup, the argument goes, prevents them from being as physically strong as transgender girls. The folks who believe this say they have nothing against trans kids in schools or youth groups, but when it comes to sports, they think it’s only fair that cisgender girls be able to compete and win.

It’s this line of thinking that leads to bills like Ohio’s: the belief that it’s not discrimination, it’s science.

This argument is medically iffy: Studies about the athletic performance of trans individuals have mostly focused on fully grown adults, not children. Also, plenty of school-aged trans athletes don’t dominate the field. They come in third or fourth or ninth, and consequently we just don’t hear about them. Even controversial UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas finished an unremarkable fifth in one of her events at the NCAA championships this spring.

But my biggest issue with the biology-not-bigotry argument is that the questions it raises, related to nanomoles of hormones and to what a doctor sees during a teenager’s invasive medical exam, seem largely irrelevant to the concept of youth sports.

As a mother of a daughter, the most relevant question is: What is the purpose of my daughter playing sports to begin with?

That is the only plot worth sticking to. For me, and for everyone else not raising Katie Ledecky or Naomi Osaka, the purpose of sports is to embrace physical fitness, receive a sense of community, hone self-discipline and learn how to work hard, cooperate on a team and win and lose gracefully.

“There are things we can all agree we want for our children,” said Chris Bright, the director of public training at the Trevor Project, a crisis intervention program for LGBTQ youth. When transgender kids are prohibited from playing, Bright said, “we’re saying, you do not deserve access to these benefits or this space.”

Winning in youth sports is nice, but it is not necessary. In junior high and high school, I swam happily on teams where I was the record-setting fastest, followed by swimming happily for the same teams where I was suddenly near the bottom: I’d topped out at 5-foot-5, and my teammates kept growing.

That is another valuable lesson of youth sports: that genetics are a lottery. Kids learn that there will often be someone who, through no fault of their own, was born with longer legs or an earlier growth spurt, or whose parents can afford private coaches and travel teams. All you can do is swim your own race.

So if you’re telling me that my daughter can win only if a transgender girl who desperately needs teammates is prohibited from playing, or if my daughter’s education in fairness and sportsmanship should involve watching her mother demand another girl receive a pelvic exam, then I’m telling you to stick your speculum up your own orifice of choice. I’d rather teach my daughter to accept second place with pride.

Because by the time you are suggesting gynecological exams for the other players on your daughter’s team, you are communicating that the purpose of sports is either to win at all costs or to exclude others from playing. You are overlooking the most essential purpose of youth sports: to teach children that if they ever have to choose between being an exceptional athlete and an exceptional human, humanity should win every time.